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Professor Norman Girvan – An Appreciation

Professor Norman Girvan – An Appreciation


The Caribbean has lost one of its “brightest” and most committed sons. Norman Girvan, Professor Emeritus of the University of the West Indies, sustained a fall while hiking in Dominica. He became paralysed and was flown to Cuba for medical attention. There he succumbed to that last battle and died on April 9, three months after the accident. He has been described as “one of the brightest stars in the Caribbean intellectual galaxy.” For me, what best captures the man comes from an editorial in the Trinidadian Guardian.{{more}}

It saw him as a “towering intellectual who felt that scholarship ought not to be an end in itself. It was to be employed in bringing practical value to people.”

I was first drawn to Girvan in the late 1960s, when he became a member of the New World Group that included luminaries such as Lloyd Best and George Beckford. I was particularly attracted to him when he was director of Jamaica’s National Planning Agency in the 1970s. His was part of an effort by some Caribbean countries, led by Guyana, to assume greater control of their economies. It was a period when Jamaica was subjected to tremendous hostility; perhaps it can even be described as sabotage, from the United States of America, because of the direction in which the country was trying to move and because of Manley’s leading role in pushing the cause of the non-aligned movement. I remember vividly an article in the Jamaica Gleaner, I believe, that created the impression that the Soviet Union had increased its influence on Jamaica and this was based, to a large extent, it implied, on the number of Russians who were then in the country. In an effort, it seemed, to demonstrate this, it showed a photograph of two persons on a beach in Jamaica, leaving us to conclude that the two persons were Russians and then wanted us to make a quantum leap and to interpret this as representing scores of Russians in Jamaica. This was a period when Manley, under political pressure, moved to the IMF, against what the Planning Committee was advocating.

Girvan was a regionalist at heart, a region which for us he saw ultimately going beyond the confines of an English speaking grouping. He was Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, its office then located in Trinidad and Tobago. He was a special envoy of the UN Secretary General on the Venezuela/Guyana border dispute. He was a consultant to CARICOM and provided strong, but at times critical support. His “Concept Paper on the Vision for the Caribbean Economy for the year 2015,” which was commissioned by CARICOM, was submitted in 2005 and approved at an Inter-sessional meeting of Heads of Government held in this country in 2007. He was particularly concerned about the impact of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA)that the region had signed with the European Community, since he felt that it was going to supersede the CSME. He was joined in his critical response by Vaughn Lewis and Havelock Brewster and formed a network of persons who had reservations about the signing of the document and was able, through this network, to share information on that issue in an attempt to provide ideas for the modification of the agreement. One of the earliest responses to the Court ruling in the Dominican Republic that denied citizenship to Haitians born in the DR came from Girvan, who was able to push CARICOM into taking a strong stand on the matter.

Norman Girvan was committed to “public engagement” and this, I believe, drew him to the non-governmental community. This is how I first met him, at sessions in Jamaica, in which he engaged the region’s NGOs. While some of the regions’ progressive voices have gained membership in the region’s political jungle, Girvan remained outside, but nevertheless served national, regional and international bodies, including governments.

In a tribute to Norman, Brian Meeks, in quoting him, made the point that he subscribed to the view that “true sovereignty begins with independent and critical thought…this must remain the goal for those who have been subjected to centuries of colonization and metropolitan imposition of one kind or another.”

Norman Girvan has been consistent in pushing progressive causes. His loss will be felt in many ways. I am of the view that he brought some sanity to progressive thought in the region. I particularly liked a piece he had written on Obama after his entry to the White House. There are many Caribbean “progressives” who are disappointed that he has not done more for the Caribbean, but Girvan made the point that those expectations were unrealistic and misplaced, for “Barack Obama may have a global following, but his political constituency is domestic…Overseas he must obey the imperatives of America’s strategic interests. To attempt to do otherwise would be to court political suicide…”

Girvan, who was Professor Emeritus of the University of the West Indies, had served the University well. He had entered Mona in 1959, around the time of Walter Rodney. He did his post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics and returned to the Caribbean in 1966, where he then served the University in different capacities. Among the later positions he held were Director of the Consortium Graduate School of the Social Sciences, Professorial Research Fellow at the UWI Graduate Institute of International Relations and Professor of Development Studies and Director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies.

As I have indicated, his work went beyond the confines of the University. He was indeed what one calls a public intellectual with a commitment to regionalism. In fact, he was a Caribbean Man, the “quintessential Caribbean man.”

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.