Friday, August 13, 2010

Let Freedom Rain?

"To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves."

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) British novelist and essayist.

This is a month bracketed by two contextually similar and aptly august occasions in the national calendar: Emancipation Day and Independence Day. These are celebrations based upon the concepts of freedom, self-determination and all the ideals, possibilities, and buoyancy attendant with such notions. We commendably celebrate these occasions with gusto: historic achievements which, even in the case of emancipation, were notably not marked by the bloodshed of our forebears. While assuredly, this is welcome to note, in another perspective some posit that these somewhat ‘free’ freedoms we acquired, point somehow to an ethos absent of profound appreciation and value for that which is among the most sacrosanct aspects and aspirations of humankind. Our celebrations of these events therefore, become construed by some, as mainly a reflection of our penchant to make celebration of any circumstance, great or small, and we, as a people, more blithe than indomitable.

Nonetheless, sandwiched between these momentous occasions, thus far this month, we have been beset by weather conditions and deluges therefrom, which seem determined to fulsomely chastise us, on the one hand, for our blitheness or to test our indomitability on the other. And although we have suffered through these weather conditions before with similar consequential carnage, like the fittingly named American 70s soul singer, Swamp Dogg (no relation to Snoop), our patience, with the perennial plague of flooding, judging from media reports, columnists, and commentators, seems to have finally grown thin. Indulging in the Dogg reference a bit further, there is also the debate of how much the cause of the flooding is of our own making. Is this then, some ‘synthetic world’ of flood and folly that we have helped wrought upon ourselves through littering, wanton quarrying and deforestation of our hillsides, and the construction of office buildings, shopping malls, and homes apace, in the pursuit profits and votes, without much concern for the environment or making commensurate adjustments to the drainage infrastructure? The common-sense concept which we all intuitively know, yet ironically fail to heed, is that that the more we increase the impervious coverage of the earth, the greater, faster, and more intense rainwater runoff will be.

Freedom, as we all know, is also about responsibility. Truly, nature, inclusive of some of our low-lying topography is a definitive contributor to our present predicament, but we must also acknowledge our own actions and, as well, inactions, as contributing to our diluvian troubles and do all that is necessary to minimise and abate our flooding problems.

Colm Imbert, the previous Works and Transport Minister, raised the prospect of collection or detention basins as one solution to the flooding problem, albeit describing constructing and allocating them as expensive and time-consuming. But given these attributes, wasn’t it perhaps best we had examined and implemented this idea sooner rather than later, given all the costs in reparation that have to be undertaken now, and particularly when prices for anything in this in the country, once proceeding on an upward trend, hardly seem to go down again? And why wait too, when this is a perennial problem that has been spreading to areas that previously suffered no flooding as the impervious coverage of the country increases?

In fact, the use of collection, detention basins or holding ponds, is one of the older and well-known methods of what is more widely referred to as SUDS -sustainable urban drainage systems- that have been employed in cities in the UK, US, Canada, and other countries. Apart from collection basins, SUDS also includes use of pervious or permeable-materialed sidewalks, and permeable asphalt roads and parking lots to reduce the volume (thus intensity) and pollution of storm water runoff. SUDS are beneficial in that they aim to reduce runoff and preserve the natural water or hydrological cycle (precipitation, absorption, and evaporation etc.). Changes in the hydrological cycle can have significant impact on the availability and quality of drinking water as well as impact on wildlife.

Of course, a major cited problem for our recurrent flooding woes is littering. The current administration started off with a Clean and Beautify T&T Day, held just over a month after being elected to office, much the same as the NAR (National Alliance for Reconstruction) administration did under Prime Minister Robinson, back in 1986. Similar to 1986 as well, this recent initiative was also a success, attracting widespread popular support. The administration however, perhaps in partnership with corporations and non-profits, must keep up the focus on maintaining a clean environment as a never-ending as opposed to a typical local nine-day wonder, if we are to seriously address preserving our environment and living conditions.

With respect to recycling, laudably, there are several government and private initiatives in operation, although these are limited by collection material, areal scope or both. Some companies engaged in such activity include Republic Bank (Make a Valuable Deposit), Carib Glassworks Limited (CGL) and Plastikeep. The WeCan Waste/Recycling & Urban Enhancement Initiative (think of those large rectangular stainless steel waste-bins on the sidewalks in Port of Spain) launched by the Port of Spain City Corporation in 2007 for a cleaner nation’s capital, from all appearances, seems to have had some success. The initiative has also spread to Arima, Chaguanas, Point Fortin, San Fernando and Tobago (see Guardian story). As of yet though, there is no fully comprehensive household recycling collection service in the country. This ideally is where we need to get to.

Trinidad and Tobago is a place of free and fun-loving people. David Rudder reminds us in his Ganges Meets the Nile, that we are ‘one lovely nation under a groove,” but the recent floodings have put many a sorry song into the hearts of many of our fellow citizens across this land. We are thankful to all those individuals, nonprofits, and corporations who have freely given of themselves in helping those who have suffered loss. But lest we forget, the wet season is still far from over: let us all do what we can to lessen the flooding and lighten the hearts of those whose lives the waters may leave stranded.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lead Her Ship

"A woman is like a tea bag- you never know
how strong she is until she gets in hot water."

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

It’s arguably certain that many don’t firstly think of Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar as a woman Prime Minister but simply as the Prime Minister: a person who is now leader of our country. Admittedly, it has now become more difficult at times to discuss successes in the context of such traits as race, gender, and religion, given the opportunities and successes that have become more commonplace among greater levels of diversity (note: typically, socio-economic status gets a pass, whereas, sexual orientation, once it begs the question, still has some ways to go in terms of acceptance in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean). But in terms of, particularly, political leadership, despite successes, women ascending to the highest political office is still enough of a rarity that compels attention.

Within the Caribbean, Mrs. Persad-Bissessar has only two such predecessors: Dame Eugenia Charles, Prime Minister of Dominica from 1980-1995 and Portia Simpson-Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica from 2006 -2007. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s, ascendancy to office now makes her eligible for membership to the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL) an international network of current and former women prime ministers and presidents, whose mission is “to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women.” There are now roughly two dozen women heads of State and government across the globe.

Similar to CWWL, within the region there is CIWiL (Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership) whose participating member countries are: Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Kitts & Nevis, and Saint Lucia. CIWiL’S mission, in part, aims to “advance women’s transformational leadership and increase the number of women in politics, leadership and decision-making at all levels in the Caribbean.” Locally, we have the well-established Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, which, according to their Web site, consists of a network of 102 civil society organisations, making them the largest “umbrella organisation” in the country.

So does gender in leadership matter? Should we care whether or not women are in leadership roles? Does this issue matter at all with respect to growth and development? The essence of such questions was the theme of a speech “Women and Leadership: The Missed Development Goal,” delivered in October 2007 at the Ministry of Community Development and, Culture and Gender Affairs’ Distinguished Lecture Series (notably, about a week prior to this event the then UNCA- United National Congress Alliance - held its election rally where it was reported that the current Prime Minister received the loudest applause among a slate of candidates presented, with her as the only woman).

In the speech, delivered by UNDP (United Nations Development Program) Gender Team Director, Winnie Byanyima, one of her first and fundamental points was that equality of politics is a human right (this of course relates to Article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which explicitly codifies this right), and that the UNDP’s focus for promoting increasing women’s political participation was to help ensure attention to women’s issues and thus potentially reduce gender inequality gaps. This too is all tangential to the United Nations’ CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory. Another reason for women’s political participation offered by Byanyima, was that their participation has a positive impact on governance. She alluded to three studies which showed a positive correlation between women’s participation in public life and reductions in levels of corruption. Ms. Byanyima also went on to present other arguments for women’s leaderships roles in the private sector as well.

In the United States, a Pew Research Center report, A Paradox in Public Attitudes: Men or Women: Who’s the Better Leader?: a survey sample of 2250 telephone interviews, published in August 2008, it was found that while respondents rated women superior to men in traits such as honesty, intelligence and “a handful of other character traits they value highly in leaders,” only a meager 6 percent related that women make better political leaders than men. However, 69 percent said that men and women equally make good political leaders.

But notably in the survey, for job performance skills, women got “higher marks than men in all of the measures tested: standing up for one’s principles in the face of political pressure; being able to work out compromises; keeping government honest; and representing the interests of "people like you."

The survey also focused on four traits typically viewed as negative with regard to leadership: women (85%) were the more emotional than men (5%) and women (52%) were more manipulative than men (26%). On the other two traits, men were deemed more arrogant (70%) and stubborn (46%) than women.

Relative to the world of business, the Harvard Business Review in its Women CEOs: Why So Few? published December 2009, it points out that for the article, while “we studied the leadership of 2,000 of the world’s top performing companies, we found only 29 (1.5%) of those CEOs were women.”

With the recent global onset of the global financial crisis, with many still scratching their heads trying to find the reason why so many ‘smart’ financial experts helped take the world so close financial oblivion, some researchers have been looking towards a gender influence as well. John Coates, a former Wall Street trader turned researcher now at Cambridge University, believes that testosterone lies at the root of the irrational exuberance that leads to bubble markets (note: "irrational exuberance" is a term credited to Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank and is also the title of Yale University professor Robert Shiller’s book, first published in 2000 after the bubble. A second edition was published in 2005, where Shiller essentially warned of the current economic crisis). Coates conceptualized and developed his theory from observing the excited behavior of his fellow male traders on the market floor. His findings, for some, seem to beg the question “Would women make for more level-headed traders?”

In light of this too, we may also wonder whether with more women political leaders if we would have a more peaceful world. This has long been an argument put forward by many. Fukuyama, the noted American academic, in his "Women and the Evolution of World Politics," published in the Sept/Oct issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in 1998, writing off of anecdotal evidence from researchers on chimpanzee behaviour, notes that the researchers essentially observed murders between different chimpanzee groups. Fukuyama notes that intra-species violence in the animal kingdom is a rare occurrence, limited to infanticide to be rid of a rival’s offspring. Only chimps and humans, according to Fukuyama, seem to have an inclination for murdering their peers. Among chimps’ social interactions, he reminds us that like humans, chimps cajole, plead and bribe in building their social connections with the males being the primary actors of violence. However, Fukuyama acknowledges that:

“Female chimpanzees can be as violent and cruel as the males at times; females compete with one another in hierarchies and form coalitions to do so. But the most murderous violence is the province of males, and the nature of female alliances is different.”

Moving away from the primate comparison Fukuyama also notes that “In every known culture, and from what we know of virtually all historical time periods, the vast majority of crimes, particularly violent crimes, are committed by men.”

Fukuyama’s article did generate some criticism from several writers also within Foreign Affairs magazine (Jan/Feb 1999) some months later. ("Fukuyama's Follies: So what if women Ruled the World?").

One critic writes “Whatever our genetic and prehistoric cultural legacies, women in the past two centuries have more than adequately demonstrated a capacity for collective violence. They have played a leading role in nonmilitary violence such as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bread riots and revolutionary uprisings, in which they were often reputed to be "foremost in violence and ferocity.”"

Another Fukuyama critic states:

“He [Fukuyama] argues that men are more violent than women. Someday he may provide actual evidence that this is a biological rather than social tendency. But even if women are innately less violent, they are plenty violent enough to call into question Fukuyama's claim that more female political power would mean more peace.”

Another notable criticism presented is that while women primarily may not be the actual doers of violent acts, does not rule them out as instigators, supporters or enablers of such acts.

Violent crime, with such including violence against women, certainly has become a central issue for us in Trinidad and Tobago. And if the participation of more women in public life can help to abate it, surely even the most chauvinistic males among us might be in agreement.

In Trinidad and Tobago, as elsewhere, women have made enormous strides in closing the gender gap: Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s achievement represents a significant mark in such progress. According to the last available census reports, women constitute roughly half of the population. Maybe this is a sign for us men and women, boys and girls, to be equally committed in the progress of our country.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The People's Partnership the People's Choice

Congratulations to our new and first woman Prime Minister, Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, and hearty congratulations also to the people of Trinidad and Tobago, our Elections & Boundaries Commission, the media, and to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service for a smooth and civil transition of government. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s and the People’s Partnership’s 29-12 victory over Mr. Manning and the PNM (People’s National Movement) is readily reminiscent of the 33-3 victory of the NAR (National Alliance for Reconstruction) over the PNM back in 1986. Then, such was all the more significant given the PNM’s holding of the political reins of power since 1956. However, back in 1986, despite the NAR’s tremendous victory, the Trinidad and Tobago economy had been undergoing a recession since 1982. The NAR, under Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson, had taken the difficult and seemingly inevitable choice to seek IMF (International Monetary Fund) assistance which, in 1988, then imposed severe economic restrictions upon the country which precipitated a groundswell of unpopularity against Mr. Robinson and his administration. With the backdrop of this unpopularity, the militaristic Islamic group, the Jamaat Al Muslimeen, led by Yasin Abu Bakr, sought to overthrow the Robinson administration in the 1990 coup attempt: an event during which Mr. Robinson sustained a gunshot wound to his leg and where he and some of his cabinet members were held hostage for six days. The PNM returned to electoral victory in 1991.

At present, the economic situation in Trinidad and Tobago is thankfully not close to what it was in the 1980s. However, now there is sufficient economic turmoil in the more advanced economies of the United States and Western Europe to warrant concerns of contagion for the developing world. Similar to the NAR post-victory atmosphere in 1986, there seems now to be a widespread sentiment of hope and promise for the country and the new administration. It is not hard to imagine however, that should there be an economic turn for the worse, how drastically such sentiments might change. Change, it should be noted, was the campaign theme of the People’s Partnership, for which the party was accused by some of trying to don Obama-esque raiments. And Mr. Obama’s lustre, given primarily that, thus far, there has not been a bolstering of the beleaguered U.S. job market, has naturally suffered. So the political lessons from at home and abroad are all there for the People’s Partnership to take note.

Nonetheless, for the political change, as has been a theme on this blog, there still remains much onus upon the people of Trinidad and Tobago to put forward their best efforts to help the country move forward. Electoral change is only but one and relatively infrequent aspect of democracy. The real work comes in the everyday constancy of people-participation for genuine concern for the overall development of the country. Within the engine of the free market system in which we operate, is Adam Smith’s identified root of self-interest which acts as the system’s igniter and fuel. Many however, sometimes take the notion of self-interest too much to heart where they forget or choose to ignore that Smith’s view of self-interest was predicated upon two aspects of the concept: one individual, the other collective, where each complemented the other. Of self-interest Smith states in 'The Wealth of Nations (Note: this is the commonly used title. The formal title is An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations):

"But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. "

Essentially, to somewhat paraphrase Smith, while we all look out for own interests we would do well to realise that each of our interests are wrapped up the interests of others in the society. The U.S. economic meltdown under which Mr. Obama’ s popularity is being tested, had its roots in truly rapacious and narrowly focused self-interest run amok, within an environment of little market oversight or enforcement. While he was elected with a great expectancy of change and a leveling of the playing field, such has been not easy to come by, particularly with well-moneyed interests and political gamesmanship seeking to stymie and water-down stricter market reform initiatives at every turn. As such, there are many who having voted for Mr. Obama’s ‘change,’ now feel that their voices, efforts, and ideals are still being stifled and supplanted by those with the power of the purse over their congressional representatives: many still see the continuance of a system where the self-interests of political elites and corporate elites act in concert at the expense of and indifference to the interests of the wider population.

Similar and other hindrances to desired and needed changes in light of the new direction in which the Trinidad and Tobago population now seems eager to pursue, are what the Persad-Bissessar administration and the population at large will have to remain alert to as well. The populace however, must be realistic and also know that in any economy, of sometimes competing interests, trade-offs between one decision and another are inevitable: and while politicians seem to relish as being all things to all people when on the campaign trail, once in office the realities of restrictions and political and other accommodations rear their heads.

So let us enter as we must, into any new life-chapter, with a positive attitude and attendant action to accompany our progress. But let there be no delusions that our fate lies solely or primarily with our elected officials within whom we have placed our trust: our fate, is also very much, of the stuff of actions of us all.