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Are Caribbean countries facing existential threats ?

lundi 8 novembre 2010

Norman Girvan

The hurricanes of the last few weeks in the Caribbean have reinforced in my mind a growing sense that Caribbean states may be more and more facing a challenge of existential threats. (I prefer this idea to the discourse of ‘failed states’, which I find rather obnoxious and patronising ; being associated with a political agenda of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ and the contemporary incarnation of the doctrine of imperial responsibility.) By existential threats I mean systemic challenges to the viability of our states as functioning socio-economic-ecological-political systems ; due to the intersection of climatic, economic, social and political developments.

On Saturday 30 October the entire banana crop of St Vincent, the main export industry, was wiped out in the space of one afternoon. St Lucia and Barbados also suffered major economic damage. At the time of writing this, the weather system responsible is expected eventually to veer northwards and deal what will be another lethal blow to Haiti, where over one million people are living with only tented shelters to protect them as a result of the January earthquake. Another major human catastrophe may be unfolding before our very eyes, which we seem impotent to prevent. On the other hand, if the weather system stays on a westward course, it will deal further blows to Jamaica, which has not yet recovered from Tropical storm Nicole (J$20 billion damage), and probably Belize, which is still recovering from hurricane Richard.

30 years ago, one expected to deal with major disasters of this kind, say, once every ten years. Nowadays, most islands expect at least one, and possibly two or three, every year. In other words this now has to be seen as a permanent, recurring phenomenon or integral feature of Caribbean development.

When you combine acute climate change-related stress of this kind with (a) the acute economic stress arising out of trade preferences and the failure to develop a new “insertion” into the global economy, (b) fiscal stress due to unsustainable debt burdens and the impact of the global economic crisis ; and (c) the seeming incapacity of governments to control the impact of transnational crime ; one must wonder if we are not in fact experiencing an overlapping and interconnected series of challenges which in their totality, challenge the assumptions underlying the ‘national statehood’ dispensation of the region. Suppose, in other words, that we are not dealing simply with a series of ‘natural disasters’, but rather with a deeper, more systemic threat to the viability of our societies as functional entities in any meaningful sense of the word ?

Most of us are not likely to view our condition in such apocalyptic terms, of course. Governments and opinion-makers tend to see each such phenomena as disconnected events, each requiring its own specialised response by a dedicated agency or stakeholder. Our governments give the appearance of being in permanent crisis mode, like the captain and crew of a ship caught in a perfect storm desperately trying to work out how to survive the next monster wave (even as they assure the passengers that they can cope !). Crisis management is not a condition that lends itself to strategic thinking.

Yet isn’t strategic thinking, that attempts to discern the connections among seemingly unrelated phenomena, not what is required ? Indeed is it not a necessity for survival ? I would think that the first step of such an exercise is for us to admit to ourselves that the problems we face are too wide in scopes and too vast in scale for any one Caribbean country to cope with by itself ; that the thinking, institutions and structures we have no longer serve us well ; and that no one-neither government nor opposition ; public sector or private ; civil society or academia-can singly provide the answers. Can we begin a conversation nationally and regionally-or rather, take existing conversations to a higher plane ?

November 1, 2010.

Norman Girvan

UWI Trinidad & Tobago