INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY AS A STRATEGY FOR THE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF CARIBBEAN COUNTRIES : PREPARED TEXT FOR ADDRESS BY DR. THE HON. KEITH C. MITCHELL, PRIME MINISTER, GRENADA, AT THE COMMENCEMENT CEREMONY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES, CAVE HILL CAMPUS, 25 OCTOBER 2003
 


Pro-vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the West Indies Professor Hilary Beckles, Honorable Ministers of Government, Heads of Diplomatic Missions and International and Regional Organisations, Faculty and staff of UWI, Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the invitation to address this Commencement Ceremony of the University of the West Indies. For me this holds particular significance, since I have very fond memories of my time at the Department of Natural Sciences from 1968 to 1971.

While the campus has undergone many pleasant changes since then, for me the spirit of hope and expectation is still as real and enchanting as it was 33 years ago. Indeed, I am honoured this evening to share with so many enquiring minds my perspectives on the Role of ICT in the Growth and Development of Caribbean countries.

The Caribbean Region confronts the twin challenge of domestic reform and the specter of globalisation.

Today, my friends, globalisation influences, if not shapes, virtually every facet of our inter-phase with the global markets. It is, therefore, timely for us, as Caribbean people, to rethink our development paths and prospects.

We must begin this thought process with an explicit recognition that the world order as we have come to regard it, is not changing - it has changed. Changes in both the terms and nature of our international trading engagements with the international community have already rendered much of our commodity trade in products such as bananas, textiles and apparels non-competitive. In fact, the same fate seems likely to beset commodities such as rice, sugar and other diversified products in exports markets.

Given the importance of agriculture and overall food security to the Region, we, therefore, need to equip our farmers and other stakeholders with the tools to make the transition to value added activities. We must develop our food security programmes and agricultural diversification efforts through better application of technology. This is the only way to establish balance between the expectations of our citizens for a higher standard of living, and a better quality of life based on agricultural enterprise.

Several Challenges confront Caribbean societies at this time:

  • The Caribbean Region is the second leading region for HIV-AIDS in the world

  • Our countries are used as transshipments points for illicit drugs

  • The level and sophistication of violence is increasing

Yet, sisters and brothers, in this era of global terrorism, compared to other areas of the world, we are blessed with a region of beauty, friendly
people and so much potential. Indeed, I refer to the Caribbean Region as the 'The Zone of Peace".

As we look ahead to our future trading prospects, we need to acknowledge that the failure of the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations provided no impetus to global economic recovery. Moreover, what emerged out of the Cancun process was a disappointment. It was a missed opportunity to redress the existing imbalances in the global trading system. What this all amounts to, is that we in the Region need to redouble our efforts to stimulate growth in the global economy as a mechanism for catalyzing growth to the levels required by our own countries.

In the decade of the 1990s, the global economy was driven by structural and institutional changes, and the intensification of capital and finance flows among countries. The present decade will be driven by productivity growth, increasing employment opportunities domestically, as well as wage increases that keep pace with productivity growth and do not extend the debt burden of our countries.

The role of technology in driving competitiveness in the global economy is undeniable. Indeed, having analyzed the mystery of the Asian Tigers, it is my understanding that while other issues contributed significantly to the advances these countries recorded, the dynamics of technology and real rates of growth in productivity are the main factors accounting for their success.

It is to this link between technology and productivity that I now wish to turn my attention. There is often a lack of appreciation for the relationship between technology and economic growth and integration. In addition to trade policy, environmentalism and sustainability, technology acts as a significant influence on economic integration processes, as well as a central determinant of economic growth. There is no denying that the realm of human activity depends on the power of information, and on a sequence of technological innovation that accelerates its pace.

For instance, software development is making possible user friendly computing, so that millions of children, when provided with adequate education, can progress in their knowledge, and in their ability to create wealth and enjoy it wisely. The Internet, today used by more than 200
million people - and that number increases every year - is a channel of universal communication where interests and values of all sorts co-exist. Today ICT, its accessibility and most importantly, its application to process and production innovation in goods and services, is contributing to the gulf between the wealthy and the poor, both within and among countries.

In fact, while North South or Developed-Developing country distinctions remain relevant, the extent to which they determine relative wealth among countries has become far more complex. Indeed this unevenness in the diffusion of ICT has left behind most of Africa and threatens to do the same to other regions of the world, including our own.

Having been responsible for Science and Technology in the Caribbean Community since 1995, I regard this as a major contradiction that both
Caribbean governments and people need to work together to address. I am also aware that technology, by itself, will not solve the Region's social problems. What is required instead, is for us to make technology available for application by our people as a means of creating employment, seizing business opportunities - and, yes, lifting themselves out of poverty. What this amounts to is that the more widespread we manage to make ICT, the more widespread will be the returns to productivity and competitiveness performance. Empirical work and the experiences of the last decade have taught us that an adequate level of education in general, and of technical education in particular, is essential for the design and productive use of new technologies.

So, as it turns out, the coverage and quality of our education process remains pivotal in the thrust towards the global re-positioning of Caribbean countries. We must ensure that our Region and its people are not among the casualties of the ICT revolution. Participation in the "Information Age" as an equal partner will require us to mobilize the capacity of the entire society to be educated, and to be able to assimilate and process complex information. This must begin with an overall process of cultural development, which improves the level of functional literacy, enhances the content of the media, and improves the diffusion of information within the population as a whole.

How have we performed to date? The statistics indicate that the Caribbean Region, as a part of the broader Latin American and Caribbean Grouping, has achieved sustained improvements in education over the past thirty years. This includes expanding educational opportunities, improving quality, enhancing the management of educational systems, and involving the non-governmental community. Today, however, we confront a number of new challenges. These challenges arise because the context for providing education, and the approaches which
need to be taken, are quite different from those of the past. Indeed, the 2002 World Bank Report entitled 'Closing the Gap in Education and Technology', calls for urgent action by Latin American and Caribbean governments to address the Region's deficits in skills and technology, thereby boosting its productivity, which is essential to improving growth prospects.

Two main conclusions arise from this report:

  • Firstly, that raising productivity by closing the information and technology gap is essential to improving the Region's growth prospects


  • Secondly, that looking ahead, the ability of our countries to harness the skills of our people, along with the available technology, is fundamental to improving our productivity prospects, thereby helping us to close the productivity gap
Regrettably, many of our countries still suffer from significant deficits in both skills and technology, and hence continue to be caught in a "low
productivity growth trap". What is even more alarming is the emerging opinion that these "productivity gaps" are more significant than the
financing gaps, which exist among and between the countries of the Hemisphere. To close this "productivity gap" the World Bank Report calls for a range of policy approaches and strategies, depending on a country's level of development. It argues that "leapfrogging" - that is, merely importing state-of-the-art technology - is seldom successful in a country where educational attainment and skills are not adequate to fully exploit the productivity potential of the technology.

As future leaders of this region, the challenge for you is to fully embrace the developments in technology and its myriad of applications to your chosen field. Simply put, the person with the most information wins the game. I therefore offer you this: what you have learned here at UWI provides you with the foundation upon which you must build if we, as a Caribbean people, are to close the divide with our peers in the most advanced countries in the Hemisphere. With your training here at the University, you are eminently qualified to position yourself and the institutions or companies for which you will work to continuously seize the advantage in technology applications.

For the inventors among you, we must adopt technology that holds the potential of combining and transforming the Region's resources into new products and services that can compete globally. This process of transformation is already occurring in many countries of the region. In Grenada, for example, we have embarked on a strategy aimed at applying technology to traditional agricultural products such as nutmeg. We are already producing nutmeg oil and pain reliving oils and creams and will be expanding into other products in the coming years.

The re-positioning of the economies of the Caribbean to embrace the opportunities provided by ICT will clearly require a number of fundamental changes by Governments. We are all falling short of the mark in committing what, in my estimation, should be a targeted two percent of our GDP towards Science and Technology. Most of our countries do not have well resourced Science and Technology Councils, conducting research in areas critical to Caribbean development. Our numbers of scientists are declining, just at the time when we need a drastic increase in the quantity of these professionals. Legislation in many countries regarding Science, Research and Technology institutions and activities remains deficient. The number of technology-oriented institutions, including those with a strong technical component, is beginning to lag, even behind other countries in the Latin American Region. This is particularly troubling to me as the Prime Minister with responsibility for Science and Technology within CARICOM. We desperately need to address these issues in the shortest possible timeframe to unleash the potential that ICT makes possible.

I also consider the Region's competitive disadvantage, in relation to the issues of technology and productivity, as one of the most significant
constraints to the economic and social development of our countries. Trade and trading relations constitute a critical aspect of our inter-phase with the rest of the world. Technology is determining the quality of that inter-phase, circumscribing both the economic and the social context in
which Caribbean peoples will live in the next several years.

Sisters and brothers, permit me to step back and share with you some of my own thoughts regarding your responsibilities as you enter the working world or pursue further studies. You need to assist us in continuing to shape our Caribbean identity. Indeed, the same advances in ICT that have brought benefits to so many people, globally, also threaten to strip us of our diversity and cultural identity as Caribbean people.

Our art, our music, our sports, our cuisine, and an often forgotten aspect - our intellectual thought - our own approach to the analysis of the state of nature - need to be protected. I'm increasingly concerned about our failure as Caribbean intellectuals to evolve approaches for the treatment of Caribbean problems from a Caribbean perspective.

It is disturbing today to witness the ease with which we import the intellectual biases and thought process of others, without the trademark critical analysis that has served our countries so very well in the past. As one scholar put it: "Lack of Caribbean conceptualization and empirical substantiation make Caribbean scholars' arguments merely ideological and undercut their professional commitment to Caribbean development".

I join other colleagues before me, and this evening implore you graduates to put this right. I recall that when I graduated in 1971, there was this great sense of anticipation, this burning desire to change the world, shaped by a keen appreciation that I bore a social responsibility to my community, my country, my region. Many of us did not recognize at that time, how pervasive those thoughts about our Caribbean identity would have been. Never once did we conceive that it would have led us along the path that we have now taken. But this social responsibility has yielded rich dividends for those of us who continued to invest in the forging of strong linkages with the schools that nurtured us, with our teachers and civic organizations, indeed with our University.

Today I want to urge you to do the same. To support the institutions that have played a role in nurturing you. To support them, through the past pupil associations and community efforts. To join me in supporting the University through the Alumni, and the Campus Development Fund. Such support will help to close the "technology and productivity" gap at primary through to adult education levels in our countries.

Sisters and brothers, I still recall sitting so many years ago and wondering when the feature address at my own commencement ceremony would end, so that I could get on with the business of graduation parties and fraternizing with friends and family. I, therefore, leave you with these parting thoughts. Commencement means just that: it is a beginning. An undeniable milestone, but still - just the beginning.

The most successful professionals in any chosen field are those who dare to subject themselves to continuous and life-long learning. Those who dare to subject themselves to the process of "intellectual rejuvenation". Today I challenge you never to let your learning end. You will continuously be called upon to prove yourself, you will be confronted by those who would seek to define you, before you have had an opportunity to define yourself - persevere. Do not be afraid of failing, admit your mistakes and learn from them.


In fact the more I live, the more I appreciate the true meaning of that song by our Caribbean legend Hon. Robert Nestor Marley. "Lord, I got to keep on Moving". Keep on Moving!! But we must also heed the entire message from Marley, and in the words of the Psalmist: "Trust in God, with all your heart and your soul and lean not on your own understanding".

I thank you.
 
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