Thirty-six years on, a young fledgling state struggles to define and distinguish itself in a world of nation states that are much farther along the journey. Of the many states still breaking through the cocoon of infancy, Saint Lucia can boast of having a stable democracy with freedoms that are the envy of many. We jealously guard our sovereignty and autonomy with a pride that far surpasses any notion of small size that might characterize an island of 238 square miles.
Breaking free from the shackles of colonialism must have meant more than the raising of a national flag, reciting a pledge and singing of a national anthem. With political independence came the added responsibility of charting a course for socio-economic growth and development. A small island state such as ours is often caught in the quagmire of self-definition and self-assertion in an international space where our voice seldom rises beyond an audible whisper. Except of course should we band together with other states of similar circumstance who might share a common philosophical position. And herein lie the age old justification and compulsion to strengthen the bond among island states of the Caribbean that for geographic, cultural, historical or economic reasons may very well benefit from the “strength of numbers”.
But our journey of several decades as mapped out in the detail of the experience of the ill-fated West Indian Federation, or of CARICOM and the OECS that followed, suggest that the ambivalence of the waters that separate us or connect us, is at the crux of the development conundrum of the Caribbean. This is further compounded by an insularity, born in part out of an impulse to protect self (self-interest).
But the question arises, can the language that often describes the experience of the now developed countries adequately express the challenges and experiences of small developing states? And do concepts such as independence, autonomy and sovereignty mean the same thing when applied to developing states? And by the same token, the development that we crave, is it to be perceived in like manner to that which those advanced nations exhibit?
Often when I get stuck in the Northern bound traffic on the John Compton highway, I wonder quietly whether the traffic jam in effect denotes that we are doing well as a nation, to the extent that there are so many vehicles on island (and that speaks of some kind of advancement!), or conversely that the halted traffic in effect suggests the inadequacy of our physical infrastructure (road network) that we have some distance to go still along that long path to development!
The trappings of modernity and development are evident in garb, architecture, culinary taste, recreational options/choices – that to the naked eye may very well suggest that we have come some distance. But are we missing one of the most fundamental precursors to development … and that is, independence of thought and creativity not mired in compulsions to mimic those who appear to be farther along. Or is it that globalization has stripped countries like ours of options separate and apart from the general currents of the days. The moment for self-definition and assertion may have passed and we are now left to trail along well-trodden paths that at times look more like an obstruction course!
That reality is somehow masked by the level of access, participation and engagement that is afforded us, thanks to the new forms of information technology and the ever crowded highway of social media. And so, very high illiteracy rates, low levels of access to tertiary education, poor health systems, rising cost of living, an uncomfortably high food import bill, a disturbingly high debt to GDP ratio all of which characterize the pitfalls of underdevelopment escape the attention that they so desperately deserve.
Hence the question, does the development that we so urgently desire amount to little more than a metaphor?
Dr. Gale Rigobert is MP for Micoud North and Leader of the Opposition