Owen Arthur: The Activist Prime Minister

The following statement is issued by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The UWI, in tribute to the late
Rt. Honourable Owen Arthur.

Arthur was authorised by the elders of his era to lead the economic development charge of the region. As a consequence, there was no other passion that competed with his commitment to the economic advancement of Caribbean people.

At The University of the West Indies (The UWI), he was schooled beyond the theories of scholarship to embrace the practical and pragmatic dimensions of this mission. While his feet were firmly planted in the urgency of post-plantation economic reforms, his intellectual sophistication kept him focused on the simultaneous need for social inclusion and justice. This was the nature of his centre of gravity.

As a young academic he erupted as a development activist and never lost sight of the role economics could play in serving all sections of the communities within the archipelago. With this philosophy in hand, he grew rapidly to professional maturity. The youth from a marginalised village in plantation Barbados became an activist Prime Minister who master minded the implementation of the Caribbean Single Market. He lived and died dedicated to the vision of the single economy.

As a political leader in a fragmented region, he respected the constitutional consequences of the indigenous diversity that was endowed by history and geography. But as a development economist, his life project was putting together that which God had put asunder. It began and ended with his sense of belonging to a unified cultural space, and membership of a cohesive civilization that transcended and dialectically defied the political fractures and fissures fomented by superficial features.

Arthur had no time for Caribbean divisiveness that lacked intellectual integrity. He was a man for his region, and for this reason he stood in defiance of those that sought to subvert the dignity of its sovereignty. Shipriders without approval were told they could not enter and he denied automatic access to the waters that constituted the boundaries of Barbados. This controversial commitment constituted evidence of the consciousness he displayed in the heat of an imperial moment that tested the tenacity of his authority.

An optimistic economist, Arthur believed that with the limited disciplinary tools available, there was still the possibility of extracting national and regional economic growth from the sometimes hostile global economy. It required skill, intellectual agility and an eternal policy search for space and partnerships.

This belief system worked well for him and anchored his activism as an example of a best case scenario in the face of the obvious duplicitous liberal market attitudes to small, vulnerable, developing states. On this foundation he secured the significant economic progress of Barbados. At the height of his significant achievement, another regional Prime Minister proclaimed that Barbados was the best, black managed political economy in the world.

It was this nerve as a nation-builder, that saw him rise to place his beloved UWI above all other institutions. For him, it was the source of the social capital required to sustain development. He authorised the release of significant financial and land resources that saw the Cave Hill Campus soar from an undeveloped academic ecosystem to take pride of place alongside sister campuses within the regional academic pantheon.

Always the scholar with an appetite for discursive engagement, he found in his ancestral Faculty of Social Sciences, a natural home. He took great pride in knowing that he was a celebrated member of the academic community that had embraced and honed his considerable intellectual talent. Barbados and the Caribbean witnessed in his life, the principle which the region holds most dear — that democracy demands the unlocking of the cosmology of every community for development.

As a student ‘from below’ he walked many a mile through the northern village of ‘Mile and a Quarter’ to The UWI, there to find his path to professional advancement. From these grassroots, he spread his wings and soared across his region into a wide world that awaited and resonated his voice. His return to source is accompanied by the heralding sound of success. The native son has enriched the soil in which his seed was sown. This remains the finest story of the journey of humanity.

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