Dr. Terrence Farre & Activist Muhammad Muwakil on Demming Chronicles

Demming Chronicles chats with Dr. Terrence Farrell about the the concerns expressed about foreign exchange shortages in T&T and the fact that the Central Bank has over the past 6 years been injecting foreign exchange into the market. The conversation also took account of the black market, the Heritage and Stabilization Fund, the reserves and the possible concerns of foreign investors. Three takeaways from the conversation are that the country must adjust to suit the reduced income flows; the economy must be diversified away from the energy sector; and that the country needs deep transformation of key institutions including the transformation of our culture and attitudes.

At 17 minutes, the conversation moved from economics to the cultural sector and a chat with Activist Muhammad Muwakil. He commented on the need to insert creatives and artists into every project being considered for development in order to design welcoming, functional spaces. In contemplating what is need for performers to thrive, Muhammad commented on the need for more medium and small performance spaces which cater for the artists who have outgrown the 50 person performance space but are not ready for the 400 person spaces. He ends on the note that if the artists are vibrant then the imagination the country will be vibrant so we need to set the artist’s imagination on fire or all will be lost.

The Covid-19 opportunity: how leaders can collaborate to develop T&T

Originally published in Wired868 Wednesday 24 March 2021

The opportunity provided by Covid-19 is transformational, but only if we remove the blinders of racial politics and the winner-take-all approach to developing our country, then engage a collaborative approach.

Before March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the pause button on much of our activity, our systems were broken, and the society was in a negative freefall. Three examples come to mind: the continuous worsening of our debt to GDP ratio, the decreasing placement of our country on both the ease of doing business index and the corruption perception index, and the negative crime statistics and situations citizens navigate daily. We needed deep systemic change then, and it is even morecritical now.

Photo: The famous Debe doubles stretch is closed for business during the Covid-19 pandemic.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

Our social systems are informed by the philosophy of giving a person a fish rather than teaching a person to fish. Hence our focus is on transfers and subsidies, which has only resulted in deepening the dependency syndrome.

To continue the fish metaphor, what is needed today is to revolutionise the entire fishing industry so the players understand that current behaviour like overfishing will ultimately destroy the entire ecosystem. The message must be communicated to the elusive ‘man in the street’ that he/she has a critical role to play in ensuring sustainability.

In addition to the hundreds of persons who rely on transfers and subsidies, several businesses would have to close their doors were it not for the government contracts that they enjoy. This business model is unsustainable. Development and transformation cannot occur on the basis of patronage.

If I could impact the Covid recovery strategy, I would focus on specifically creating a plan to focus on eliminating learning poverty for all children and deepening digitalisation across all sectors of the economy. I would ensure that on any committee or task force to do this, qualified women made up 50% of the group. It goes without saying that the men in the group should be qualified as well.

Our conversation is still dominated by the number of devices to be made available to children when we should be focusing on transforming all our schools to the status of prestige schools. After 60-plus years of various versions of our Ministry of Education, our general underperformance is a clear signal that deep systemic transformation is required to improve the outputs.

Image: Laptops (by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash)

We have to move away from talking about digital transformation and actually do it. I recently spent a total of three hours making a payment at the Ministry of Legal Affairs. Some of the process is online, but I still had to go into the ministry to make a payment that could have been done online.

The data from other countries, according to UN Women, suggest that only 13% of the Covid-19 fiscal, social protection and labour market measures target women’s economic security. I suspect that this statistic may be even lower for Trinidad and Tobago. Gender equality in decision-making helps the right decisions to be made in the interest of both women and children.

Countries with gender equality experience increased GDP and reduced family violence. There is an additional long-term beneficial impact for men sharing the formal decision-making table with women and a huge demonstrable impact on other men who see different genders collaborating.

Covid-19 is an opportunity to transform our economy, but it requires a strategy to engage women, a collaborative spirit to engage a diverse range of persons representing various interest groups and the humility to understand that it cannot be done alone.

Just as Covid safety requires global cooperation, surviving this pandemic locally also requires a new, different and intense form of cooperation and collaboration. My question remains: are our leaders mature, humble and brave enough to collaborate?

Marla Dukharan & Rubadiri Victor are our guests on Demming Chronicles

Marla suggests that after 6 years of borrowing to pay interest on loans the government of Trinidad and Tobago needs to engage a stringent debt management exercise; reimplement the foreign exchange auction mechanism which would allow for some slow and steady, manageable depreciation of the TT dollar relative to the U S dollar and reduce transfers and subsidies and the wage bill. In the absence of these and similar measures, she suggests that the country is heading for a balance of crisis.

Cultural advocate Rubadiri Victor comments that a 2016 Unesco report identified the global creative sector as an annual $2.2 trillion dollar industry and that Trinidad and Tobago has the potential to generate substantial income if the enabling environment is carefully curated. His advice to younger creatives is to understand our history and build their craft carefully and intentionally. In his words: “creatives have to apprentice, you align your brain, your head, your hand, to the geniuses of that craft locally”. He makes a plea for government to invest in the national trust and substantially increase their TT$ 1 million allocation to the film sector.

Collaboration, spirituality and humility are key themes in this interview.

We chat with Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie (Former Minister of Planning and Principal, UWI) and artist/creative/entrepreneur Mr. Fitzroy Hoyte.

Dr. Tewarie reflects on a question from Dr. Peter Senge: “How does leadership tap into spirit and energy?” This question has challenged his thinking over many years and highlighted to him the importance of collaboration, cooperation and measurement and evaluation in delivering on our country’s goals and objectives.

He concludes that leadership is the secret sauce to our development and opines that a collaborative approach is possible but it will require a Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition with the disposition and willingness to experiment with the philosophy of collaboration. If such an experiment is engaged by any leadership it will result in behaviour change in the followership and be a game changer the country needs.

Fitzroy Hoyte – artist and visionary behind the gallery ThinkArtTT shares his story that art chose him and that his work is a visual reflection of our society. He comments that art needs more spaces and in particular a modern museum which can curate our journey as a people and maybe help us to understand our history. He lamented that our Art is centred around carnival and the performing arts and it should be expanded to capture other genres. His future vision in a post pandemic era is for all entry points into our country to reflect us as a people.

To the aspiring arts the key characteristics should be humility and a spirit of collaboration.

The real-life drama between trade unions and the government

Originally published on Wired868, March 12, 2021

We ‘love up’ on Tuesday night and on Wednesday, you tell the world that you are no longer in a relationship with me. That is a description of the real-life drama that unfolded as the leaders of the trade union federations exited the National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC).

It is reminiscent of those women who cleared out their marital home while their partners were at work, and the partner returned to find an empty space with their clothes on the bedroom floor. Most times the women cite disrespect, abuse and neglect as the reasons for their departure. It is almost the same reasons given by the national trade union movement for why they left the NTAC organisation.

Photo: Minister of Labour Stephen Mc Clashie (via new.gov.tt)

The hapless husband, in this case, the newly minted minister of labour, Stephen Mc Clashie, admitted that barely 24 hours before, he had chaired a meeting and discussed how to foster stronger relationships between the government, labour and business, so he was surprised by this move.

In the lead up to the 2015 general elections, the Ambassador Hotel was often the venue for joint talks with the now prime minister and the leaders of the trade union movement, so it was no surprise that NTAC was established to ensure a unity of purpose between the government, business sector and labour.

At that time there was a clear vision that national development required dialogue and agreement by these strange bedfellows. By 2020, disgruntlement had set in, and the former senator/minister of labour slid out of office, unlikely to return.

The 60-month existence of NTAC has been brutal for workers, with no legislation being brought before parliament and thousands of workers being retrenched, laid off or having their contracts terminated. The biggest insult to the trade unions was when the former chairman of Petrotrin agitatedly responded to a question about the number of persons who would be retrenched from Petrotrin by saying: ‘All … Alll … Allllll.’

Labour’s insecurity has been intensified by the ongoing pandemic, which provides the government with an excellent excuse, and maybe an opportunity, to once and for all annihilate the trade unions.

Photo: The Joint Trade Union Movement protests against Section 34 during the People’s Partnership Government’s administration.

Let me caution, that the same 10 or 20 thousand workers who were mobilised with the help of the trade unions to march with the current prime minister against the People’s Partnership government can again be mobilised to take action against his People’s National Movement government.

To add to the misery of the minister of labour, the minister of planning and development also indicated her surprise by labour’s walk away. ‘Houston … we have a problem’ can be changed to ‘Houston … we have an opportunity’, but it will require humility, respect, care and collaboration.

For the sake of the country’s development, I hope that the unions will soften and facilitate the reconciliation of the relationship. Sometimes strong action is needed to communicate a point, but often, empathy, understanding and a spirit of collaboration can ensure a resolution.

Demming Chronicles chats with Peter Ghany (Esau Oilfields Supplies) and Hans De Vignes (Television Personality/Radio Presenter/DJ

Peter Ghany is a second generation leader of Esau Oilfields Supplies which was founded by his parents in 1976.  Esau as they are popularly known leads the field as a service provider to the energy sector.  Having experienced 3 major downturns in the energy sector, Peter joins the conversation with an optimistic message that businesses must re-create, re-invent and re-innovate in order to survive. 

Building on their successful track record of involvement in every major oil and gas project in Trinidad and Tobago over the past 45 years, Esau has pivoted to become a full service asset management provider with their Dubai based company OES Asset Integrity Management Company.

Peter is confident that our country will pivot to providing cleaner energy sources and comments that it is critical that we revise our cost of power. (The global average is 0.138 U.S. Dollar per kWh compared to US$ 0.053 per kWh in Trinidad and Tobago).

Hans Aaron des Vignes is a television personality/broadcaster/DJ who sees the media as an institution which tells and shows us who we are as a people.  He strongly advocates for 50% local content being played on the media but laments the minimal support of advertisers whose products and services are part of the ecosystem.

He identified that one of the major challenges of the creative sector is the practice of nepotism which results in the bypassing of genuine creatives gaining exposure.  While he sees the media as a reflection of society, he is keen on the establishment of a Radio Practitioners Licence as a way of establishing standards of operating.

A discussion about Transportation and Creativity

Enjoy this discussion about public transportation in Trinidad and Tobago with Transportation Specialist, Dr. Rae Furlonge. He noted that our inadequate transportation system negatively impacts women and children. Reflecting on the past he pointed out that Trinidad and Tobago’s only national transportation plan dates back to 1967 and that there is an urgent need to develop plans and policies which would regulate the nation’s transportation systems. In 1996, the government articulated a policy of cheap cars for the common man and this has fuelled the high level of road congestion being currently experienced. In looking at the future, Dr. Furlonge suggested we should intensify the work at home strategy which covid-19 has forced on us and maximize non motorized travel in our city centres. He also noted that government must become the regulators of public transportation. The discussion continued with Myron Bruce (Myron B) who commented on the current creative ecosystem where “creative hustlers”, hobbyists and professionals all function. In the same way that doctors, lawyers and traditional professionals need to grow their businesses, Myron observed that the most important task is for creatives to grow their audiences. He commented that self respect is needed before creatives could demand respect from other professionals. In the absence of a blueprint which young creatives could use Myron shaped his own journey and has been successful as a content producer. Looking to the future, Myron is convinced that digital education is necessary to transform our ecosystem to one which allows our creatives to thrive.

T&T must free collective imagination beyond ‘lower-level basic needs’

Originally published on wired868 Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Crime and the lack of personal security have featured in calypso through the years.  For example Caruso’s ‘Gun Slingers’ (1959) celebrates ‘beating them [criminals] with the cat’ while Sparrow’s ‘Royal Jail’ (1961) is about revenge as captured in the line ‘licks for them criminals’.

If calypso is the people’s commentator, the quality has evolved as has the nature of our problems. Unfortunately, the recurrent themes of crime and personal security are still present in today’s media headlines with the following added: water scarcity, a poor economy, rising food prices and inadequate transportation. 

Photo: Sparrow (right) looks to be in trouble in a memorable Guardian Life ad, inspired by his hit calypso ‘Ten to One is Murder’.

It’s almost as if nothing has changed in decades regarding these important facets of life. Interestingly these facets are almost exactly listed as the those described in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

His theory is that for us to thrive our basic needs must be met and having satisfied them we are able to set goals and move on to other higher level needs and ultimately to self actualisation. Our continued focus on these lower-level basic needs prevents us individually and as a collective from striving to look upwards or outwards.

The mother who is struggling to make ends meet is focused on the next dollar and unable to be her best self and sometimes not even able to think beyond the next hour. The small business person is worried about which predator is waiting as he opens his business and there are several other scenarios outlining our focus on our basic needs.

As a collective, the more we focus on safety, security, our poor economic outlook and all the negatives of our society, the less time and energy we direct towards our growth needs.  

In our separate corners, some try to look away from these deficiency needs and look towards growth but it is difficult in this chaotic and uninspiring environment; and more importantly, we feel that nobody is listening or cares.

Image: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Think of how our collective imagination would work if we did not have to worry about a possible home invasion, whether there will be water when the tap is turned on or what the traffic will be like as we traverse the streets and highways.  

Once we are able to free ourselves from focusing on these basic things, we’ll have the mind space to be more productive and imaginative. The trouble is that these small things are not simple, they are the little things which make a big difference to our quality of life. They are also the issues which require collaborative efforts to solve; and that concept of collaboration is extremely challenging for us.

The seismic event of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic should have brought home the reality that, as island people, we need to develop the systems and structures to ensure our collective survival.  

It should have brought to the forefront conversations about sustainability, climate change and our psychological health. We should be having conversations about how to collaborate to thrive; how we should share our scarce resources for our collective benefit.  

We should be having conversations which take us to another level of existence and thinking.  

Photo: A resident speaks during a town meeting in Arima.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

Maybe it is happening on small scales in individual bubbles, but if the space is to change we need big conversations about our future and how we plan to get there.  

I am reminded of the African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’  

It is now urgent that Trinidad and Tobago focuses on going far and therefore going together.