By Raffique Shah
November 07, 2010
ONCE more Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has triggered Caribbean hostility towards Trinidad and Tobago by another ill-timed, inappropriate statement. Coming a few months after her “Trinidad is not Caricom’s ATM” gaffe, one wonders who is advising the PM on the nuances of good diplomacy.
Maybe Kamla needs someone like Reginald Dumas to lead her support team. Most heads of governments today have such “backroom advisers” to help them craft speeches, prepare them to face tough questioning from the international media, and to advise on how to approach delicate issues like relations with one’s neighbours and friends.
I should declare my mala fides on Caricom before I write why I think what the PM said was wrong. First, I have long held that many of our brethren in the region have used, abused and kicked T&T in the face. I do not have the raw data before me, but I am certain we contribute most to the regional body’s coffers. Yet, beneficiaries of our generosity have bitten us where it hurts most.
Starting with the TT-US dollar exchange rate, Barbados (B$2 = US$1) and most Eastern Caribbean countries (EC$3 = US$1) scoff at our $6.3-to-$1 currency. Those who understand nothing about the real value of money, of how exchange rates are determined, see the TT dollar as being one of the weakest currencies in the Caribbean. Indeed, the islanders will sooner accept a Japanese Yen (Y80 = US$1) than the TT dollar.
In many instances, the uninformed in these small-island-states believe their standards of living are vastly superior to ours. Indeed, many of our own people sing praises to these countries, contrasting them with their own. Except for the wealthy and well off, I dare any ordinary Trini to move house and, after one year, tell me he has found paradise.
Nothing I have written about our neighbours’ attitudes towards us justifies any among us rubbing our resources-generated wealth in their faces when our PM, or any senior public official, says or does something that comes across as insulting to our neighbours.
PM Kamla linking aid to hurricane-stricken Caribbean countries with benefits to the donor was in poor taste. When she spoke, the islands were still under severe stress, still trying to add up their losses, counting flattened houses and fallen trees, trying to cope with floods, slush and damaged infrastructure.
In such circumstances, the PM, or any other government spokesperson, needed to show sympathy, to appear to be generous. Yes, our economy is not exactly booming. Yes, we have been bitten before, as I mentioned earlier. But with Tomas still weaving its destructive path across the Caribbean, the PM should have said that T&T was standing by to render whatever assistance we could to our neighbours in distress.
I need add, however, that PM Kamla is right to require recipient countries to use most of what we donate to them to purchase essential goods and services from T&T. We would be fools to fork out millions of our dwindling dollars and give them to neighbours who would rush off to buy reconstruction materials or goods and services from the UK or Japan or China.
This country can easily supply all the steel, building blocks, roofing, paints, road-building material, etc., that the recipient countries need. We also have a pool of good, experienced technical and highly skilled labour to execute reconstruction works. I should add that whatever similar skills the islands have should be utilised, and certainly, their labour should find employment in the works to be undertaken. In today’s world, aid must be mutually beneficial.
For those who cry foul at this notion, let me point them to Haiti—poor Haiti, where those buggers must be experiencing a battering even as I write (Friday morning). Think of the billions of dollars wealthy nations of the world pledged to that country after the devastating earthquake. Where did the money go? Are we seeing roads rebuilt, rubble cleared, or house construction on a fast track? Haitian earthquake victims still live in tents.
As a country that gave generously, we are entitled to ask why. The answer is easy. The US and its various agencies have all but occupied Haiti. And much the way they dragged their feet in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina, they are repeating their no-action approach in Haiti.
More important, and relevant, in this instance, is that almost everything thus far used in the limited reconstruction that has taken place has come from the US.
Have they asked T&T, which, I believe, contributed US$1 million, to sell them cement or blocks or furniture? No. Have they offered our contractors, our road builders, work? So when we give money to victims of natural disasters, we can morally seek to reap some benefits from what we donate. There is nothing wrong with that.
What PM Kamla ought not to have done was offer aid with strings in a public statement. You quietly tell St Vincent, St Lucia, Barbados, and maybe Haiti (again!), look, tell us how much construction material you need, we see what we have, and that will form part of the aid package. We can supply manufactured goods—let us know what your requirements are.
This is the classic case of “it’s not what you say, but how you say it”. Or how you do something that will be mutually beneficial even as you help your neighbours in distress.