Caribbean region must join and speak out in one voice

Governance, empowerment and leadership are the themes for this year’s conference held at the University College of the Cayman Islands this month. Keynote speaker Sir Shridath Surendranath Ramphal, a Guyanese barrister, politician and international civil servant was the keynote speaker.

Sir Shridath Surendranath Ramphal has been a strong advocate for the interests of developing countries and the world’s poor, and is credited as an architect of regional integration in the Caribbean, strengthening relations during his time as the Commonwealth’s second secretary general between the countries of the region and those of Latin America.

After this post, Sir Shridath served as head of the World Conservation Union and played an important role in the Earth Summit in 1992. His book Our Country, the Planet (1992), published just in advance of the summit, expresses his commitment to the causes of international economic reform and environmental protection. He received a knighthood in 1970. 

With the success of its first international conference in early 2010, UCCI is preparing to host the next, this time exploring themes related to leadership, governance and empowerment, highly relevant issues in today’s environment. Sir Sridath will be speaking to these themes during his keynote speech. 

“I will be reflecting on these issues within the Caribbean but very much within the global context, because talking about issues of this kind has to be at the global level,” he confirms.

Sir Sridath says the Caribbean as a whole tends to think regionally: “If there is ever a time when we should remove the insularity it is now. Our generation does not need to be told that our fate is tied up with the rest of the world. In a time of crisis what the rest of the world does impacts our lives,” he says.

Sir Sridath believes that it is now a time for Caribbean countries to reflect on the issues of leadership, governance and empowerment because the region is but a small player in the global community.

“It is absolutely important, crucial in fact, that the Caribbean speaks with one voice – we cannot go it alone. Even major countries in the world find it necessary to work together. For example, Europe has been forced in deeper than just the Economic Union. So how do small island communities scattered within the Caribbean believe they can be heard? For example, who looks out for the Cayman Islands when the G20 countries meet and decide on policies?” 

Sir Sridath believed that Caribbean countries need to win the respect of the international community by getting their domestic governance in order, to begin with. 

“How do we expect to win respect of others without this being in place? Without respect nobody is going to make sacrifices on our behalf. Our record on leadership, governance and empowerment is not very good. The blame needs to be shared between the government and the people,” he confirms.

Although Sir Sridath believes that empowering individuals at a grass roots level is important, he says that the Caribbean as a whole is already a very literate society. 

“Even those who are the poorest in society are literate in political terms,” he says. “The message should not have to be taught, but Caribbean society is too supine and does not assert itself enough. The will needs to be there to be effective. Leaders often say that they do what the people want them to do, but this is not always true. But how can they deny it if people do not assert themselves?”

Sir Sridath said that structures were in place within civil society to ensure that the voice of the people was heard but the people were too apathetic.

“People are empowered; they just don’t use their power,” he states.

Looking at the wider Caribbean, Sir Sridath said that there was much to do at the level of integration among nations. 

“We have said all we need to say, made all the pious declarations, but we have not implemented anything. I believe that the situation with regard to regional unity is worse now that it was 20 years ago. This is not just at the institutional level but in the mind as well – we are drifting away from a national identity and falling back on nationalistic bias and bigotry, a move that is least likely to produce results in the world today.”

Sir Sridath confirms that the economic downturn has something to do with this turn away from regional unity and that is why he believes that strong leadership is so important.

“Governments have to have a longer vision so that they can steer people away from the pitfalls and an inward-looking attitude is a pitfall.”

He said that the region’s governments’ record in this regard was to succumb to populace bias and that regional integration means working together, not just on programmes but to have the issue constantly on the agenda. 

“Governments have to be thinking in that way otherwise we cannot act with the unity that is required,” he says.

The danger is, in Sir Sridath’s mind, that the international community has already sensed that the current Caribbean leadership is not serious about integration, believing that it is just playing lip service to the notion, and therefore not responding to calls from the region. 

The process of not listening had already begun, he fears: “It is a small but symbolic move that the BBC has just cut its World Service radio broadcasts to the Caribbean,” he said. “It indicates that the Caribbean does not really matter that much to Britain and is symptomatic of the thinking by the larger capitals of the world, such as Washington and London.”

In a similar vein, Britain’s Airline Passenger Duty recently increased the cost of flying to the Caribbean from £50 to £75 per person for economy class seats and from £100 to £150 in premium economy, business and first class. The increase in APD caused uproar within the Caribbean community with lobbying taking place by Caribbean tourism ministers to try and get it reduced. 

“It is feared this will have a devastating effect on the Caribbean’s tourism industry and through the lobbying taking place I believe that the UK might make a small gesture, but it still has the potential to cause immense harm,” he explains.

The solution then, according to Sir Sridath, was to hold conferences such as the UCCI’s to probe and explore the issue and to be honest with ourselves, challenging both governments and people of the Caribbean to do better, otherwise the region will continue with its laid back attitude and the region will suffer as a result. 

UCCI’s international conference is set to take place on 17 and 18 March.

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Sir Shridath

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