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THE BANALITY OF EXCELLENCE

Published: 
Wednesday, May 17, 2017

I’ve been the general communications dogsbody for the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence for some years now, and if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I might not have believed it. It’s a purely philanthropic initiative, started by the late Dr Anthony N Sabga in 2005 and funded entirely by the ANSA McAL Foundation. It awards substantial prizes in arts, sciences, public works and entrepreneurship.

Given the high proclivity for cynicism in regional populations, initial reactions at initiatives like this are often skeptical. But having been around the organisation for more than half its life, I’ve been lucky enough to meet many of the laureates and despite myself, I’ve been impressed. These folks are the real thing: Patrick Hosein, a pioneer of Internet and cell-phone technology; the late Dave Chadee, the insect man; Kwamé Ryan, a conductor with a thriving career in Europe, who returned to develop musical talent locally.

Just knowing we have this talent wandering around is surprising in itself. And you might wonder why more hasn’t come of these people. There’s a reason: more than one laureate has confided in private of the frustrations they face from politicians and academic institutions. The late Dave Chadee told a story of being invited by a government official to meet with a foreign consultant. At one point, the consultant pointed to Chadee and told the meeting: “Why ask me? That’s the man who wrote everything I’m telling you.”

It just sounds better in a foreign accent, I guess.

This year’s awards ceremony was in Guyana, last Saturday. It was addressed by a previous laureate, from 2010, Sydney Allicock, a member of the Makushi nation of Guyana. He was an environmentalist, indigenous peoples’ rights activist, and sustainable tourism entrepreneur. Today, he’s Vice President of Guyana, a position he attributes to his being recognised by the Caribbean Awards. (The Awards are politically non-partisan.)

Mr Allicock also revealed during his address was that he, along with two other laureates (a scientist and another entrepreneur-activist) had created businesses to benefit the indigenous people and increase food production. For the first time, indigenous traditional products are being sustainably produced, in the form of Rupununi Essence, a personal-care line of products, and sold in Guyana and abroad. There’s also a commercial farming project in the Pakaraima Mountains.

It sounds admirable but unremarkable, even banal, but this is philanthropy having the desired effect. The Awards have created something where there was nothing before. Here, also, is one of the ways out of the economic and social tailspin T&T is in.

But it’s a solution (thinking our way out of hardship) that isn’t being acknowledged. A few columns ago, I reported on Patrick Hosein’s professorial lecture at UWI, St Augustine. His research, he said, was hindered by obstructionism from people in the university. He manages to get a fair bit of it done, and launch a research consortium (he said) thanks to the ANSA prize. But the complaint is a familiar one.

Here enters Naipaul’s famous comments—the region as a place of third-raters who hate smart people, and where nothing was created. Well, he was wrong and right at the same time. It would be interesting to see the data on Trinidadian research and innovation. How many MBAs has the Lok Jack GSB (and other institutions, like the SBCS, SAM) produced, how many courses in innovation, entrepreneurship and management under a myriad names, and to what effect? Or, more succinctly, how many entrepreneurs, scientists, and artist have succeeded here and how many have been frustrated?

To look at the pathologically risk-averse private sector, where many MBAs reside, you’d have to guess the effects have been small. The degree of intrapreneurship (innovation within firms) has been small. Some very smart and capable people I know have dropped out, found a “gig” that pays enough to survive, and enjoy life outside the toxic corporate and social mainstream which is dominated by sociopaths who devote their lives to the idea that ambition equals talent. You want, therefore you are entitled, once you can eliminate competent people.

None of these observations is original. Before Naipaul’s Middle Passage, Edgar Mittelholzer and CLR James pointed them out. The society is fighting its own evolution—with great success. So clearly, the help the society desperately needs isn’t going to come from government or universities. In fact, those two august institutions are the source of the un-development.

The ANSA Caribbean Awards have shown where change can come from: sustained private initiatives, but it requires businesses taking more than a few shekels of that money they so brutally dig out of the society, and reinvesting. It’s more than handing a cheque to a steelband every year, or a home for the elderly or sport team. Philanthropic enterprises are long-term investments, and need all the thought and planning conventional businesses need. The Caribbean Awards hands out $2 million in prize money every year, and has a small dedicated staff. That’s a good sense of the commitment required.

The banks, the other huge T&T conglomerates should get on this. But there are also SMEs with literally millions in cash sitting in the banks while their owners bleat about the lack of foreign exchange. The prize-giving model of the Caribbean Awards has already been successfully realised. But other avenues for non-traditional investment are out there. And these ventures should be seen as investments.

There’s everything to gain from it: Guyana had seven laureates (till 2017), and three of them were able to change the country. Trinidad and Tobago now has eight in fields ranging from music to medical research to Internet technology. You don’t need to be a MIT mathematician (like one of our laureates) to figure this out.