DUE to a fundamental misdiagnosis of the root problem, the traditional response is usually geared towards providing “universal” solutions to “all” citizens or of “making rain so that everyone could get wet equally”. The inevitable impact of such an approach is a widening disparity in economic and wealth distribution between the African diasporic group and other groups in the society. It should be obvious to all that the most likely winner of a 100-metre race (no pun intended) is the participant who gets the “jump start”. It is in these circumstances that the “false start” rule becomes operative and the race line-up is reset.
Before advancing solutions, however, we must disabuse our minds of the mistaken notion that there is any one remedy or a “silver bullet”, to this pervasive and complex issue. The notion that black people are lazy and cannot do business must be erased from our psyche. Our approach must be multi-faceted, and a number of intersecting variables must be analysed and taken into account.
We must also face the reality that this is a societal problem. The success stories that we may witness or hear about are, as I said before, the exceptions and not the norm. Given the nature of the issue and its impact on the broader society, it follows that we must be open to making fundamental and transformational changes instead of just tweaking things here and there, or dealing with symptoms instead of the core of the problem.
Society will be better off if it commits to ensuring that all its members have a fighting chance at success. If one lesson could be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
For starters, therefore, I wish to congratulate the Prime Minister on the bold step of appointing a committee, under the chairmanship of Mr Anthony Watkins (an individual for whom I have the utmost respect) to treat with some aspects of this issue. I would suggest, however, that the terms of reference of the committee be broadened with a view to providing holistic recommendations on the way forward. These should include, but not be limited to, examining key success factors that are ubiquitous in other groups and determining their applicability.
Many erudite dissertations have been written on this topic, from both a historical and socio-cultural perspective, which need to be reviewed in conjunction with recommendations advanced by the UN in their decade declaration. Different countries have established and enacted legislation and other measures to remedy similar ills in their societies. Mauritius, Malaysia and Singapore are three countries that come readily to mind. All of these can be taken into account and used to chart a roadmap towards a nation that truly enables its citizens of African descent to reach their fullest potential.
The laissez-faire approach to inequality, income distribution and racism in all its forms must be replaced by a more conscious and pragmatic one that properly addresses the crisis facing us.
The committee must restrain itself (tempting as it might be) from focusing on the symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem. Much has been said in recent times about attempts by certain political parties to buy votes for as little as $300, and about the susceptibility and willingness of certain groups in our society to join gangs for the purpose of disrupting the country.
As plausible as these claims might be, I see that susceptibility as an undesirable but inevitable by-product of the widening economic distribution disparity that exists in the country. If that problem is not immediately addressed, the situation will deteriorate. The figure next time around will fall to $100 per vote and gang recruitment will be even more effective.
The committee, in collaboration with the UN decade, must bring about meaningful change, which in my respectful view should include the establishment of permanent institutions to deal with the issues. It should also propose a legislative agenda to focus on reducing economic inequality and should make proposals of practical solutions to address the root cause of the issues at hand.
What is undesirable is the old approach of putting a few proverbial bandages on some of the sores and expecting the problem to disappear by black people simply “getting over” the legacy of slavery and colonialism. The problem being faced by Diaspora Africans around the world is real, and empirical data supporting the UN decade declaration supports that.
Remedying the situation requires an all-hands-on-deck approach—one which, if bought into by all the powers that be, can bring about momentous change. We have seen increased sensitivity to breast cancer and other cancers locally due to the good work of NGOs like the Cancer Society. We have seen small NGOs like the Heroes Foundation doing fantastic work with our young people on environmental issues. We have seen greater recognition of LGBTQ issues due to a focused approach by representative groups internationally, and we have seen a heightened sensitivity towards issues faced by women in society both locally and abroad. The problems with which Diaspora Africans grapple across the world have been with us for centuries. As we approach the sixth year of the UN designated decade, we must, as a world and as a country, address these problems head-on. If we do not, countries like ours, with an over-34-per cent Diaspora African population, will continue to under-perform at best, or implode at worst. So, what do we do?
Personally, I have decided to channel my finance and international experience on the African continent to promote and develop two institutions:
1. an NGO to facilitate the provision of financial and mentoring services, aimed at making capital markets more accessible to black entrepreneurs;
2. a permanent international organisation whose mandate is to address issues peculiar to the African Diaspora.
The former is meant to address the challenges, mentioned a few times in these articles, faced by black entrepreneurs when attempting to access the capital markets. This has manifested itself in the dwindling number of black people in business and entrepreneurship.
There is, therefore, the need for an NGO to provide professional advice to facilitate the growth and development of black businesses, which will include, but not be restricted to, the provision of access to financing and mentorship. This focus on black businesses is not because other businesses do not need help, nor is it indicative of any racial prejudice. The sobering and inescapable reality is that there is a problem in the black community. To alleviate it and its effects, we must all agree to give it focused attention.
It is, therefore, my intention to work with a group of ex-bankers and accountants to provide this advice at a reasonable break-even cost, thereby ensuring its availability to a wide cross-section of people. Will this service solve all the problems? Of course not. The solution to the problem of the lack of black involvement in business requires a multifaceted approach rather than one silver bullet.
In the case of the second initiative, there is a need for the creation of an Association of African Diaspora States (AADS), where African Diaspora countries are provided with a forum to address some of their common issues, perhaps using the Association of Caribbean States model as a template. With the establishment of such an institution, there is the further opportunity to facilitate the development and investment into the African continent, a region which has been internationally acknowledged as the next economic growth frontier due to its abundance of natural resources and it relatively young population.
The African union has already recognised the importance of the diaspora through its provision of a seat at the round table with the other five regions on the continent. The absence of a formal mechanism to appoint an appropriate representative to fill that seat has retarded the advancement of that initiative. I see the Caribbean as the obvious choice for the headquarters of this proposed international organisation and, along with other colleagues, I intend to work towards making that vision a reality.
My proposition to all going forward, therefore, is threefold:
1. We must all find a way within our sphere of influence to contribute to the success of the Prime Minister’s committee and the completion of its report (due after the election, but before the budget) via our active and meaningful involvement;
2. Join me in my NGO initiative or create one of your own. Let’s work together so that meaningful progress can be made in dealing with the economic disenfranchisement faced by people of African descent;
3. We must avoid labelling these necessary discussions (as uncomfortable as they might be) as “racist”. We cannot retreat to our ideological corners while conveniently throwing on our “Trinidad and Tobago” cloaks. To do so would be to “kick the pan down the road”, further delaying the steps which (as the recent riots have brutally shown us) are necessary and urgent in the context of the wider national interest. Far from being racist, to have these discussions, in the spirit in which they are intended, is to be truly nationalistic.
It is said that the true measure of a society is how it deals with its most vulnerable and dispossessed. Let us do what we must, as uncomfortable and inconvenient as it may seem, so that we can all, with a greater sense of meaning, sing the lines: “Here every creed and race find an equal place, and may God Bless Our Nation.”
Happy Emancipation Day, all!