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Tuesday 20 August 2019
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We will drown if we look inward

Kiran Mathur Mohammed
Kiran Mathur Mohammed

Kiran Mathur Mohammed


Death clarifies and exposes. Our deepest desires, fears, and regrets bubble up. Sometimes the deaths of two different people, from different worlds, can reveal the same truth.

One drowned alone, cold and afraid, mere miles from shore. She went unnamed in reports. Her life was summed up by the story that motivated her final journey: “no food, no hospital…desperate”. Her obituary was written in social media commentary: “they not burying here cause we cemetery full.”

The other was quite different. A great man of the West Indies: a knight, a vice-chancellor and a secretary general of the Caribbean Community. Prime ministers showered tributes. Sir Alister McIntyre was part of the creation of the “modern Caribbean economic and political identity”. Yet he went holding reservations, “worrying over the darkening of the regional scene that threatens”.

These two deaths revealed two different fears.

The first was the fear of the Other. Others will take our jobs, our welfare cheques, our wives and husbands. They will rob us. All we have is ourselves. An identity forms from this, that we must fight to defend what we have, and look inward for strength.

The fears of governments mirrored their peoples’. The West Indian Federation hinged on two large states. The smaller islands feared domination. The larger ones feared the draining of their treasuries. None felt adequately represented. It collapsed.

That young girl may have been a Venezuelan refugee, but the issues arising from her death are broader. What is our place in the world? Our identity? What is our tribe? Do we turn inward or outward? And if we look outward, who stands beside us?

The second death raised a different fear. Of opportunity lost, of dreams lost. A greater Caribbean identity, united by shared history.

Yet it is that fear that leads us to lecture people instead of listening to them. We should acknowledge that much insularity arises from harsh experiences that many still face; and appeal to self-interest instead of to paper-thin altruism.

After all, the opportunity for wealth is tremendous. Economists at Germany’s Kiel institute summarised more than 20 different studies and concluded: “there is overwhelming support for growth-enhancing effects of economic integration.” To miss this opportunity was part of the fear of the great post-independence leaders.

Immigrants’ demand for goods and services creates as many jobs as they take. And over the past 50 years, their effect on the public finances of OECD countries was positive.

A bigger, more open market for exports will create more jobs. TT manufactured goods won’t replace Jamaican goods but will replace more expensive international ones. St Lucian bananas won’t replace those from TT, but those processed in Florida.

Many of these points of contention are swiftly countered. TT does subsidize its electricity. But it also suffers from higher energy-fuelled exchange rates that make its exports dearer.

Financial support for smaller debt-laden islands is not just charity. As those countries regain fiscal health, their economies become more attractive markets for those that have supported them.

What if we continue to do nothing?

The fear of the Other will be realised in tangible form. We have weathered hurricanes and years of economic stagnation, but this time will be different. We will be hit, and hit hard by the combined forces of technology, and climate change.

Small, open states have never been more vulnerable. Automation and artificial intelligence will concentrate wealth more than ever before in those parts of the world that possess research and human capital. The cheap labour and imported capital that have allowed developing countries to catch up will no longer be enough. Our many doctors and lawyers will swiftly struggle to match robotics and software developed elsewhere.

Climate change already seems much less abstract, as we alternate between frequent floods and droughts. Indonesia has announced that it is moving its capital, which has sunk by 14 feet in the past few years. We aren’t big enough to do that.

There is more political will than ever for regional integration. Business and political leaders are already supportive. They can seize their ambition and move with strength to invite the Dominican Republic, the French and Dutch Antilles, French Guiana, and even - as Winston Dookeran has suggested - Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica to balance the regional bloc. The strongest institutions have been those with the greatest balance of power. Shared economic interests and the history of colonialism will overcome language and other cultural barriers.

We cannot predict the future. But what is clear is that we need allies to buffer us against whatever comes. We can and must look outward.

Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh

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