W. Arthur Lewis’ work more relevant today

Sir Arthur Lewis said it, and it is being said again that economic transformation and social development require an integrated alliance between state policy, private capital, and the social capital and research generated by the University sector.

This was the consensus from participants at The University of the West Indies (The UWI) Vice-Chancellor’s Forum held on 23 January, 2018 at the University’s Regional Headquarters in Jamaica. The forum, which was a highlight of W. Arthur Lewis Day activities across the University’s campuses, was themed, Economic Transformation with Social Growth: Arthur Lewis’ Contribution. “The search for competitive advantages for our economic sectors in this innovation age can only be achieved within this alignment,” said Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles.

Sixty years ago, St. Lucian born Economist, Sir Arthur Lewis, first Vice-Chancellor of The UWI, Nobel Prize Laureate (1979) and a former President of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) also argued this case. His legacy surrounds pioneering university level research in economic growth and development—particularly involving developing countries.

Vice-Chancellor Beckles in welcoming the forum’s panellists and audience noted, “The challenge has always been ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are distributed equitably, so that poverty is reduced as economies grow. Also, ensuring that entrepreneurial empowerment enhances greater social participation and growth.” He added, “Lewis articulated the need 40 years ago for a development plan for the Caribbean region that promotes economic democracy as well as political democracy so that the right to vote for example, and the ability to start a business are equally accessible. What we have seen, however, is moderate economic growth, increasing poverty, and deepening inequality, all of which are now subverting the political democracies we have achieved.” Lewis, he said, was always aware of the need for more wealth creation and greater economic participation.

Declaring that we can no longer promote economic growth without speaking about social growth, Sir Hilary noted the region had entered “the post-IMF era”. “The 30 years of engagement has shown that we have not built out an indigenous Caribbean growth strategy within the IMF frameworks. The post-IMF era will now have to deal with Caribbean models to find and finance new, and competitive sectors based on research, especially in areas like culture, sport, digital communication, extreme tourism, and money management.”

In his presentation, panellist, Professor Mark Figueroa, Economist and Honorary Research Fellow at The UWI Museum and Archives at the Mona Campus said, “Lewis contributed to development through the example of his path-breaking career, through his political and institutional activism and through three struggles: those with colonialists and neo-colonialists against prevailing racism and related views re the limited possibilities for the peoples of the tropics, those with his own people to have them grasp a broader vision for themselves and to take actions to realise their potential and those with his fellow economists against prevailing dogma.”

Figueroa told the forum that Lewis’ global diagnosis posited that poor countries remain poor so long as they exchange multiple units of their people’s labour for single units of the labour of persons in rich countries and the transformation of the productivity of labour within the national economy is the basis for transforming the position of the country.

Further, Figueroa stated, “In his diagnosis of the Caribbean, Lewis identified a failure to transform effectively in response to global changes hence many people remain engaged in low (or no) employment and due to the failure of social systems in particular, a failure of leadership.”

In terms of development, Lewis was of the view that it required social, political and cultural transformation for the benefit of the majority and depended on dialogue, consensus, cohesion, partnership, restraint, sacrifice, leadership and similar attributes along with “confidence in self, and an understanding of one’s place in the global dynamics” Figueroa explained.

Perspectives of Lewis’ contribution to economic development were shared by other distinguished panellists: Professor Emeritus Compton Bourne, Professor Kari Polanyi Levitt, Professor Robert Taylor, Dr Patricia Northover, Dr Samuel Brathwaite and Dr Terrence Farrell. Dr Wesley Hughes, CEO of PetroCaribe and Dr Michael Witter, Senior Fellow at The UWI’s Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), served as moderators. Other speakers on the programme included Ambassador Dr Richard Bernal, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Global Affairs, The UWI and Prof Aldrie Henry-Lee, Director of SALISES.