September 2018

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As a nation, Trinidad and Tobago has just marked 56 years of independence. In comparison with many self-determined nations of the world, it is, as the song says, young and moving on. No one would deny the fact that in many ways we are still inching our way towards a national identity.

Regionally, a failed attempt at forming a Federation of Caribbean territories set us off on the path towards independence from colonial rule in the two decades following 1962, when Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago gained their independence. That time and that movement defined an epoch in West Indian development. Indeed, it was in 1962 that The UWI of today took its form with the establishment of the St Augustine and Cave Hill Campuses to expand the University College of The West Indies formed in 1948. Globally, the world itself was going through revolutionary changes that would transform world culture, politics and geography – the Civil Rights movement in the US which had strong links with the growth of black awareness and the black power movement in Trinidad and Tobago, the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of nuclear warfare, the hippie youth movement, the space race and the first manned trip to the moon. In those days, particularly in the sixties, a sense of idealism and excitement permeated the region, as visions of the kind of societies we could build seemed ready to take off once the colonial mantles were shaken off.

In the post-independence world, however, many of those dreams seem to have been buried. It has not turned out quite the way it was imagined. On the economic front, for example, a March 2018 World Bank Brief reported that in Jamaica “over the last 30 years real per capita GDP increased at an average of just one percent per year, making Jamaica one of the slowest growing developing countries in the world.” The 2018 CDB outlook for the Caribbean projects a 1.8% economic growth, still behind the 3% global projections. Similar economic challenges across the Caribbean, our vulnerability to climate change effects exacerbated in part from environmental abuses, the social malaise of income inequality and increasing crime rates and concerns about food sustainability continue to be our greatest challenges.

Operating in neutral?

There is almost a sense that the region is operating in neutral, without a clear idea of what should be done to deliver on the promises rendered at independence. It is tempting to focus on the many negative challenges to society and to give up on the Caribbean as failed states. However, as I said, we are still quite young as nations go. It is up to us who populate and govern these territories that make up the Caribbean to strategically plan, set clear targets for sustainable growth and development and then agree on clear action plans to achieve that state within reasonable time. This would require a vision for development, strong resolve and courage from our leaders and many sacrifices on the part of the ordinary citizen.

Can this be done? Do we as Caribbean peoples have what it takes to sacrifice traditional practices and biases to do whatever is necessary to forge a society that betters the one dreamed of by our forefathers? Others have.

The example of Singapore

The most commonly referenced example is Singapore whose economy in 1962 was well behind that of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, but whose visionary leader, Lee Kuan Yew, worked hard to impose a strong culture of detailed planning, intolerance to corruption and cultural transformation to make it one of the strongest economies in the world with a GDP of around USD500 billion, reported as the third largest per capita. Lee Kuan Yew’s policies were not without opposition but given where this country came from, I suspect that only a few Singaporeans would trade what many see as a harsh legislative regime for the level of prosperity they have achieved.

At the risk of prolonging this thread of thought, I must make reference to very recent discussions I held with colleagues on South Korea and Norway.

South Korea’s national sacrifice

In 1997 South Korea was facing bankruptcy and took a US$ 58-billion loan from the IMF under onerous contingencies. One picket sign by a displaced worker said it all – “I.M.F. = I’M Fired.” However, within three short years the country turned around its economic fortunes and proceeded to pay back the loan. Underscoring the success was prudent planning and the sacrifice made by the South Korean peoples who willingly bought into the notion of “burden-sharing” and in a clear demonstration of national pride and patriotism donated their personal treasured gold belongings – family heirlooms, rings, medals, trophies and the like – to be melted down into ingots for international sale.

Norway’s wise investments

I have always admired how Norway has invested its oil and gas revenues into a Sovereign Fund (on which the Trinidad and Tobago Heritage Fund is modelled in part) to take care of future generations. It is now the largest such fund in the world, sitting at some USD 1 trillion in 2018. The Norwegians have crafted a “fiscal rule” that governs how the fund is used to phase oil and gas revenues into the immediate economy while ensuring that the fund capital remains and grows. The Fund is also guided by an Ethics Council that blacklists investments in companies associated with severe human rights violations, gross environmental degradation and corruption.

Costa Rica’s successful diversification

Finally, closer to home is the Central American Republic of Costa Rica, which despite its current challenges, ranks and the fact that it abolished its army in some 70 years ago, has a very stable democratic government and has fairly successfully diversified its economy from agriculture. The country has clearly set its eyes on achieving the UN development goals for environmental sustainability. It was identified by the New Economics Foundation as the greenest country in the world and plans to become carbon neutral by 2021. Indeed, by 2016, 98% of the country’s energy came from “green” sources, notably hydro-electric, geothermal, solar and biomass.

To varying extents, these global examples reflect the importance of having a commitment by all national stakeholders – Government, the business sector, NGOs and the ordinary citizen – to the shaping and execution of detailed and well- thought-out national development plans. But this will all be for naught if the populace is not adequately motivated to comply. Can we, for example, work together to improve our food security through better collaboration between researchers and the food sector to improve the viability of locally produced food and through a deliberate action by our citizens to change their buying habits from local imports? After a generation or more of craving for apples and grapes, changing local appetites to bananas and cerise will be quite a challenge.

Can we reform our education system?

Do we have what it takes to flip our education system – formal and informal, primary to tertiary – on its head so that we could eliminate the causative factors behind the alarming situation of having 1,486 youths achieve zero passes at the 2018 CXC examinations? One could hazard a guess that these are mostly males, potential fodder for the scourge of criminal gangs.

But even beyond this red flag, there is much to motivate the complete overhaul of our education system. For example, there is the persistent claim that the system is so examination oriented and heavily steeped in academics that there is some doubt that even the “more successful” students have really acquired the level of understanding one would expect. This does not augur well for the creation of a populace that is sufficiently well educated to enable the achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals.

When one adds to this the very valid claims that, despite the best efforts of past Governments, in 2018 there is still too much scorn heaped on the technical and vocational (trades) professions, we see that our education system remains all too encumbered by traditional biases and myopia.

Furthermore, as evidenced by the revelations of saturation in our professional job markets, there is a disconnect, a lack of proper detailed planning, that manifests itself in the misalignment between the job demand and the supply of qualified individuals. All of these combine to stifle any meaningful attempts to maximize our human capital.

Some ways forward: Education for survival

So what is the solution? From the national education perspective, we at The UWI St Augustine have proposed a three-tier strategy for a new, much more relevant national education system that has at its very foundation the concept of education for survival. While the two higher levels address preparation for current and future job markets, the survival agenda will ensure that every single citizen has the basic wherewithal to survive the fallout from a national disaster that cuts them off from essential supplies. The earthquake of August 21st serves as a reminder that we should be prepared for such an eventuality given that we are in an earthquake zone that experts are telling us is winding up to deliver a “big one.”

But even beyond disaster preparedness, this level of education should strive to build a citizenry with full knowledge and understanding of their body, mind and spirit. Such an education system would, from a very early age, develop and enhance our ability to perform all manner of physical activities in a manner that prolongs its utility while minimizing damage due to improper technique, and complement that with a sound knowledge of personal diet and exercise.

It would help each citizen to complement this level of physical literacy with programmes that optimize the development of their mental abilities and their social skills. All of these are required for the development of a more capable and mature citizenry who, in the best of times, would populate a sustainably developed society, well prepared to thrive in other cultures, and most importantly, well equipped to face survival challenges in the aftermath of any disaster. I challenge my University colleagues, educators and other national and regional stakeholders to work with us to begin the discussions that will flesh out the details of this new three-tier educational agenda.

Welcoming new students

I close with some mention of the new 2018-2019 academic year. September heralds the beginning of our new academic year, bringing with it fresh batches of new students and those returning to continue their degree programmes. Although we have a fairly diverse range of students in terms of age, we are aware that a substantial number of the new ones will now be making the transition from secondary school to university life and it is an enormous step in their personal journeys towards independence.

If you are a new student, fresh out of high school, you need to be aware that you will be coming to an environment that is completely different from that which you would have previously experienced. Significantly, you will now have to take full responsibility for your success, including becoming familiar with applicable regulations, locating classrooms, understanding UWI structure, determining schedules, attending lectures, keeping up with assignments and finding out about campus amenities and clubs. The Campus provides an enormous range of information packages – its code of conduct, security guidelines, maps, health information – all that is needed to navigate this new environment, but you have to take the time to make yourself familiar with them all. Our experience has shown that those who take the time to learn what the university has to offer are the ones who get the most benefit from being part of the campus community.

As someone who has been in this environment for decades, it is tempting to say “I’ve seen it all” when it comes to the kinds of challenges that students encounter. It is never smooth sailing, but in most cases, it is those bumps along the way that enrich the experience. To all students, I wish you a rich and rewarding learning experience here at The UWI.

Professor Brian Copeland
Pro Vice-Chancellor and Principal


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