Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Dear Comrades

Comrades, it is absolutely understandable that media performance in the pandemic should come under intense internal and public scrutiny. At times like these, people legitimately consider the media’s role to be pivotal in either empowering societies to come to terms with extremely difficult circumstances, or to play a hand in failure.

Rest assured, this is the same in every other democracy in the world and is characterised by remarkably similar benchmarks – both informed and uninformed.

Everywhere, it seems to me, the discussion centres on a variety of metrics associated with objective professional journalistic standards, industry-focused dynamics - including profits and viability – academic research (the paucity of which is tragic in our case), scepticism and cynicism, and political preference/disfavour.

It is useful for us who have stayed the course to know precisely what we are dealing with in order to ensure we remain focused on delivering news, analysis, entertainment, and information capable of contributing to enlightened decision-making and sound behaviour-change/reinforcement.

Commentary emerging from chronic cynicism and sheer political preference are easily recognisable. Do not ignore them though. Read and listen carefully. They are useless for any serious re-framing of professional approaches and are never wholly beneficial for purposes of serious introspection. But they should not escape your critical attention, however insidiously cloaked as expert commentary of one kind or the other.

One tip would be to note the minute you witness monolithic reference to “the (amorphous) media.” It does not matter the purported credentials of the messenger, including tangential and even past (typically unremarkable) engagements in the profession. I have heard, for instance, of deals between “the media” and “the government.” What deals? To save lives?

Be aware, though, that at the same time ours is not a perfect professional discipline. Do not be touchy and defensive. There are indeed some from among us who cannot contain our enthusiasm for people and interests, others whose malpractice is indefensible, and those who enter the industry with eyes exclusively set on a variety of other goals.

Yet, most of us start our day every day with only the thought of diligently and competently doing our jobs. For example, poll any newsroom for views on the role people see for themselves in the financial fortunes of their newspaper or broadcast station, and the vast majority would tell you that’s not what’s constantly on their minds on assignment or at their workstations.

The thing is, we are in the middle of a crisis in which the foundations of our professional practice are being tested at every level, even as there is an undeniable reliance on mainstream “legacy” media to validate the outputs of Wild West social media frontiers.

Sadly, some deem it a losing battle in the face not only of contentious virtual content, but of wilful vandalism. Lift the lid and you will find a teeming nest of vapid, busy under-achievers – many of whom have transacted the woefully low entry requirements of the social media space, but even some of whom employ this other territory we call our own.

However, this is an old set of circumstances on a new field of play. The practice of politics and the agendas of preference/disfavour have always challenged the value of facts. Media submission is also a longstanding passion of both the powerful and their unwitting subordinates.

The media industry here, and almost everywhere else, has tried to play a leading role in promoting awareness of pandemic realities. Our industry bodies – the TTPBA and MATT – have engaged in addressing the destructive impacts of COVID denial and the incomprehensible designs of increasingly active anti-vaxxers.

Media houses have routinely interrogated the integrity of pandemic management measures and now openly, and correctly, support the programme of national vaccination.

It has been said that the presumed “power” of the media has two razor-sharp blades on either side. The truth (or the pursuit of truth) can indeed undermine and defeat as much as it can satisfy the public interest. But urgency is not panic, and caution is not fear.

Dear comrades, there are many things we can do better, but there are numerous positives to claim. Good journalism may yet save the day again.

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Are we there yet?

Today was meant to be that day when, on this page, we were all to embark on a long maxi taxi ride to an undetermined destination. It was going to be one of those bigger minibuses packed to capacity with a rowdy bunch all wishing to choose radio stations or take turns at the wheel – including those without driving permits or knowledge of how stick shift works.

There are some who, upon recognising they are probably on the wrong bus, and with a bell that does not work, end up shouting at the top of their voice: “Bus stop, Drive!!!”

The first time, about half mile away from the desired destination, the instruction is followed by a hiss and a cranking and a screeching before the bus stops, the back door opens “clatacks” and two or three passengers disembark in the middle of nowhere.

The second time it happens, a now more keyed-in driver hits the brakes hard and those at the back are transferred like missiles to the front of the bus, and two front seat passengers suffer chipped teeth and busted lips on the windscreen.

One guy, in khaki shorts, sandals and socks, threatens to sue. The lady with the broad straw hat and North American accent is on her phone: “Come and get me now! And, no, I don’t know ‘exactly’ where I am!”

“And, by the way, where am I???!!!”

The guy who wants to sue, eventually pulls the driver away from the wheel and takes control. There is loud applause. But the hard right the new driver takes leads to inappropriate contact involving a fat guy and a young lady in short shorts across the aisle with eyes fixed for hours on her phone. “Sorry. Sorry,” the man lies. The fight does not last long.

On more than one occasion, when we stop, we have to reverse as some poor soul has merely come off to pee before rejoining the cacophonous rhythm section at the back of the bus. Then, when he returns, the arguments resume about who needs the windows open and who prefers them closed with air conditioning.

About two hours into the trip, while the maxi is at full pelt, a child sticks her head outside and a bug flies in her eye. One guy (who everybody knew got on without paying) encourages the mother to bend the child’s head backward, keep the eyelid open between index finger and thumb … and blow hard. Then comes a loud yelp, followed by the screams of a child with a bug stuck, away from non-surgical human access, beneath her eyelid. “Pour water! Pour water!” comes smug front seat advice.

Then, during one rare moment of relative silence: “Mister, Mister,” a tiny child across the aisle turns tearily to me, “are we there yet?”

There is no truthful answer to the question. The maxi taxi, now on driver number six, is hurtling, brakeless, through a crowded market street. “Bus stop, Drive! Oh Lord! Bus stop!!!”

Yes, today, was the day to write about that fateful maxi taxi trip to nowhere in particular. Perhaps it was the occasion when we finally answer the little boy’s question, or at least have our bearings right and know where, on the journey, we have reached.

I wrestled sleeplessly with the metaphors. The storyline. How would it all end? Whose turn was it at the steering wheel. All of that.

But then, on Sunday, came the news that Desmond Tutu had died. For sure, on the imagined maxi taxi, I had more than once flicked to the “Library” folder on my Kindle to find The Book of Joy – author Douglas Abrams’ reflections on a weeklong joint conversation with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu. It’s not my regular kind of reading, but there it is between Baldwin and Neruda.

“He is much more cerebral,” Abrams remembers Tutu saying of the Dalai Lama. “I am more instinctual.”

“I guess,” Abrams surmises, “even great spiritual leaders get nervous when they are journeying into the unknown.”

Hmm. “Journeying into the unknown.” There’s our maxi taxi!

In the book, the Dalai Lama speaks of the “destination(s) of life.” Tutu notes: “Nothing beautiful in the end comes without a measure of some pain, some frustration, some suffering. This is the nature of things. This is how our universe has been made up.”

In a sense, lesser mortals on the maxi taxi reflect the same tensions. Are we there yet? Maybe that’s not the question. Maybe the real question has to do with destination. Not here, in the middle of nowhere.

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Boofs and licks like peas

There used to be a photograph making the rounds on social media of a woman in full-fledged delivery of a non-verbal boof/bouf/bouffe to a child in the midst of a church service.

It reminded me of my mother because my mother was a boss at this. She would tilt her head downward then look up and sideways at you with her eyes open wide … unblinking. Her lips stuck to each other, the sides curved upward and wrinkled as with a fake smile.

It was the kind of lip position that catered for a through-the-lip steups if required. If she shook her head just once, fully expect prompt delivery of charge, verdict, and punishment back home.

There were occasions, not in public, she would reach for her slippers and learn the sprint of children. Sometimes it would be a quick open palmed slap across the shoulder.

As an 11 or 12-year-old child of people who had children young, you also realise sooner rather than later that your father – who played competitive sport and claimed to have hit the QRC tower with a six, five years before he got married - can still outrun you. I remember that one time the chase involved a leather belt.

The preferred punishment was Mom’s boofs or an assignment from Dad to count cars as they passed along the Eastern Main Road in St Augustine. If the sentence involved more than one child, the car tally had to be individually ratified or you were sent back to the gallery. Sometimes, a traitorous sister would refuse to cooperate, and the numbers would not square.

The point here is that the boof was what counted most in the Gibbings household. Now, if the sub-editor touches my use of “boof” I will not be happy. Even the experts agree that a final form remains unfinished business.

Lise Winer’s ‘Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago’, for example, offers four versions – buff, boof, bouf and bouffe. Its etymology is vast. I however prefer the use of “boof” which carries greatest onomatopoeic value and evades the threat of linguistic gentrification.

Use “bouf” or “bouffe” and the pronunciation would tend to be more reminiscent of the “Côte de Boeuf” at a fancy restaurant than the “boof” delivered by Aunt Harriet at the party.

In relatively well-adjusted families, boofs come before the licks, (if licks are at all to be administered). In some households, there are prompt, stinging, open-palm, fingertip slaps on the arm or shoulder or a “tap” at the back of the head.

There are others who prefer different chronologies. There would be the initial verbal admonition or guidance (“do NOT touch that”), the beg (“don’t do that nuh”), a boof (“what I tell you”), a withdrawal of benefits, an offer of reward, more boofs, and then licks like peas … in that order. Mind you, my son (who at 26 is a model citizen and ethical to a fault) was never subjected to corporal punishment at home.

Proposed speedier transitions usually come from those who consider themselves to be out of the line of fire (such as a big brother or sister) and who believe “bouffs/bouffes” are a soft sell before an audience of lesser mortals. “Lash dey (not my) tail!”

“I (whap) told (whap) you (whap) to (whaddap) take (whoop) the (whap) vaccine!!!”

If you think about it, this is the authoritarian SOE approach. This is despite early counsel that “an SOE cannot get you to wash your hands” – an admonition dismissed by “PR” hustlers and people clueless about some basic elements of behaviour change.

In fact, there has since been much boofing about the boofing. “You (boof) are (boof) NOT (boof) to boof!”

It is in the manner of paternalistic authoritarian cultures to skip the queue of moral suasion, and non-verbal and verbal “boofing” to head straight for the guava tree. (“Dey too harden. Cut dey tail”).

This is not to suggest that, eventually, licks are always an implausible option, but that a good example, appeals to reason, and boofs properly come first. Between the SOE (“you not getting to go to the party”) and the mandate (“messy room = no party”) there is likely to be much more begging and many boofs to come.

Stuck at 46% (my initial uneducated guess was 40%), the gap between suasion, begging, boofing, and outright licks is narrowing.

Some say the time has come. They might be right. The room is messy alright while, and yes, some feel we need to party.

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Taking care of our things

One of my childhood friends was known for supreme diligence when attending to his belongings. It provided a basis for our bullying and teasing. He became something of a loner in later life. After all, which child puts away his toys after play? Who puts sweetie wrappers in the bin?

As a teen, he wore only crisp, clean clothing and was mercilessly jeered when one day he was witnessed ironing his underwear. By contrast, the rest of us wore unwashed jeans for months and months, until they stank and could basically stand on their own.

“Take care of your things, like David (not his real name),” my mother would tell the five of us.

For some strange reason, this childhood memory returned to me while I was being driven around the perimeter of the UWI Campus in St Augustine two weekends ago.

These days, I would typically be zooming past the area bemasked, dodging potholes, pedestrians, and distracted drivers. But on this day, en route to Macoya Market (where an ugly patch job at the entrance is not good enough), I was being driven by my wife. So, I had time to look around. It broke my heart to witness the condition of the campus buildings.

There were rusty, old galvanise sheets on one of the older buildings and moss and grime on the walls of the newer ones. Yes, the fields were mown, and the internal roadways seemed to be in relatively good shape. But the buildings appeared to have been neglected in their pandemic emptiness.

It occurred to me, during this outing, that the wider human condition in this COVID-19 era presents the requirement of taking better care of our things. My wife used the engineering term “built environment” when I stumbled with the distinction between all the “things” that needed care at this time.

If the pandemic has established one important life lesson, it is that the compartments we usually construct for human, natural and ‘built’ environments are a misguided illusion. Environmental scientists, for example, look critically at the dynamics at play when built infrastructure interacts with nature, and generate consequential impacts on the wellbeing of human populations. This is in fact the climate change story.

There is a concern, for instance, about the impact of built spaces on biological diversity and its implications for human wellness, both physical and mental. Leave a pothole long enough in the middle of the road and witness its impact on the quality of driving and other citizen behaviour.

In Aranguez, the taxi drivers are buying cement and fixing the potholes themselves. This brings more value to community life than the preservation of shocks and suspension systems. But it does not take the ministry of works off the hook. Its atrocious lethargy and neglect, in tandem with local government inaction and the recklessness of WASA, are among the more significant slurs on our humanity.

It should also bother us greatly that some communities are burning tyres on the road. This is not easily dismissible as mere partisan activism. Nobody really earns any points.

The wider metaphor of negligence is also encapsulated in the pandemic response. That political gain could have been envisaged in the promotion of COVID-denial, subversion of pandemic measures and now, vaccine hesitancy signals a willingness to engage in acts of reckless vandalism in the absence of a duty of care.

The reality is that we generally do not have the best record when it comes to taking care of our things. It’s expressed in our attitude toward “maintenance” of the built environment, but also in our predisposition when it comes to nature and to people.

For example, last week’s assault on pets and wild animals, the ill, and the elderly painted a worst-case scenario. It’s now a huge farce to hear of “zero tolerance” on the unlawful and reckless use of fireworks and “scratch-bombs.”

Here I have been decrying the defence of “tradition” and calling for a wholesale ban on everything from bamboo-busting to the use of “scratch-bombs” to the deployment of unregulated fireworks. All of these things – from care for our built environment to respect for other humans – are interrelated.

Today, we are faced with a pandemic which requires we proceed with care and caution. I am not seeing us, as a collective, doing very well on this score. True, the climate change conversation finds the world short on thoughtfulness. But we, in T&T, are simply not taking care of our things, including ourselves.


Wednesday, 3 November 2021

The climate survival game

If both the climate crisis and the pandemic have taught us one thing it is that we are mistaken if we believe, as Barbados PM Mia Mottley put it, that “national solutions can solve global problems.”

In other words, the best advice is to avoid self-delusion, after having conceded that there indeed exists an existential threat to our survival as a sovereign small island state. We cannot do this alone. A long view of history would speak of the decimation, through a variety of different circumstances, of grand empires occupying infinitely larger geographical spaces than ours.

Unfortunately, there are those who walk among us who don’t share such a belief. They emerge from the swamp of ignorance from time to time. This pandemic period is one example. But climate change scepticism is of more durable vintage and at the core is a lack of belief in science.

I have seen, for instance, social media challenges to the value of a T&T presence in Glasgow alongside key AOSIS and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) allies on the grounds of some kind of retreat from domestic reality.

Such doubt also exists in the pregnant silence of opinion-leaders fresh from campaigns of COVID denial, resistance to pandemic measures and tacit promotion of vaccine hesitancy. To them, climate change scepticism is not that remote a concept.

We would also do well to recognise unequal international status, whatever our grandiose self-assessment. The fact is, at the root of much of the discussions and negotiations in Glasgow today, are the disproportionate levels of victimisation involving the wealthy and powerful, as opposed to the small and the under-resourced.

These important differentials lie at the heart of some important but highly problematic instruments designed by the global community to mitigate further damage and deterioration in areas such as the Caribbean.

For example, access to climate financing is now linked, since the Paris Agreement of 2015, to nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to fighting climate change. Following a programme of serious work, an indicative version of this has been prepared by T&T and others for the current conference.

The G20 Leaders’ Summit in Rome ahead of Monday’s COP26 inaugural session however side-stepped key issues including a clear deadline for net zero carbon emissions, and basically agreed (having previously failed to do so) to raise US$100 billion to help fund mitigation efforts in countries such as ours. PM Mottley thinks this is far less than what is required or even possible.

The problem is continued delays in prompt action belie the fact that the processes of nature set in train, now undeniably through human activity, are already considered to be irreversible. The urgent goal of capping the rise in global temperatures to no more than 1.5% over current levels in order to “stay alive” is an increasingly unreachable target.

The existence of an Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) however indicates acceptance of the fact that we cannot do this on our own, and that there are fellow travellers in whom there exist key commonalities.

As co-author of a Caribbean journalism handbook on “the climate crisis”, I have also been warned of the “alarmist” impact of employment of the word “crisis.” Well, dear friends, if climate change does not constitute an unfolding crisis for countries that are small, surrounded by the ocean, and still engaged in finding feet of their own in the development process, then what is?

T&T/Jamaica scientist Dr Rebekah Shirley has offered a menu of subjects for consideration by the AOSIS community. On the front burner, she proposes, ought to be political efforts to prioritise negotiations on adaptation, loss, and damage; commitments for blended forms of adaptation finance; and consensus on a carbon market mechanism.

Countries such as ours also have a vested interest in moving the developed world from elaborately expressed commitment to action. However, there were mixed reviews out of Rome regarding the prospects for realisation of such goals. This made the working sessions in Glasgow far more worthy of attention than the impressive speeches.

My friend and ACM science advisor, Steve Maximay, often advises against deployment of the “we go dead” approach. But the science may well conclude that as small island states faltering in our aspirations for true sovereignty, extinction is actually not a figuratively remote scenario.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Resilience, the pandemic, and climate change

(Published in the T&T Guardian on October 6, 2021)

By now, just two days later, many of us would have already succumbed to some degree of budget fatigue.

It has occurred to me that budget processes in parliament, media and other public spaces have become so predictable and routinised politically, that some news stories are capable of being assembled in advance, barring precise figures and measures.


The issues that attract the most attention often remain the stuff of sterile annual ritual.


The event however has the potential to guide attention and awareness to broader developmental challenges and goals that ought to properly engage the microeconomics, but often doesn’t.


Take, for example, the perils of climate change (the “climate crisis” being a better formulation). Comb the budget presentation for specific mention. True, there is. In bits and scattered pieces - shorelines, carbon capture and electric cars. But there’s a bigger story.


It’s also there in the implementation, but only in implicit increments of preventative measures and remedies – shorelines to safeguard, watercourses to excavate, proper infrastructure planning to engage, livelihoods to protect, and adaptive measures to minimise natural and social harm from changing climatological conditions.


In less than a month from now, we will be asked to parade these otherwise muted elements of our development before the world at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.


It is conceivable that the budget statement could have been presented against the backdrop of more than one urgent context to include the climate crisis. For, even when the pandemic challenge is mostly over (though I think the virus will be with us in some form for many years to come) there will remain questions of viability linked to climate change.


At COP26, for instance, we will be expected to draw attention to this country’s Carbon Reduction Strategy. Such a strategy identifies core actions linked to what is prescribed under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as our (intended) Nationally Determined Contribution (iNDC) to global carbon targets.


There is a lot more to this but, in short, our intention as a country is to reduce emissions from power generation, transportation, and industry by up to 15% by 2030. It is expected that the net cost of this would be in the order of US$2 billion. None of this was heard on Monday. Let’s listen on Friday and in the days that follow.


People currently arguing over Mr Imbert’s budget measures should pay attention to this, if only to appreciate the processes being engaged and to assess the prospects for achieving such targets, given the financing needs and the channels through which international funding is accessible.


Monday was also significant for us because even as the finance minister was attempting to reassure us that financial ruin is not yet upon the nation, the UN Secretary-General was a half hour flight away from here, in Barbados, addressing the opening of the 15th United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in rather dim tones.


It was well worth lending the event an eye and ears as world governments mulled prospects for achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in tandem with the climate change agenda by 2030.


The pandemic has provided a massive barrier to realisation of most of this, especially in the case of poor and middle-income countries. Small island developing states such as T&T ought to be paying much closer attention to such a state of affairs despite relative economic strength in our case.


The Caribbean region, as a whole, is pretty much broke. It is a reality we in T&T ignore at our peril – as with the collapse of Venezuela.


If the Barbados UNCTAD is significant for one purpose, it would be that it merges the multiplicity of challenges into a single prognosis spanning a spectrum of hope and hopelessness.


The asymmetrical impacts of the pandemic, for example, concur alongside varying regional abilities and disabilities, including our collective capacity to prevail in the face of the climate crisis.


The national budget, climate and our pandemic conditions are absolutely linked. The long view requires steps toward resilience that span the pandemic and beyond.


Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Life Sentences

Though I “passed” for QRC as a student of Curepe Presbyterian, I spent almost all my primary school life at Caroni Presbyterian – a small, U-shaped, red-brick structure in the middle of a lush canefield.

I grew up near UWI in St Augustine with a misty morning view of Mt St Benedict. But it was the grazing bison of Caroni, the sharp green leaves of the sugarcane and razor-grass, and the clackety-clack of the cane train that remain among my most enduring primary school memories.

True, one day I saw a donkey being mercilessly beaten as it reluctantly drew a cart full of grass or sugarcane. Five and a half decades later, I still hear the crack of that whip on thick, defenceless hide.

My grandfather, as Caroni headmaster, would deliver assembly speeches that spoke of man’s inhumanity to man, justice, equality, and the responsibilities of independence.

“The test of a man is the fight that he makes,/The grit that he daily shows,/The way he stands upon his feet,/And takes life’s numerous bumps and blows.” There I was at Queen’s Hall – hair shiny and gripping my scalp, powder on my face and chest, clothes crisp and clean, onstage, hands clasped, making Grandpa proud.

Contrastingly, the Curepe experience became quickly queued for exit from memory. There is some fogginess surrounding those few months. A sadistic teacher who threw a duster at a student. A girl who fell on her way upstairs and busted her lip. And Jean Jacques who overturned a desk and cussed the duster-throwing teacher.

But it was there I sat the Common Entrance Examination and “passed” for QRC. A relative of mine had sat and “failed” two years before.

Was it possible that the “bright boy” from Caroni would follow? I didn’t. But there were those who had “failed” and subsequently disappeared, unlike my relative who went on to become a quite accomplished professional.

There were many tales to be told of the cruelty of Common Entrance at that time. How come Angela “failed”? And Rajin and Egbert? Whatever happened to them? What were their life sentences?

At QRC we were trained to forget all that. On the first day, our form teacher said the secondary school experience was about learning and applying knowledge and was not about examinations and passing.

This was, I presumed, a perverse form of therapy to help us forget those who had gone from view, and the depravities we had witnessed.

We were left wondering what accounted for this leap from cruelty to what appeared to have been a new reality. Of course, it was all a lie. GCE turned out to be just as frantic and despairing. But that’s another story. I will someday come to that.

Then, many years later, came the grand transition from the Common Entrance to SEA – a process presumably guided by work that blended data, enlightened, learned contemplation, and political will. It was all there in the press releases!

However, there were serious educationists who remained silently sceptical and others who wrote about virtual sleight of hand. Children, you see, were still effectively “passing” or “failing” or being forgotten.

Social psychologist, Prof. Ramesh Deosaran has written about the “humanitarian violation” resulting from the combined effects of the SEA and the presence of “Concordat-governed schools.”

I also have a copy of educationist Prof. Jerome De Lisle’s paper on Secondary School Examinations in the Caribbean. In it, he surmises that the current system “ignores the measurement limitations of high-stakes achievement tests, the threat of unintended consequences, and the inequalities in opportunities to learn that persist throughout the system.”

In essence, these two experts are rendering bare what some of us untrained observers have long suspected. That though the donkey carts have gone away, and the dusters unlikely to be released with force at students, there is an underlying cruelty that persists together with verdicts that span a long time – life sentences.

Latterly, those who note the move in Barbados to abolish the Common Entrance are these days barely recognising the differences SEA ostensibly produced. They do so even as they call for its corresponding withdrawal here.

The important differences between the two systems to combat the fallibility of “test-based early selection”, as De Lisle once noted, have apparently not relieved the pain they were meant to ameliorate.

This is among the things these new times cannot fail to address. I am not hearing much from all concerned to engender the required confidence.


Dear Comrades

Comrades, it is absolutely understandable that media performance in the pandemic should come under intense internal and public scrutiny. At ...