The viability of small countries

Stabroek News
April 11, 2000

In his recent book "Winner take all: The Westminster experience in the Caribbean" while discussing the maintenance of democracy in the small countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean Dr. Selwyn Ryan quotes the following statement of Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados:

"Some of the individual Caribbean countries may appear as if they are doing reasonably well in managing their economic and social affairs. The truth however is, that approached on an individual basis, the capacity to assure good government to meet the needs of our people is slowly but surely spiralling out of reach of most individual Caribbean states. As small open societies, we need to have a vigorous, active presence in the fora of decision making across the global society. Few of us individually can afford it. The costs for instance of providing increasingly sophisticated and expensive educational and health care facilities for our people are proving to be too challenging for most Caribbean states acting individually. There is scope for development through the rationalisation that must come from a more regional approach. In the management of our collective environment, in responding to disasters, in manning our judiciary, in planning our economic development, who can seriously challenge that we stand to profit most and advance more rapidly only by acting in concert? The Caribbean will have eventually to move to a single unified governance because the societies will simply sag under the enormous, unprofitable weight of supporting individual systems, and the sooner we act on that realisation, the better".

Indeed the debate on the future of the small countries that now form Caricom started since independence was being canvassed in the fifties and sixties, and many of the same arguments were raised then. Can these small countries find the human and financial resources to provide good government in the broadest sense of that term? Are they in any sense in control of their economic destiny given that they depend on the fixing of prices overseas for their main products which are often exported in their raw state with little value added? Can they maintain a reasonably efficient civil service, and an effective judiciary, can they afford to conduct an active foreign policy, can they afford to provide modern and adequate educational and health systems, can they represent themselves adequately in international fora and in negotiations for free trade and other treaties, can they maintain their security against narco traffickers? The shiprider agreements involved some compromise of sovereignty which was eventually seen in the region as broadly acceptable, though all commentators rejected outright the idea floated by Elliot Abrams, former U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, that the micro states of the Caribbean were inherently unstable and vulnerable to drug trafficking and money laundering and as they were in America's backyard had become a threat to its strategic and other interests and should compromise their sovereignty, like Puerto Rico, and rely on America for security. This was quite properly seen as a return to colonial status.

The question of viability remains urgent, however, even in relatively stable and well run countries like Barbados. Do these small countries have the resources to provide modern and efficient governance or will they, to use Mr Arthur's words, "sag under the enormous, unprofitable weight of supporting individual systems". The problem in Guyana is particularly acute because in the course of the diaspora that has continued since the fifties we have lost the bulk of the middle class which had some experience in administration, management and even governance of some kind (local and municipal government) and we are therefore virtually bereft of that solid core of experience and balanced and temperate opinion which many political scientists consider essential to the maintenance of democracy and the provision of good governance. Dr. Ryan offers a useful discussion on the topic. Examples abound here every day of near anarchy, disorder and rabid opinions that illustrate the phenomenon we are dealing with.

The failure of the federal experiment has left a natural reluctance to go that route again though Caricom is progressing gradually towards a single market and economy.

Guyana has been severely weakened by ideological and ethnic disputes and the resulting brain drain, which continues. We need a positive immigration policy to encourage educated and experienced Guyanese to return and settle and work here and one hopes the National Development Strategy will recognise this. At the moment we are ill prepared, educationally and otherwise, for the many challenges that beset us and at the same time for the opportunities that exist. If ethnic division and political strife continue we will be quite unable to summon the energy to chart a meaningful course. We will, of course, survive but at a level which will not be attractive to our brightest and most energetic citizens.