A strategic option for education

Stabroek News
December 4, 1999

In a remarkable address at the Conference on the Caribbean at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, in September entitled "Economic Policy Options in the 2lst century" Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados had this to say:

"Contemporary globalisation has been underpinned by technological revolutions in information, communication and transport. It has caused a transition in the global society from the Industrial to the Information Age. Indeed, one of the key features of the emerging global economy is that information has replaced energy, commodities and natural resources as the basic raw material in the production process. In its wake, it has thrown up a whole welter of new knowledge-based, skill-intensive, service-oriented production possibilities which can readily be exploited by all societies that spare the effort to develop the human capital and the institutional capacity required to master the use of information.

Globalisation in this context has virtually therefore reconfigured the bases of the comparative and competitive advantage of nations. It has neutralised the supposed disabilities arising from small size, the lack of a wide array of natural resources and the absence of scale economies which have hitherto been regarded as effective constraints to the transformation of the Caribbean economy, individually and collectively.

Hence, while other aspects of globalisation will confront the Caribbean economies with severe competitive challenges, especially those arising out of the obligation to the WTO, which will alter the market context within which our development will take place, there can be no doubt that the technological underpinning of globalisation will facilitate the viability of thousands of new producers in the Caribbean, provided we are prepared to respond positively and proactively. I am led therefore to the judgement that the Caribbean need not perpetuate the development stalemate that has characterised so much of its twentieth century experience, and that we can and should face the future with the confidence of being able to attain sustained and sustainable growth and development".

In other words, the Prime Minister was contending, rightly we believe, that in the new information age small states have a better chance than before if they have the skills and intelligence to survive.

The Prime Minister continued to argue that short term, stop-gap expedients will not solve our problems. He said:

"The fear of reporting failure in small societies, or the fear of antagonising entrenched interest groups, have caused many Caribbean governments to intervene, at points of perceived crisis, to prop up failed systems long after any justification for their continued support could be advanced. In the interim, the few key strategic things that must be done to underwrite sustained development get starved of the required resources and attention. I believe that a classic case in point has been Jamaica's crisis intervention to stave off the difficulties in its financial sector. The evidence suggests that the conditions for sustainable macro economic stability had been established in Jamaica immediately prior to the financial crisis. The resulting deployment of billions of dollars, largely to protect depositors and directors of institutions against losses, have compromised Jamaica's capacity to underwrite the restructuring of its economy that coincides more with its long term strategic interest.

Voltaire expressed it well in Candide: "It is often necessary to shoot a general in order to encourage the others".

.By way of comparison, Barbados has made a strategic choice that it should reform what might still be the best education system in the Caribbean to make it more appropriate to the requirements ushered in by globalisation. We have determined that the programme Edutech 2000 should have first claim on our domestic resources, and should be the principal purpose for which we borrow internationally.

I believe that the exercise of strategic choices such as these by countries which in fact have only a few strategic options, will make all the difference".

The Prime Minister went on to argue that the state still had an important role to play, that the Caribbean Single Market and Economy should be put in place as soon as possible, that new alliances must be forged and that we must become "high quality producers of the range of services which meet our resource capabilities". But the crucial aspect of his address is the strategic choice for a new kind of education as the top priority for spending state funds. In this Mr Arthur is following in the footsteps of other distinguished leaders in developing countries who have recognised the absolutely vital role of education in an increasingly knowledge based global society.

It bears repeating a thousand times, at the end of the day unless we can dramatically increase the educational and skills level in the society we will continue to miss or to be unable to take advantage of the many opportunities that already exist for small countries who are in touch with what is going on. To the extent that we fail to undertake that kind of restructuring to that extent we will remain on the periphery, unable to grapple with the fundamental changes that lie ahead.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples