Do we really like it so?

Our resistance to change is rooted deep in the national culture

Sunity Maharaj discusses We Like It So?: The Cultural Roots of Economic Underachievement in Trinidad and Tobago by Terrence W. Farrell
Published in CONTACT Magazine

Book cover courtesy Terrence W Farrell

A lifetime’s worth of experience as an economist at the highest levels of the public and private sectors of Trinidad and Tobago has left Dr Terrence Farrell with the question posed in the title of his 2017 book, We Like It So? This follow-up from the author of The Underachieving Society: Development Strategy and Policy in Trinidad and Tobago, 1958-2008 is both a quest to understand the source of West Indian economic underachievement and a clarion call for change.

For a while, Farrell is detained by such theorists as the Dutch cultural researcher Geert Hofstede and the American psychologist David McClelland, whose work in culture, attitudes and behaviour enjoys international currency in the corporate world. However, he quickly comes up against the limitations of cultural extrapolation in the findings of a McClelland-inspired survey conducted in Trinidad and Tobago.

According to the World Values Survey (WVS) 6th Wave (2010-2014), Trinbagonians value work more highly and leisure slightly less than global averages. They are also far less tolerant of corruption than the average person in other countries, with over 87 per cent of the Trinbagonian respondents saying bribery is never justifiable, compared to the global sample of 69 percent.

Farrell knows quite enough about his country to recognise that such findings do not square with reality. “These anomalous or counter-intuitive results probably arise because people respond the way they think they are expected to respond,” he remarks. He ascribes the tendency to “ambivalence”, a cornerstone of his developing theory about the cultural roots of the phenomenon of economic underachievement in energy-rich Trinidad and Tobago.

The intellectual context

In fleshing out his analysis and argument, Farrell picks his way through the work of a broad spectrum of thinkers, social scientists, novelists and poets who have plumbed the Caribbean condition and provide theoretical ballast for his argument.

For graduates of an education system that remains disconnected from its Caribbean moorings, We Like It So? is a useful introduction to the substantial body of Caribbean thought developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, going back to John Jacob Thomas, the revolutionary intellectual born in Cedros in 1841, three years after Emancipation.

The book draws on the work of the Caribbean’s Nobel laureate economist, Arthur Lewis; anthropologist Daniel Crawley; C.L.R. James; the novels of V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming and Earl Lovelace; the sociology of Eric Williams and M.G. Smith; Lloyd Best’s plantation theory of Caribbean society; the poetry of Derek Walcott; the scholarship of Gordon K. Lewis, Rex Nettleford, Trevor Farrell, Carl Campbell, Gordon Rohlehr, Selwyn Ryan, Bridget Brereton and Selwyn Cudjoe, among others; and the writings of newspaper columnists.

Although his analysis of Caribbean culture is grounded in these references, Farrell’s prescriptive response to T&T’s economic underachievement emerges from a world view very different from that held by many of them.

Where thinkers like James, Best, Lamming and Nettleford see the challenge of change in the Caribbean as one of fundamental transformation of self and society through disruption of the historic power relations embedded in colonial institutions, Farrell argues that cultural change must be driven by “the elite who shape our institutions and procedures and establish and enforce the rules”.

But they must first change themselves. To facilitate the process, Farrell proposes the “re-training of values and attitudes for persons about to assume leadership” through “structured, prepared encounters”.

Role of the elite

Persuading the society’s elite to “act like a true elite and take responsibility for the place” will then bring its own rewards, as a new culture, supportive of economic achievement, ripples outwards and transforms the wider society.

Farrell’s own observations about the work attitudes of Trinbagonians abroad and at home in the courts, the energy sector, airlines and certain hotel resorts (namely the Sandals chain) have convinced him that they are capable of the “counter-cultural” behaviour required for economic advancement. Farrell’s counter-cultural situations are defined by clear lines of authority, mandated cooperation, and behaviour that is uncompromisingly enforced. “There is no rebellion or subversion, just quiet and respectful conformance to the rules,” he notes.

If this smacks of autocratic leadership, it is not, Farrell says; it is what can happen with an attitude change in the exercise of authority to engender trust.

Five initiatives

Farrell observes that movement between the culture of underachievement and the counter-culture of achievement is negotiated through a process of “code switching”, including the transition from Trinidad dialect to Standard English. This leads him to propose Standard English as the language of the workplace, since it is “associated with seriousness and discipline”.

In the end, he distills his prescription for change into five initiatives: respectful engagement; code-switching and contextual use of ‘formal’ language; establishing authority and enforcing discipline; making systems work; and connecting with the Folk to promote democracy and foster innovation.

Drawn quickly, this prescription bears little organic connection to his analysis of the problem. Further reflection might lead to an exploration of the role of culture in the systematic selection of elites who pose no threat to the colonial architecture of underachievement. A glimpse into the self-perpetuating nature of culture might encourage him to second-guess his expectation that beneficiaries of the status quo would have an investment in changing the very system that rewards them while punishing agents of change.

In any case, given the all-pervasive nature of culture, who will re-train the leadership elites for the challenge of change?


As published in the first issue of the rebranded CONTACT Magazine, produced by MEP for the Trinidad & Tobago Chamber of Industry & Commerce. Read the full issue here, which was unveiled at the Chamber’s April 2018 AGM


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