UWI's 2002 academic conference:
Shaping secure, democratic future By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
September 10, 2002

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URGING Caribbean people to share their collective power to help shape a more democratic and secure future in the face of the current unilateralist hard-drive policies of superpower, USA -- obsessed as it is with 'war talk' -- requires an act of faith.

It may even be harder to summon such faith against the backdrop of controversies over achievements and failures at the just concluded World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

In view, that is, of the sharp disagreements on treatment of substantial issues of poverty, disease and hunger, threats to the environment from global warming and the consequences for sub-regions like our own, after two such summits in a decade, the first being in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Yet, as theoreticians, militant advocates and activists of a governance system with people at the centre, continue to struggle to influence policies at the national and regional level, to impact ultimately on structural changes at the international level, it may be worthwhile to keep hope alive for that collective sharing of the creative energies of the people in the shaping of a better future.

It was with a view to promoting participatory democracy and good governance at the national, regional and international level -- even as the world's number one organisation, the United Nations, remains a most undemocratic structure -- that a major academic conference took place a week ago in Jamaica.

Organised by the University of the West Indies on its Mona Campus, with hundreds of participants from across the region, among them outstanding intellectuals and scholars, the `2002 Academic Conference on The Governance Challenge -- National, Regional and Global Dimensions', was considered an "outstanding success".

That, at least, was the conclusion of Dr. Denis Benn, the Michael Manley Professor of Public Affairs and Public Policy at the UWI (Mona), who had a lead role in organising the conference.

Chancellor of the UWI, Shridath Ramphal, in addressing the first panel of the August 30-September 1 conference, was, like the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, strongly critical of U.S. policies that posed dangers for people across the globe.

As evidenced, for example, by America's rejection of the 'Kyoto Protocol' on the Environment, its retreat from involvement in the International Criminal Court, and current moves for a military invasion of Iraq.

As well as the pressures Washington has brought to bear, and continues to exert, on developing countries to concede ground in negotiations within the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the World Trade Organisation, not ignoring its refusal to be persuaded by even European allies for President Bush to attend the World Summit in Johannesburg.

However, with the future welfare of the peoples of the Caribbean, including those of the diaspora, on their mind, participants in the Mona conference on "governance challenges" were not to be distracted by the negative implications of the politics of unilateralism associated with the George W. Bush administration.

Rather, they engaged themselves in positive deliberations to help in shaping, as the conference organisers felt, "the contours of the emerging global order in a manner consistent with the needs and interests of this region", according to Professor Benn, who I invited to give a post-conference assessment.

Participants explored a range of issues, including the economic implications of the changes occurring in the international system, the role of transnational corporations and the required response to such developments by small and developing nations such as those in the Caribbean.

In this context, a number of emerging theoretical constructs being utilised by international relations specialists and development practitioners were identified.

As were the need to ensure further progress in seeking to increase the participation of women in the political system right up to the higher echelons of political power, and advancing the process of seeking more appropriate models of governance than that of the Westminster model, particularly in multi-ethnic societies such as Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.

The historical factors influencing the evolution of Caribbean governance structures and processes were considered as well as the requirements for improved sub-national governance aimed at empowering people at the local level.

This approach resulted in an examination of the factors that have contributed to political apathy among the poorer segments of the society, and special emphasis was also placed on the need to identify ways of integrating the Caribbean Diaspora into the political and economic life of Caribbean societies.

Participants also addressed issues like the role of civil society in conflict resolutions in the Caribbean; corruption in government, the private sector and even within civil society organisations; the region's security requirements in an era of global terror and the application of new management techniques and approaches to public sector reform.

The final session of the conference, which focused on regional governance structures, provoked much debate. Highlights of the session were presentations on the proposed Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and its related institution, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).

Also, the governance arrangement within the sub-region of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and the experience it could serve as a model of integration for the wider Caribbean region.

The 2002 Mona Academic Conference continues the tradition of academic discourse begun with the 1999 Conference that focused on the challenges facing the Caribbean this century and which resulted in the publication by the UWI of a major reference book on "Contending with Destiny: The Caribbean in the 21st Century".

As Professor Benn explained, these conferences are not merely academic, in the figurative sense of the term, since special emphasis is placed on "generating ideas which could inform policy choices on the part of government and other stakeholders in the Caribbean region".

Presentations at the 2002 Conference are to be published in a book which the UWI hopes to release in 2003.