Express Editorial : Daily

The recently-released Governance Report on The UWI is an indictment of the region’s premier educational institution on its failure to adapt to a changing world.

The team of experts led by Sir Dennis Byron who were tasked by Chancellor Robert Bermudez with reviewing The UWI’s operations discovered what has long been established—which is that The UWI is an archaic and unwieldy institution that is ill-equipped for the 21st century world of innovative teaching and learning, managerial accountability and operational transparency.

Like other institutions pre-dating political independence, its governance structure is colonial to the core, defined by the ethos of authority without responsibility. Far from being an anomaly, the conflicts of interest identified by the Byron committee are designed to protect entrenched institutional interests by limiting accountability and transparency.

We have noted the emergence of race and class talk around the Byron report but recognise it as an irrelevant distraction from the actual content of the report which deserves to be seriously considered on its merit or lack thereof. Anyone familiar with The UWI would know that its state of crisis is real and intractable and cannot be blamed on personal differences, however deep those may be.

We make these points to emphasise the scope of the challenge in transforming The UWI which would be underestimated at the peril of the future of tertiary education in the Caribbean.

The report’s recommendations for organisational restructuring, cleaner reporting lines and the elimination of bedevilling conflicts of interests make a lot of sense and are consistent with recommendations by previous review teams. However, as we know only too well, diagnosis and recommendations for change are much easier than actual implementation.

Given the wide-ranging and far-reaching nature of the report’s recommendations The UWI’s short horizon for implementation is worrying. Having engaged a cross-section of public interests in preparing the report, one would have expected The UWI to formally release it for public comment before progressing to the stage of implementation. While there have been some commentaries they hardly qualify as public input in a matter of such critical importance to the region’s people.

In sending the report to a committee of UWI Council to review and propose by April 30 which recommendations should be adopted and implemented cheats the process of valuable input from outside The UWI. It also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the crucial role of public opinion in determining the responses of the governments that help to finance The UWI.

As expected, the issue that has grabbed public attention is the report’s explosive recommendation that students’ fees as a percentage of the university’s income be doubled from 20 to 40 per cent across all campuses using a financing model similar to the much-criticised US student loan model. The pivotal role of education in the Caribbean requires that this discussion be far more broad-based and have greater ideological clarity than is evident in the report.

In recommending a steep increase in fees without effective and supportive financial instruments, the Byron report comes dangerously close to abandoning the ideal of educating Caribbean students out of generational poverty.

RECOMMENDED FOR YOU

The news that the highly transmissible Brazilian Covid-19 variant has been detected in this country adds new urgency to the need to raise our defences against this virus.

Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s declaration that this country must now have contingency plans for the event of volcanic ash blowing our way and wreaking havoc within our economy, both of the strictly commercial type as well as in our agriculture, is a reality that we have to face.

WE are in another lockdown because of the behaviour of some of our young people whose main focus is to enjoy life with no worry about tomorrow. 

Recent contributions in the press have joined the consistent commentary of Basdeo Panday on the irrelevance, unrepresentativeness and ineffectiveness of our present system of government. Their conclusions point to the urgent need for constitutional reform.

Reading Caribbean Airlines’s decision to continue its intention to purchase the Boeing jets it has on order had me stunned in amazement. My normal splenetic delivery was silenced for once. My weakly-beating heart almost stopped its puny efforts to maintain my existence on this green earth.

The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries.

The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries. It means that when the bank and other multinational agencies decide on the allocation of aid and development dollars, they’re given less access and fewer concessions.

Correctly so, you could argue. The poverty and deprivation I saw in rural Sierra Leone in West Africa were far worse than I’d seen elsewhere, including Haiti. Added to that, the country hadn’t recovered from a brutish civil war abetted by notorious Liberian warlord Charles Taylor—the kind that saw unspeakable atrocities, such as soldiers carving foetuses out of the bellies of pregnant women.

SVG, Haiti and Guyana are underdeveloped countries, but not as much as Sierra Leone. However, regardless of the facts on the ground or the numbers in the computer, the bank recognised that GNI per capita was an incomplete measure of a country’s development.

All countries are rich or poor to degrees that are macroeconomically measurable. But when climate change can wipe out some of them, GNI measures can’t capture that. Additionally, in the case of Caribbean countries, they’re set back decades by hurricanes, as Grenada was by Ivan in 2004 and Dominica by Maria in 2017.

A Caribbean or Pacific small island state can go from middling prosperity to poverty in the course of one natural disaster.

In a report titled “Small States: Vulnerability and Concessional Finance”, the World Bank acknowledged calls by countries in its Small States Forum (SSF) “to include vulnerability as a criterion for accessing concessional resources”.

It said that work needed to be done in defining a Vulnerability Index. That report was in 2018. And yet as I recall, the index was an issue at SIDS 1994—the United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development held in Barbados 24 years earlier.

“SIDS” means Small Island Developing States. That is a misnomer, since big states were represented. The sight of Fidel Castro walking into the room and instantly causing a rock star stampede won’t be forgotten.

The World Bank’s Vulnerability Index incorporates “small states” of the SSF, including Namibia and Botswana. Namibia is two-thousand times bigger than St Vincent, four times Guyana, and mineral rich. Their resilience to shocks is much stronger than SVG’s. Why are they even in the small states conversation? This definitional elasticity doesn’t seem helpful to the cause of SIDS.

From SIDS 1994, the UN crafted the Barbados Programme of Action. Top of the list were climate change, and natural and environmental disasters. It’s remarkable that the World Bank was still talking about defining a Vulnerability Index more than two decades later.

Climate change continues to be the main consideration, but the volcanic eruptions on St Vincent should reopen the conversation.

Most Caribbean volcanoes do not seem to be a present danger in the way that La Soufriere in St Vincent is. Mount Liamuiga in St Kitts, for example, is a great hike. When you reach the top, you can descend into the crater.

Nonetheless, The UWI Seismic’s website says that “there are 19 ‘live’ (likely to erupt again) volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean. Every island from Grenada to Saba is subject to the direct threat of volcanic eruptions”.

In St Vincent, overseas relief kicked in to ease water and other shortages. But short-term emergency measures are not enough.

Here’s the bind in which small Caribbean states find themselves. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) told them that no, they have to compete at market price to sell their bananas and sugar. No more preferential pricing that recognises their disadvantages on economies of scale.

WTO regulatory insensitivity effectively killed these industries. In many Caribbean SIDS, all their eggs are in one basket. If that isn’t acute vulnerability, I don’t know what is.

For Caribbean SIDS, we should have been at a place where development aid allocation matches a universally-agreed index; and we have strategic, joined-up planning/execution from the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and others.

Small states partially compensate by playing geopolitical games of influence. Getting money from China or Taiwan. Throwing in their lot with Japan on whaling, to the consternation of their own conservationists.

It’s not enough.

Last week I wrote about how Montserrat has done since the 1997 eruption. They are a British Overseas Territory, but the British-funded rebuild has been sluggish. In my two visits in 2007 and 2014, little changed. I was told in 2007 that a new airport would be built soon. To date, it hasn’t.

However Montserrat’s former premier Reuben Meade told me last week that “the Brits covered all of our expenses for the volcanic situation during and post eruption”.

“They continue to fund some 60 per cent of recurrent expenditure each year”.

Meade said the task of Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of SVG, will be hard.

“SVG will need to find a donor to fund the continuing evacuation expenses which will be very high. Their economy will be in freefall for quite some time. It’s going to be tough for them”.

For SVG, mother country largesse is not an option. They’re nearly broke. Even if La Soufriere stops erupting and the pandemic is eradicated tomorrow, they’ll need smarter, long-term development engagement by donor agencies. A true measure of their vulnerability would be a good start.