Friday, February 17, 2006

The Writing on the Wall

Stop Planning & Start Doing
Marcus M. Mottley, Ph.D.

I have taken it upon myself to read, re-read and read again the writings of one of Antigua’s giants of history, economy and philosophy: Tim Hector.

As much as I have been dumfounded by the political company he kept in his latter years, this pales in comparison to the awe in which I hold the man for his insight, clarity in articulation and depth of perspective.

And so, I would like to share with you a few paragraphs from a 1996 “Fan the Flame” Article entitled: “Lester Bird Broke the Neck of the Economy”.

“It is not an accident that the ‘best and brightest’ in Antigua over the last twenty years did not go into the productive and creative sectors. They went into traditional professions, law, medicine, teaching. Few went into management, engineering, marketing. This was because the productive sectors of the Antigua and Barbuda economy became even more underdeveloped between 1976-1996.

We are going to suffer in the future from this lack of trained personnel for modern industrial and productive activity. Besides, the free movement of skilled labour in all CARICOM territories, is going to make Antigua & Barbuda a net importer of skilled labour. This together with the fact, that nearly one-third of the Antigua labour force some 7,300 workers are already ‘foreign nationals’ will complicate both politics and economics here. The economy is a thorough-going Bird mess.”

Imagine that Tim Hector in 1996 was predicting that we would suffer from the “lack of trained personnel for modern industrial and productive activity.” Listen to the nurses at Holberton, have a discussion with a police officer, call your child’s teacher, talk with your mechanic… the chances are that you would be speaking with someone from either Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Vincent… and well… even Dominica! And if you speak with a business owner in English Harbour, Redcliffe Key or a real estate agent from addresses unknown – you will be speaking with someone from Wisconsin, Texas, Singapore, Germany, Canada or some such place!

Furthermore, Tim Hector saw what would happen with the advent of CSME! “The free movement of skilled labor… will make Antigua and Barbuda a net importer of skilled labour.” All because our political leaders failed to encourage, motivate and stimulate young Antiguans and Barbudans to go into the ‘productive and creative’ sectors! And, it is my contention that the threat from Caribbean nationals pales in comparison to the future hegemonic threat from the neo-colonialists (economic pirates and privateers) from North America and Europe. (But that is another discussion for another article.)

Tim Hector continues: “Simultaneously, Antigua and Barbuda, under successive Bird administrations did nothing to develop its human resources: from management through entry level labourers. That is, did nothing to train managers and provide labourers with skills. There was no plan. Therefore, those things dignified with the name "skills training" were pork-barrel patronage programmes, to provide workers to existing firms, with the government paying millions of dollars went down the drain. These millions added to the disastrous assembly type foray, made awful financial matters worse. No project instituted under the aegis of Lester Bird has ever worked. Each and everyone has always been a drain on the national treasury.”

Not only did millions of dollars go down the drain… so did the talents and aspirations of thousands of children in primary and secondary schools. They looked around and they saw few opportunities for a robust economic future. They looked around and saw their mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts going to dead end jobs, learning nothing new and doing nothing creative, sitting at desks twiddling their thumbs, passing ledgers from one desk to another… under productive and underperforming.

These same children had a window to the world through CNN, MTV, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. They kind of knew that it was different elsewhere… that there was a mismatch between what was happening in Antigua and Barbuda… and the rest of the world - and even the rest of the Caribbean.

These children watched as they moved from Infant 1 to Junior 5… and noticed that their teachers were changing… that the doctors in the clinics were changing… that the nurses at the hospital were changing… These children watched as successive governments were unable or unwilling to find an Antiguan or Barbudan who could serve as Attorney General. When they went to the National Museum, they found a non-Antiguan/Barbudan telling them about our history. All around them, their uncles, aunts, and cousins had been marginalized and in some ways made irrelevant to the national scheme of things. And somewhere in the inner consciousness they knew that their future chances were limited… their birthrights were being stolen right from under them… their futures were dim… and they knew and know it. Go to any school… Ottos, Bendals, Golden Grove, Pigotts… look into their eyes… I can tell you… these are not the eyes that I saw when I taught in 1978. No.

I am from Perry Bay… Tinning Village… Grays Farm. I taught at Greenbay School. Each time I pass through the area… I see the children of students that I taught… hanging on the corners. I even see their parents hanging on the same corners. Unemployed. Underemployed. And some… well… unaccustomed to employment.

And, each time I pass… or walk by… someone looks up through eyes dimmed with pain and disillusionment and shouts, “Mr. Mottley!” Or, “Teacher!” And, tears come to my heart and find a path to my eyes.

Anyone who dismisses the quarter century of “Birdonomics” as just another set of chapters in our history, have not really walked through Grays Farm, Point, or Old Road with their eyes open. They like some of my former students have been numbed and drugged by years of abandonment by the political elite, or they were blinded by their own marginal successes.

Tim Hector in his 1996 article, called for the then Bird government to change the way they did business. As pre-requisites to any success, he called for “an accountable government, free of scandal, which can mobilise the public for the economic tasks at hand. Nothing else will do. The more we wait, the worse it will become. Time is against us. A scandal-ridden regime, cannot, repeat, cannot, mobilise any nation, anywhere, anytime. Need I say more? The economic writing is on the wall, for all to see and read. Those who will not hear, the old adage goes, will feel. Nothing educates like feeling.

“The economic writing is on the wall.” Today, February 17th, 2006, fully ten years after Hector wrote his article, we have a new administration. Yet, it is not clear to me that we have been fully educated by the failures of the past. My heart is still crying not only for the plight of my former students, but for the condition that their children and grandchildren find themselves in. I am yet to see any changes in Greenbay, Grays Farm, Point or Old Road or even to get the feeling that substantive changes are on the way. I am yet to feel any sense of hopefulness and motivation.

I believe that some of our new leaders have the right intentions... but they surround themselves with people whose intentions are at least questionable. A business person who is disconnected from our community... who has never been connected to our community... who is your advisor... confidante and constant companion... will not be reminding you of the plight of your people. His conversations will not be about training the kids of the Jarvis', the Davis' or the Brown's. He will be talking about relaxing the laws so that he can import this or that from China or Brazil. He will not be whispering about fixing the housing situation along Christian Street, he will be trying to get his hands on the exclusive no-bid contract to build the next government office, or grab that prime piece of land for next to nothing for some will-o-wisp project.

I am yet to see training for the people who it need it in areas where they can feel a sense of pride and contribution, a sense of belonging and ownership - and a sense that they can make a real living. I see even more foreign nurses, teachers, mechanics and police officers – not to mention accountants, lawyers, attorneys general… even unelected ministers of government!

I am yet to see a major initiative to address the plight of indigenous Antiguans and Barbudans, to increase their skill levels, enhance their professional training and qualifications so that they can raise themselves out of the quagmire (mud) in which they were abandoned by the former and seemingly ignored by the current.

Two years pales in comparison to twenty-eight years of scandalous abandonment. Yes. But... two years is still too long. We cannot wait for the economy to be right. We cannot wait for the deficit to be reduced. We cannot wait to weight the options. We cannot wait for the consultations. We cannot wait for the programmes to move from the drawing board. We have waited for over a quarter century. We can wait no longer! We have been planning what we would do... ought to do when the time came. Enough of this action planning. Stop planning and start taking action!

“The economic writing is on the wall.” The social writing is in our face. We need real change, real fast!