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Talk of productivity and competitiveness

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The international economic and trading environment of today is a rough one, one where survival is not guaranteed much more progress. In any field of endeavour one comes across the terms “competition” and “competitiveness”. All the proverbial crabs are in the barrel scrambling to get out, most at the expense of and to the detriment of others. {{more}} It is so whether one is talking of trade regulations such as those of the World Trade Organization (WTO), large trading blocks like the European Economic Community or fledgling ones like our own Caribbean Single Market (and Economy?). The message is hammered home again and again-Competitiveness, Productivity, Efficiency.

Not all of us seem to get the message though. Not if we look around us at the wanton waste of scarce and precious resources, human above all. It has become so chronic that Prime Minister Gonsalves was forced, at a Press Conference this week, to publicly lament the availability of skilled labour locally and while appealing for such skilled labour in major public projects underway, also hinted at the possibility of recruiting such expertise elsewhere. The shortage of such skills is felt at all levels of the society even while we cry out for high unemployment and is a powerful brake on our march to economic progress.

What can we do about it? How best to harness our human resource potential and utilize it to power our economic and social development? There has been no shortage of ideas advanced along with suggestions for implementation, yet we are still far off target. The latest of these is the establishment of a National Productivity Centre and one expert, charged with helping to conceptualize and organize it, has already publicly warned us. COMPETE OR PERISH!

Our farmers, banana ones in particular, have already had to face up to this reality, with painful consequences. They, without benefit of preparation, have had to swallow the bitter pill of globalization and have been shunted aside as the powerful seek to extend their privileges. But it is not they alone who must face such challenges, we all must, like it or lump it. Our complaints about “people from outside” engaging in this or that economic activity will only rebound as mocking, hollow echoes for we must all complete, right in what we once considered to be our sacred physical and economic space. Goods, services and people from lands near and afar are already right in our faces and only the most resourceful, the most adaptive, will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered.

Our national economic development plans must therefore address these realities. That entails a complete re-examination of our whole value system, our approach to work, our very concept of what constitutes “a good education”. We have not yet been able to exorcise our demons of the past in this regard and to adopt programmes and measures which will prepare our people for life in the 21st century. Even the alternatives we promote are often based on the approaches of a past era.

Along with that strategic educational overhaul, one must also tackle another fundamental flaw in our system, our political rules and practices. We cannot be serious about competing in today’s world if we allow political tribalism not only to divide us but to cloud our political judgement as well, if appointments, contracts, even choices of whom we work for are based on narrow political preferences. It is all the more reason why Constitutional Reform is not just desirable but a necessary requirement for economic and social progress as well. As in the field of education, we still shy away from the major overhaul.

It is costing us dearly and impeding our progress. Hard work and initiative are being stifled in the process. Mediocrity, cronyism and mamaguyism flourish as a result. Even the competition which, we were told, fuels progress, has been turned into a slide to the bottom rather than a ladder to the top. Our much-vaunted and highly competitive two-party system cannot truly be said to have enriched our level of representation. We are more about trying to pull down and put someone behind us rather than being spurred to move ahead and so motivate our competitor to do better. It will not suffice in today’s world.

So, a Productivity Centre makes sense. But it cannot stand on its own nor is it a cure-all. Old habits die hard and it will require a herculean effort for us to revolutionize our attitudes to work, to strive for greater efficiency and increased productivity. Major challenges confront us. Our agriculture will not survive if we fail to find ways to produce more cheaply, not by exploiting labour, but by increasing yield, by more efficient harvesting and post-harvest practices, by sound management of business and resources. Industry will not be able to compete in such small markets if we do not place emphasis on innovativeness and reward hard work and initiative, and unless we find ways of working together to reduce costs including energy efficiency.

Throughout the Caribbean we have hoisted the flag signaling our hosting of the ICC World Cup cricket 2007. There are some concerns about our state of physical preparedness, quite rightly so. But more than that, one gets a feeling that it is in our mental preparedness that we are most lacking, in a sense of what we want to achieve as a people. It represents the crux of our dilemma. Neither productivity nor efficiency can thrive in such a vacuum and when those flounder, our competitiveness will be non-existent.

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