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We like it so? Relating cultural factors to underachievement

It has been a recurrent theme of these columns that there are many cultural factors militating against our country moving toward a better and fairer condition.  Now I have solid company.

Terrence Farrell, economist, attorney, author and commentator, has published another book.  It is called: We like it so?—The Cultural Roots of Economic Underachievement in Trinidad and Tobago.

Photo: Economist, author and attorney Terrence Farrell. (Copyright RC Social Justice TT)
Photo: Economist, author and attorney Terrence Farrell.
(Copyright RC Social Justice TT)

I had the pleasant, if challenging, task of being one of two principal speakers reviewing the book at its launch on Friday last. What follows are edited excerpts of my review on that occasion.

The main theme of the book is a discourse on the recognition and importance of social and cultural factors on economic development.  What Terry does is delineate values, attitudes and behaviours dominant in our society and culture in the higher spheres, which retard economic achievement.

What is significant as far as the scholarship of this book is concerned is this: the book reveals that there have been important surveys assessing the characteristics of various cultures.

In a key chapter of the book the author identifies surveys that have been done on the values of various societies.  In particular, the World Values Survey (WVS), which started in 1981, has common questionnaires across many countries and collects data in a consistent manner.  Data has been collected for Trinidad and Tobago, which is the only country in the WVS spanning 2010 to 2014.

In the book there are a number of important tables showing how Trinidad and Tobago compares with global averages across several dimensions, such as work and leisure, trust, corruption and wealth accumulation.  Their importance is that they support the identification of cultural factors as a means of understanding how the society ticks.

Photo: Construction magnate Junior Sammy (centre) poses with soca chutney stars Nisha B (far right) and Ravi B (second from right).
Photo: Construction magnate Junior Sammy (centre) poses with soca chutney stars Nisha B (far right) and Ravi B (second from right).

Having set out the scholarly basis for the study of cultural factors on a firm foundation, the author then sets out what he thinks are the cultural factors affecting economic performance in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean.

The author demonstrates there is correspondence—though not an exact one—between the factors he has identified and those identified by persons internationally who have conducted analyses and surveys of cultural values.

Two factors which Terry identifies are aligned to much of what I write in my own columns, which have now been collected in the Daly Commentaries. This is found in chapters dealing with Ambivalence and Status.

In it, Terry discusses a variety of sensitive subjects, such as methods of speaking, all-inclusive fetes, social climbing and the reappearance of English barristers in our courts, likened to the “briefless barristers” who populated the colonial courts.

Terry also uses lines from the late Derek Walcott, for whom we are currently mourning, as illustrative of attitudes and behaviour. I read an obituary in the New York Times which said of Walcott: “As a poet he plumbed paradoxes of identity intrinsic in his situation. He was a mixed race poet living in a British ruled island whose people spoke French-based Creole or English.”

I cite this because Terry has been careful in his conclusions to take account of our diversities even as he “plumbs the paradoxes” in our behaviour which he describes.

Photo: President Anthony Carmona (right) and his wife Reema enjoy their Carnival in Brian MacFarlane’s 2017 presentation entitled Cazabon—The Art of Living. Carmona, who wore white dhoti, kurta, turban and beads, played in the section called Apna Desh. (Copyright Trinidad Express)
Photo: President Anthony Carmona (right) and his wife Reema enjoy their Carnival in Brian MacFarlane’s 2017 presentation entitled Cazabon—The Art of Living.
Carmona, who wore white dhoti, kurta, turban and beads, played in the section called Apna Desh.
(Copyright Trinidad Express)

Not surprisingly, this book is addressed to the elites, who are located in the higher socio-economic sphere.

Terry is careful to define who these elites are: “The elite is not coterminous with class or wealth but with those in positions where their conduct influences others.”

He defines elite further as a group that “includes, not just political and business leaders but school principals, university lecturers, senior police officers, priests, Imams and pundits, medical doctors, lawyers and similar persons.”

In my blunt way, I would suggest that the elite comprises those who were briefly but severely jolted out of their “unresponsible” attitude by the murder of Dana Seetahal. Through that event the elite saw for the first time that the perceived barbarians could get inside the gates.

Subsequent to Dana’s murder, there have been a number of other shocks. These may have demonstrated that our underachievement cannot be evaded by simply joining for cocktails and complaining within the gates.

The post-Dana awakening and their higher level of concern for the future may stimulate the elites into embracing Terry’s prescriptions for attitude change. Terry carefully explains how changes in our culture must be driven, what those required changes are and how they must be driven by the elites.

Photo: Dana Seetahal SC was gunned down in Woodbrook in the wee hours of Sunday 4 May 2014.
Photo: Dana Seetahal SC was gunned down in Woodbrook in the wee hours of Sunday 4 May 2014.

You will gather from what I have said that Terry’s description of the nuances of social, business and political intercourse is not flattering.

Is this another Middle Passage a la VS Naipaul?  The answer is absolutely not because Terry believes that we can achieve “contextual cultural change.” He states unequivocally: “Culture is not DNA: It can be adapted and changed.”  He goes on at the end of the book to recommend how we might set about achieving change.

Will anybody heed or we liking it so still?

About Martin Daly

Martin Daly
Martin G Daly SC is a prominent attorney-at-law. He is a former Independent Senator and past president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago. He is chairman of the Pat Bishop Foundation and a steelpan music enthusiast.

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4 comments

  1. Also read the article, think I will have to reread, since I identified obstacles, with no practical solutions, as well as other pertinent issues, got to do my homework.

  2. The question now is, since we have identified our hurdles, how can we translate this, say for the MoE, to help (‘re) shape society in a few years and make us more competitive?

  3. I read the article…the major roadblock on our development or lack of it is breakdown in law enforcement…

  4. Thanks for the review, I was waiting for this one.