The escalating confrontation between the Mayor of Port of Spain and food entrepreneurs at the Queen’s Park Savannah is only the latest example of the historic refusal to recognise, validate and support enterprise and initiative emerging from within the people’s sector.
It is undeniable that the mushrooming food court en plein air poses several management challenges in relation to traffic, land use, public health, sanitation and finance.
But by his response, the mayor’s hammer of authority risks destroying the very thing on which the nation’s economic survival depends: the instinct to entrepreneurship.
Between the current positions of uncompromise lies an exciting field that is wide open for an imaginative solution of mutual and national benefit. The question is whether we have the capacity to rise to the opportunity.
This dispute between the Mayor and Micro-business is no ordinary war over rats which, if truth be told, have the run of the city from South Quay to St Ann’s and the Dry River to St James. What it presents is the latest episode in the epic contestation between power and people that keeps the economy tied to its colonial past.
Today, in the 21st century, the cultural legacy of deeply ingrained prejudice against the grassroots economy has ensured its continued existence as an illegitimate sector outside the margins of the formal economy.
So insidious is this culture that it has seeped even into the people’s sector itself, undermining and co-opting such potentially transformational agencies as co-operative credit unions.
The bigger they grow, the further away they seem to go from their co-operative moorings and the closer they come to resemble commercial banks.
If we are to give real meaning to such borrowed concepts as SMEs and make productive use of the millions spent on encouraging the micro and small business sector, we must rise to the unexpected, often difficult challenges posed by the unplanned, spontaneous emergence of business.
At the Savannah, there was a business opportunity which the micro business sector spotted and seized upon, triggering a series of challenges for the city and other agencies of the state.
If we believe what we’ve been saying for years—that small business is the route to developing a sustainable economy—then this moment, right here, right now, presents one important opportunity.
By re-casting the Savannah showdown into a negotiation between power and people, the unrealised Independence goal of de-marginalizing the people’s economy, comes into sharp focus.
For over 175 years, the maroon economy, to quote Lloyd Best, has existed, mostly subversively, outside the fringes of the economy. When the Independence promise of a seat at the table proved to be wishful thinking, disappointment turned into the rage of the 1970 Black Power upheaval that pushed people onto the streets under the banner of ‘Africans and Indians Unite’.
Eric Williams’ hurried response was to declare 1970 the Year of Small Business and put TT$2.5 million in seed money to a Small Business Unit at the Industrial Development Corporation.
Nationalisation of the financial sector and expansion of the co-operative sector were other strategic elements of the response.
In one of those initiatives lies a cautionary tale of relevance to today’s Savannah confrontation.
The Drag Brothers, a community of leather craftsmen, became the poster boys of indigenous enterprise, operating from rudimentary shacks along the strip of city land then known as Bankers’ Row on Independence Square, from Frederick to St Vincent Streets.
Even as it proclaimed a new commitment to small business, industrial development and economic diversification, it escaped the government that, in the Drag Brothers, T&T had the nucleus of a leather industry with the potential to produce leather products for the domestic and export markets.
In the end, the Drag Brothers was just another welfare project until, consumed by inadequacies of various kinds, it was shunted off to the outskirts of the city where the group survives as talented relics of another age, their entrepreneurial potential ignored, undeveloped and unrealised.
In microcosm, today’s Savannah conflict presents a national challenge which involves thousands of people operating in the street food sector all over the country from any available public space.
Almost by definition, most do not have the start-up resources to buy or rent a space at high traffic locations but quite a few earn enough to become self-reliant and to expand to multiple locations.
Not all dream of parking up their mobile locations and evolving into a restaurant. For man, small is beautiful because it is manageable within their resources and low risk.
Their business is emphatically street food which, throughout the world, gives a country its distinctive flavour.
Under recession conditions, more and more people are likely to supplement their income by offering low-cost food everywhere, from public savannahs to roadside locations.
Local government bodies can expect to be challenged in managing the associated risks of bad parking, traffic jams, unsanitary facilities, garbage disposal, pollution and crime.
When this happens, it would help if the authorities recognised and respected the vendors as business people to be negotiated with, rather than as squatters to be run off the land.
At the Queen’s Park Savannah, the micro-business community has led the way in filling a void caused by the authorities’ failure to optimise this prime space for public relaxation, leisure and family time.
Their initiative and investment should be saluted instead of confronted.
After that, all the many interests involved in the complexity known as the Queen’s Park Savannah, should sit around the table and negotiate a solution in the interest of all.