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The EPA as Cultural Co-optation


The signing of the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in 2008 gave rise to a spirited debate in the English-speaking Caribbean on its alleged merits and demerits. While much of the focus was on the technical aspects of the agreement, some commentators also drew attention to broader aspects which might facilitate a better understanding of the attitudes, expectations, and actions of both sets of negotiators – European Commission officials and the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM). Discussing the unfavourable situation in which the EPA had placed Caricom, Clive Thomas alluded to the influence of elements that were external to both the substantive negotiations and the negotiating process itself:

“By no stretch of the imagination can blame for this situation be entirely attributed to the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM). This has been a collective failure of the region, especially on the part of the political directorates that should have guided the process.”[2]

Why was there such a collective failure on the part of the region? In a series of articles beginning with the present one, I shall attempt to explore that particular aspect of the issue as well as others that had, in my opinion, an indirect but determining influence on both the approach to, and the outcome of, the EPA negotiations. In doing so, I shall further illustrate and expand on some of the broader aspects that were raised or discussed by Clive Thomas, Norman Girvan and others, in contributions they have made both to the EPA debate itself and to the subject of development in the Caricom region. The debate was largely concerned with the economic and political aspects of the issue. In this series of articles, I shall attempt to show how culture, taken in the broadest sense of the term, has had a determining influence not only on the Agreement itself but also on the context in which the negotiations took place, the assumptions that informed the negotiations, and the negotiating framework that delimited their scope and possible outcomes.

Shared World View

A fundamental element, which influenced both the approach to, and the outcome of, the EPA negotiations, was a shared world view on the part of both sets of negotiators, a factor that Clive Thomas underlined in one of his critiques: “The EPA was considerably aided by the successful implantation of the EU’s world view of the region and its future among significant sections of the region’s intellectual and ruling elites, including those holding influential positions in the negotiations.”[3]

It is that “successful implantation of the EU’s world view of the region and its future” that made it possible for the CRNM and the “the region’s intellectual and ruling elites” to come to a meeting of minds on the EPA, an agreement that fits within a model of development, which is, at best, inappropriate for Caricom and, at worst, detrimental to a region whose needs and circumstances differ so greatly from those of Europe. The effect of those very different circumstances showed up clearly in the consultation process. As Clive Thomas pointed out, although the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM) and the EU negotiating body deemed it highly successful, the consultation process had “design and architectural flaws.[4]

U.K. Parliamentary Committee Report

As Clive Thomas reported in his February 24th article, following its review of the EPA negotiations, the U. K. Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development expressed a number of serious concerns about the way they were conducted:

They were non-transparent and not exposed to effective public scrutiny;
With the EPA negotiations “running parallel” to those of the Doha Round, they were bound to be disadvantageous to the ACP states;
It was unfair to the ACP for the EU to push an agreement through without special and differential treatment.

The following excerpts from the Select Committee’s report, which Clive Thomas quoted in his February 24th article, are so startling in their open condemnation of the EPA negotiations and the detrimental consequences such agreements would have for Caricom and other ACP regions that they merit being restated:
“The EU is approaching the negotiations with the ACP as if they were playing a game of poker. The Commission is refusing to lay its cards on the table and to dispel the ACP’s fear that it stands to lose more than it will gain. The ACP is negotiating under considerable duress and the EU approach emphasizes the unequal nature of the negotiation process.”
“Without special and differential treatment, the agreements will not be fair.”
“Despite its over-riding policy emphasis on poverty eradication and sustainable development, for the EU the ACP-EU negotiations are primarily about one thing, namely achieving the progressive and reciprocal liberalisation of trade in goods and services, in accordance with WTO rules, not taking into account the level of development of the ACP countries and the economic, social and environmental constraints they are facing.”
“Any agreement offered to the ACP must have a developmental component; should not conflict with regional integration processes; should not demand liberalisation in sectors where the EU has not itself liberalized; and should not seek to put onto the agenda in regional negotiations, issues which the ACP group has previously rejected at the all ACP level.”

Language and Education as tools of cultural co-optation

It is not only the EU but also the North, as a whole, and the international financial and development organizations they fund, that have succeeded in instilling their worldview into the minds of the intellectual and ruling elites of the South. The reason for this is two-fold: language and education. In the late 1920s, the American linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, were the first to postulate the thesis that different languages embody different world views and that the language we use determines, to a large extent, how we think and the way we view the world around us. Thus, the language we use is more than a mere instrument for expressing our thoughts it actually helps to determine them. It influences how we frame questions, how we organize our arguments, and how we solve puzzles with logic and reasoning. Nietzsche had come to a similar conclusion well before Sapir and Whorf. Noting the strange family resemblance between Hindi, German, and Greek thought, Nietzsche concluded that when there is linguistic kinship it is inevitable that a common grammatically-based philosophy would predispose thought to produce philosophical systems that develop along the same lines. Virtually all countries in the South have had to adopt one of the major European languages as their principal medium for communicating with the outside world. The vast majority of those countries have also found it necessary to choose that same European language as the principal language of instruction in their education system, and the language of communication with the outside world or with other linguistic groups in the country.

Many expressions in the “adopted” languages often reflect experiences, embody attitudes, imply assumptions, and depict images that are alien to the peoples of the South. The latter, for the most part, have internalized the dissimilarities between the experiences, attitudes, assumptions, and images, which are part and parcel of the European language they have adopted, and their own living reality, to such an extent that they often seem unaware of the absurdities to which that situation frequently gives rise. Thus, people who have known only a tropical climate find themselves perfectly capable of singing Christmas carols that recall the experience of dreaming about a white Christmas, without feeling any sense of the absurd. The problems that arise in having to speak the language of a dominant culture, which does not reflect one’s own history, life experiences, or socio-cultural reality, is by no means restricted to peoples in the South. Despite his marvellous command of the English language James Baldwin was moved to declare, in one of his essays, that his quarrel with the English language was that it reflected none of his own experiences.

It is principally via the language of public instruction, adopted by their respective countries, that the intellectual and ruling elites of the South have acquired Western/Northern world views, which they have largely internalized and appropriated as their own. When their education is completed in universities of the North, as is the case with the vast majority of academics and senior professional staff in national, regional, and international organizations, experts whose origins are in the South often become the most ardent advocates of policies developed in the North.

That psychological phenomenon, which assumes greater significance when the native language of a people is the same as that of the dominant Northern culture, as is the case with Caricom, might help to explain the attitudes adopted and the decisions taken at the Caricom regional level with respect to the EPA. It might also help us understand the continuing attempts to defend those decisions in spite of the damning report of the Select Committee, whose conclusions both sides in the current EPA debate have largely ignored. One can understand why those in Caricom who support the EPA would keep silent about the Select Committee’s harsh criticism of the EPA but it is very puzzling that its Caricom critics have followed suit. One would have expected the Select Committee’s critical review of the EPA to form the centrepiece of Caricom opposition to the Agreement, in view of the considerable weight that review must necessarily carry with Caricom governments. Issuing from the parliament of an important EU member state, which would not espouse a cause that is inimical to its national or regional interests, the Select Committee’s review would have enjoyed a high degree of credibility, precisely because it could not be dismissed as partisan or biased in favour of Caricom and the ACP.

In a paper he posted during the EPA debate, Norman Girvan identified a major problem that Caricom and most post-colonial societies face, namely, the problem of disempowerment – the origins of which he traced to the colonial era:

“Colonial economy was more than a system of production, it was above all a system of production relations and a system of power; a system that kept the mass of the population without access to land, to education, to credit, to technology, to the means of economic advancement, to social power and to political power. Disempowerment and lack of access translated into persistent poverty. Poverty was not an accidental result or by-product of the inanimate workings of market forces or the laws of economics. It was a deliberate policy of the colonial state. So fashioning a post colonial economy and society is really about the empowerment of the mass of the population; the collective empowerment of the society as a whole.”[5]

I would suggest that language was the principal vehicle of that collective disempowerment. Such disempowerment was all the more effective because its influence operated essentially at the subliminal level. That particular process would appear to be a perfect subject for deconstruction, which might, indeed, turn out to be a necessary precondition for achieving the collective empowerment that, as Norman Girvan quite rightly points out, is essential for fashioning a post colonial Caribbean economy and society.

A people’s adoption of the language of the country of another culture or society, as their principal means of communication and language of public instruction, can have other significant consequences. That is particularly so when the language adopted is that of the former colonizing power. Colonization is a form of domination, and the dominant power often feels the need to justify its absolute control over colonized peoples by disparaging the latter, their culture, their abilities, and their capacity to assume responsibility for their own destiny – a destiny that the colonial power invariably claimed that it controlled in the interests of the colonized people themselves. Such demeaning attitudes towards colonized peoples are inevitably reflected in the language of the colonizing power, the very same language that provided the lens through which colonized peoples have learnt to view the world.

In all European languages, without a single exception, the word “black” has become a synonym for all that is bad, sinister, or detrimental, except when it is used simply to describe the primary colour. In contrast, the word “white” has become a synonym for what is good, unblemished, or pure. In English, such usage is reflected, for example, in the expressions “a black day” and “whitewash”, when that latter word is used in a figurative sense. It is perhaps in French, however, that such linguistic disparagement is the most striking. A person accused of an illegal act is invariably described in the French media as having been “blanchi” (whitened) when acquitted by a court of justice, in contrast to the technical term “acquitted” that would normally be used in English in similar circumstances.

Likewise, when a person’s reputation suffers from the public revelation of a discreditable act on his part, it is invariably described as having been “noircie” (blackened). Although that particular expression might occasionally be used in English in similar circumstances, such usage is not as systematic as it is in French. The regular, almost automatic, use of the word “black” to describe anything that is negative is so deeply ingrained in French speakers, and so established in their reflexes, that they do not even appear to notice the occasions when the figurative use of the word is utterly absurd or ridiculous.

In 1993, the French Minister for Cooperation addressed a meeting of journalists who specialized in international affairs. Wishing to sound upbeat about Africa’s development problems, without the slightest trace of irony he described the region’s situation in the following words: “Tout n’est pas complètement noir en Afrique” (“All is not completely black in Africa”). Le Monde, the most prestigious French newspaper, reported the Minister’s remark verbatim the following day, with no comment and with a similar lack of irony.

A few years ago, the eastern seaboard of the United States was buffeted by a severe snowstorm which produced a whiteout that caused authorities in the affected regions to close schools, stop bus services, and urge people to stay at home. Displaying the eerie images of the whiteout to his TV audience, the presenter of a French prime time television news programme made the following comment: “Quelle journée noire pour l’Amérique!” (What a black day for America!).

Francophonie and French Policy

The ubiquitous use of such tendentious language could not fail to have a psychological effect on the peoples of French-speaking African countries, whose elites are among the most enthusiastic supporters of Francophonie, the organisation that France has established to promote French culture and to defend the French language against inroads from English. Francophonie was originally conceived for French-speaking countries, the majority of which are situated in Africa. However, because of France’s aggressive use of its language as a political and economic tool in the service of its national interests, Francophonie has been extended to include any country with a historic link to, or an interest in, the French language.

To that end, with promises of development aid France succeeded in persuading two Caricom countries, Dominica and St. Lucia, to join the Francophonie organization. The great importance that France has always placed on the French language, as a strategic instrument for perpetuating French power and influence, was strikingly illustrated when, in March 1938, Camille Chautemps, the French Prime minister, issued a decree that proclaimed Arabic to be a foreign language in its North African colony, Algeria. That decision, and the policy it applied, compelled all Algerians to be educated exclusively in French, thereby depriving them of an essential part of their personal and cultural identity. Apart from the detrimental psychological effects of such a policy, when Algeria won its independence the country was faced with the need to re-learn its own language, for which it had to recruit thousands of teachers of Arabic from Egypt and other Arab countries.

France is the only European colonial power that has apparently succeeded in maintaining a complicit, paternalistic, and neo-colonial relationship with the political leadership and elites of its former African colonies who seem more attached to France and to French culture than is compatible with defending and furthering the interests of their own countries. It not unusual for a French Ambassador to a francophone African country to be appointed by the president of that country, as one of his senior advisers, after his retirement from the diplomatic service. On one such recent occasion, there was not even a decent interval between the two appointments. The French ambassador took up his position as presidential adviser in the country of his last posting, in the days following his official retirement.

Whether voluntarily retired or forcibly removed from active political life, every former Francophone African political leader, almost without exception, retires to live out the rest of his days in France rather than in his own, or another African, country. None of the political leaders of English-speaking Africa has ever gone to live in Britain on retiring from political life, and no British ambassador has ever been employed as an adviser to the president of an Anglophone African country in which he had previously served. Indeed, neither of those two bizarre situations appears even conceivable in Anglophone Africa.

The role that French language and culture have played in bringing about such an astonishing state of affairs should not be underestimated. Similarly, the role of language, education and professional training in predisposing certain Caricom elites to accept, uncritically, economic arguments and premises of dubious benefit for Caricom, which are proposed by countries and organizations in the North, should not be underestimated.

In the language and terminology of development utilized in countries of the North, the paradigms have already been established; the framework within which discussions/negotiations on any development issue are to be conducted is already delineated; the ideological concepts and constructs that inform and underpin such discussions/negotiations are already determined; and the range of possible actions or choices available to the various actors already defined.

Knowledge of the existence of such implicit preconditions would permit a better comprehension of the significance of two relevant observations that Clive Thomas has made about the EPA, namely, that “the scope of the consultations was pre-determined and effectively limited to one of two options for Caricom”; and that “basically the methodology of CRNM’s consultations was flawed by its own deliberate avoidance of consideration of options other than the two on offer by the EU [with the result that] the region, therefore, was largely reactive to EU positions.”[6]

Mervyn Claxton is a researcher and consultant on culture and development. He was has been a college teacher in West Africa; a diplomat with the Trinidad and Tobago Foreign Service; and an international civil servant with UNESCO, where he headed the anti-apartheid programme; headed the Caribbean section; and headed the Africa programme within the Secretariat of the United Nations World Decade for Cultural Development (1989-1997).

[1] First in a series of essays on culture and development from a Caribbean perspective.

[2] “Guyana and the wider world, Design and architecture of the EPA: The importance of self-critique”, Stabroek News, February 24th 2008.

[3] “Guyana and the wider world Suckered: The Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) as massive manipulation”, Stabroek News, 20th January 2008.

[4] “Guyana and the wider world”, Stabroek News, 16th March 2008.

[5] “The Post Colonial Economy and Society: Facing the Challenge”, February 11, 2008.

[6] Thomas (2008), 16 March.