Stiglitz spoke for the voiceless


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Category: Reflections 06 Dec 09

To many people of this country, CHOGM Friday felt like a Sunday. Armed men on deserted streets reminded me of the 1990 coup attempt. Obama wasn’t coming, and being accustomed to heightened spectacle and the freshest lustre, nobody was particularly interested. The Commonwealth Meeting, our every-day people felt, was an elitist thing, made up of the Queen, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Ambassadors, VVIPs, VIPs VIP hangers-on, business people who coughed up US$500 to attend the forum, civil society and youth delegations, and security detail. There was a great deal of fuss in key government offices, and the offices of diplomats expecting their prime ministers.

A huge success

The heads of government meeting was announced a huge success. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s presence among others was considered a huge coup, but went without much mention, perhaps because of the absence of his wife Carla Bruni, of the blindingly high glamour quotient. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, unfortunately, did not make an impact on our people. Nobody I spoke to had the remotest idea of who said what. Neither did that of most world leaders, including who appeared as remote as they must when we watch them on CNN in their own countries. Prime Minister Patrick Manning kicked off the business forum on the cruise ship Serenade of the Seas, with a brilliant promotional speech, closing with great flair with “We are open for business” to the 800 or (mostly) men in suits.

His boast (surely in bad taste, given that so many of his guest countries were in a bad economic position), that while the world went through a global financial crisis, we in Trinidad were swimming in liquidity, was in stark contrast with the well-known champion of developing nations, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who delivered a stinging attack against the financial system in the US, which he said was “innovative in ways of figuring out how to exploit poor people” Mr Stiglitz was speaking for the voiceless, which was the whole point of this forum. Our Prime Minister, as CHOGM chairman, for the next two years, of a Commonwealth inhabited by two billion people, 80 per cent of the worlds poorest lost a spectacular opportunity to be the voice of the voiceless, globally, of vulnerable neighbours, of the people of this country.

Instead, he spoke glibly of further “development,” consisting of, among other development construction, that of an aluminium smelter. (This as climate change became the buzzword of CHOGM ‘09). It is our vulnerabilities that define our humanity. Mr Manning could have acknowledged that the poorest and least literate communities live in rural areas; undertaken to reverse the fact that Trinidad and Tobago is falling on the UN development index (many points below Barbados) for spending too little on its GDP on health and education, called for transparency as we rise on the corruption index in Transparency International (due to Udecott and similar “service” bodies under investigation). He could have commiserated with Jamaica, over our soaring murder rate (the second highest worldwide in a non-warring country); pledged to end gang violence, some linked to community leaders of government’s “make work” programmes. He could have acknowledged that yearly, thousands of teenagers emerge illiterate from the school system without any passes.

Bullets in their heads

What happens to some of them we know. They end up with bullets in their heads. Our Prime Minister, while being an impeccable host, lost an opportunity to be that voice on a global stage in his own drawing room, and perhaps his ministers need to take some of that flak for not appraising him properly. It was disappointing, too, when Mr Manning refused to take a leadership role on human rights abuses in Uganda and Gambia, saying they were internal matters and “need not detain us.” The People’s and Youth forums had decent turnouts, with some earnest faces who, unfortunately, looked like they had done this many times before to very little effect. 
The Australian Prime Minister honoured Brian Lara, who told me memorably, afterwards that “Australians have the ability to take something mediocre and turn it into talent, while Trinidad and Tobago takes talent and turns it into something mediocre.”

There was something very endearing about the Queen, who was probably the most experienced stateswoman there, having had half-a-century’s worth of meeting world leaders behind her. All this apart, my finest CHOGM moment came when sitting with a priest at the opening ceremony of the People’s Forum and the two of us, laughing till we cried at the appalling “acting” during the cultural programme. The first part that represented the African folk story of Anansi was unintelligible, even to those who were familiar with it, and evinced looks of bewilderment from the assembled visitors, especially the African delegation, who understood not a word. I really don’t know how a girl miming a gluttonous devouring of yam represents contemporary Trinidad. 

The hideous “Indian” part of the show provided welcome comic relief, where within a depiction of the Hindu epic of the Mahabharata, there were references to the evil swine flu. And the questions by bewildered Indian journalists over whether the dancers accompanying Drupatee were girls or women, underage or not, were just befuddling. I didn’t know the answers.

Similarly, at the opening ceremony, did a woman dressed like a prostitute in a cheap red dress wining with her back to the Queen and 51 heads of state really represent the Indian population of this country during the opening of CHOGM? The depiction of the Savannah was banal, and the sea world was good enough to entertain an impatient three-year-old for about five minutes; no more. It was all very congenial, and, thank God, nobody important got shot. But was it worth $235 million? No. 


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur