Economic transformation in Trinidad & Tobago starts right here, with you

Enough talk, enough evasion. It’s time to get serious about change

WORDS By: Jonathan Charles
PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy: Trinidad Express Newspaper
Published in CONTACT Magazine

“Change is something we always say, / but every time we change things remain the same way,” sang the 2018 Calypso Monarch to the Savannah crowds back in February. “It won’t change despite all we do / if change doesn’t start with you.”

It wasn’t a new message that Helon Francis was delivering. But the idea that each listener must become an agent of change was something of a novelty. Usually it’s the government which is supposed to change, or the opposition, or the business community. Someone else, anyway.

But no matter who is urged to change, things have so far stayed the same. On the website of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) there is a scholarly paper which makes this point. Entitled “Diversification in T&T: Waiting for Godot?” (Khadan & Ruprah 2016). It refers mischievously to the 1953 Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot, in which two loquacious Irish vagrants wait for a mysterious saviour called Godot who never arrives. “Let’s go,” says one. “We can’t,” says the other. “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot.”

So maybe Godot will come. Maybe the price of oil will get back to US$100. Perhaps the deepwater blocks will be teeming with recoverable resources. Perhaps Venezuelan gas will help us out. Perhaps everyone will start living within their means. But Godot never seems to turn up.

In the world of economics, this seems to be quite a common view of Trinidad and Tobago’s progress in diversifying its economy. Another post on the same IDB site (Khadan 2016) says bluntly that “diversification away from the energy sector has largely failed”. It puts much of the blame, controversially, on “Dutch disease”: “the Trinidad and Tobago dollar has been consistently and substantially overvalued”. It might as well have blamed national complacency.

Helon Francis, 2018 Calypso Monarch: “It won’t change despite all we do / if change doesn’t start with you”. Photo courtesy Trinidad Express Newspaper

The problem

We don’t really need to be told that the Trinidad and Tobago economy is over-dependent on the energy sector. Diversification is one of the buzzwords that have been in the air for decades. Plans and visions, speeches and policy briefs, have come and gone over the years. But somehow the latest energy pricing crisis, combined with falling oil and gas production, still managed to catch us by surprise and unprepared, still dependent on the wells and the rigs to pump out the national patrimony and monetise it, so as to keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed.

The horror story that has unfolded in the last couple of years does not need detailing again here: the disastrous fall in energy revenue, the decline in output, the foreign exchange shortage, the gas shortfall, the budget deficits, the slashing of government spending, the erosion of savings, the piling up of debt.

Once the severity of the situation became really clear, it was too late to avoid this crisis. Even if the recent cautious optimism about energy price gains and improved oil and gas output turns out to be justified, the risks of dependence have been demonstrated for all to see.

We’ve had the final warning. To continue with business as usual is too great a gamble. The nation has to adapt itself to sadly straitened circumstances, and quickly. It has to learn again to live within its reduced means. In the process, it will finally have to face up to the challenge of diversification; and to the larger issue of transforming itself – its economy, its society, its culture – into something more efficient, more rational, more productive and more sustainable, than it is now.

Obstacles

One hurdle is that these heavy abstract nouns have been around so long and have become so familiar that they no longer mean very much. They fly in one ear and out the other. They fall to the ground like hunks of dead wood. Diversification. Thud. Innovation. Thud. Transformation. Clunk. Lip service is paid, brows are duly furrowed, and then we return to business as usual.

Another hurdle is that there is no clear definition of what these key words mean in our national context. Diversify what into what? Transform ourselves into who? What would a diversified economy and a transformed Trinidad and Tobago actually look like? There is as yet no common understanding, no shared vision, about what these words and ideas would involve if they were taken seriously: and no sense of what anyone should start doing about them.

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Plans and visions

It is not that explanations are lacking. The planosphere is swimming in plans, policies, briefs, visions and speeches. There is Vision 2030 above all, aka the Draft National Development Strategy 2016-2030, which is available online, though few people seem to know what is in it. There is an array of documents ranging from a National Innovation Strategy and Policy to a National Environment Policy. There is even a Green Government Policy.

The Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) that was set up after the 2015 election has produced a lot of material on these very issues. If the electorate is less than familiar with the intricacies of national transformation, it is not for lack of reading material.

But that painful fact points to another difficult hurdle. It is very hard to imagine a Trinidad and Tobago transformed in the way the official literature urges, with its people enthusiastically adopting a new mindset and a new culture. What is economically sane and sensible is sure to be politically toxic. One commentator (wisely claiming anonymity) told Contact: “What we all want is high living with low productivity.”

So there is the vision of transformation on one hand, while on the other is the way things actually work in Trinidad and Tobago. Real change would threaten and trample on a vast web of entrenched interactions, systems, and processes. So much is invested in the status quo, both political and commercial, that it is hard to believe there is any scope for genuine change.

Still, it must be done. The world is changing around us and is not waiting for Trinidad and Tobago to get its house in order. Even with a return to growth in 2018, even with a pickup in the energy sector, the end is in sight for fossil fuels; their terminal decline may well be only a couple of decades away. Dodging the issue now simply means kicking the can down the road for a new generation to pick up.

Private sector leadership

In the face of these challenges, the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce has an unavoidable role to play in providing inspirational leadership. Which is to say, it has to entice the business community to go the whole length of the road. It cannot leave leadership to the government alone.

The private sector will have to divest itself of business models and processes which no longer work to the national good. It will have to prioritise products and services which save or earn foreign exchange. It must innovate and diversify. It must develop a greater sense of global markets, and the external demand which Trinidad and Tobago can supply.

Even so, without partnership and mutual support from the government and labour, the road leads straight into the desert. Somehow, the visions of the three partners in transformation must find a way to mesh. To have them pulling in different directions in pursuit of separate goals is a recipe for national deadlock and stagnation.

All this is going to hurt. People are going to bawl. At every level of society, people will have to climb out of their comfort zones. We’ll need mutual support and encouragement to keep cheerful and optimistic. But we don’t really have a choice. There is too much work to do. We have been hanging around too long waiting for Godot to appear. We’ll be better off remembering the Calypso Monarch’s warning about what will happen “if change doesn’t start with you.”

 

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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