July 2018

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Over half a century ago, the Caribbean’s own postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon asserted that capitalism would create “geographies of hunger” and “shrunken bellies” across the Global South. Sadly, we believe this bleak prediction and picture of the future remains valid in the present day. For this reason, the Departments of Literary, Cultural, and Communication Studies and Geography recently assembled a panel to publicly discuss the causes and consequences of austerity, a government policy not coincidentally associated with the all too familiar phrases: “tighten your belt” and “band your belly.”

But under austerity policies, who exactly has to tighten their belts? And who is making such a demand? Panelists raised these and many other issues. The discussions took place on the evening of April 18 at the UWI Teaching and Learning Complex at 27 Circular Road, St Augustine.

Daren Conrad led the session, noting that real GDP has declined since 2013, which he attributed to poor fiscal management. Suggesting this needed urgent attention given declining energy revenues, he said targeted spending, slight currency devaluation, and more effective public services were needed. Conrad also said orienting consumption patterns towards domestically produced goods was equally important, arguing that public policy choices like this can ease hardships for the general public, but only if management structures change. His final recommendation was that TT’s economy ultimately needs to shift to knowledge- and service-based society.

Inverting expectations, Sunity Maharaj highlighted T&T’s uneven prosperity, and how such imbalances of privilege are detrimental to society. For example, the expansion of private health care is connected with the degradation of the public health sector. She noted a similar dynamic is at play in both security and education, among other things. In illustrating her points, Maharaj queried whether it was worth aspiring to a privatized conception of prosperity. For her, the recession provides an opportunity to transform Caribbean society by experimenting with alternative models of “development.”

For Anne-Marie Pouchet, austerity policies primarily benefit lending institutions, as well as capitalists who continue to extract from the Caribbean. She stated that while restructuring public spending sounds neutral, in practice these measures compromise the already economically marginalized. Citing the IMF’s admittance in 2017 that austerity policies do more harm than good and consistently fail to achieve their own objectives, Pouchet proposed members of the public to “consider the source” when credit rating agencies like Moody’s offer restructuring recommendations.

One way to identify the social disparities of austerity, Dylan Kerrigan suggested, is to enroll the idea of “the sociological imagination.” This approach seeks to analyze the context of the individual. Taking the example of poverty, culture is the way people react and develop ways to live with a situation, which oftentimes may be illegal. This points to poverty being human-induced, and hints at larger and more complex social explanations. Kerrigan ended by noting that, unfortunately, austerity policies are clouded in modes of thinking contaminated by biases that blame individuals, rather than seek explanations that look at the larger circumstances people are living in.

With regard to gender relations, Meghan Cleghorn argued that austerity policies may encourage repressive mores. She cited austere attitudes to sex education in the public school system, one result of which has been a high prevalence of HIV in young girls, which she said hints at patriarchal and parochial currents in society. For Cleghorn, outdated syllabi require overhauls and should go along with progressive instruction. She said in an economic downturn, domestic violence increases as women tend to stay with their abusers because the social services are down-scaled. For Cleghorn, true development should consider psychological, sexual, and gender issues.

Cheryl-Ann Boodram believed social workers were seeing the ground-truth of a crisis situation caused by neoliberal financialization and resulting in the erosion of social norms. She said austerity was not new to post-colonial societies where class hierarchies have long caused unequal distribution and maladaptive access to resources. She said although there is a rhetoric that people must “tighten their belts” and adopt stringent measures, this does little more than increase social inequality, as cuts to public services hit the most vulnerable comparatively harder than the rich. Empirically, as a group, women disproportionately pay the price for austerity, she said. Austerity policies present women with a triple jeopardy, she said: women work in occupations that carry the bulk of the cuts, they do the majority of care-work for children and families, and this often comes at the expense of their own health.

Also testifying to inequalities, Ian Dhanoolal spoke about the experience of the deaf community. Due to communication barriers, many deaf adults are unemployed or do poorly remunerated work. And although many depend on social benefits, this does not keep up with the cost of living. Dhanoolal said public awareness on this issue is paramount, yet the T&T Association for the Hearing Impaired has inadequate government funding, meaning their advocacy effectiveness is reduced. Elsewhere, the government has stopped funding sign language translations on newscasts for deaf persons, who like other people, have a right to know about events happening around them, he noted.

Trina Halfhide emphasised that relations to the environment need to be re-thought, especially around wastage. For instance, food and organic material make up 30% of the waste in landfills. This is unsustainable given the high food import bill. For Halfhide, we need to think about where we can make a change and the environment is an excellent starting point.

On issues of ecological justice, Adaeze Greenridge took to task what she saw as the government’s one-dimensional conception of “development,” which for her provides insufficient attention to the different ways value can be ascribed to the environment, culture, and social relations. Arguing capitalism has an outsized role in our notions of growth, Greenidge laid out evidence for how austerity policies damage ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and human wellbeing as a result of overemphasizing the bottom line. For example, Buccoo Reef in Tobago is a Ramsar Site and an Environmentally Sensitive Area. The cost of the Sandals hotel project there may remove mangrove, displace animals, and deposit waste into the sea and coral reefs, she said. She fears local workers and business-owners who also rely on the bay may be undercut, disadvantaged, and exploited, yet high level political pressures continues to push for the project even as widespread local support is non-existent. Greenidge wrapped up the panel discussion by asking: “What is the price we are willing to pay for ‘progress?’ ”

Opinions expressed here are those of individual lecturers and guests, and not necessarily those of The UWI. Dr Scott Timcke is a lecturer in Communication Theory in the UWI Department of Literary, Cultural, and Communication Studies. Levi Gahman is a lecturer in Social, Cultural and Political Geography at the Department of Geography.