To whom much is given…

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A leader must lead from the front and sometimes that means making unpopular decisions that, they believe, will take their people forward. Never does it mean to disrespect those who you lead and direct others to ‘ignore’ and treat with ‘benign neglect’ those who may not share your vision in its entirety.

That is why we were so taken aback when, at the groundbreaking of the Callaloo Cay project, Prime Minister Gaston Browne brashly told the United Arab Emirates (UAE) investors to do just that and ignore the concerns of residents.

The nation’s chief servant dismissed the flooding concerns raised by multiple residents and voiced most frequently by community leader Jameison ‘Kublai’ Mannix, deriding those who raise concerns as “not having one CXC [subject]”.  In this stunning display of brashness and political incorrectness Browne not only scorned at those he leads, but made a grave error.

Schools may be great teachers but nothing trumps the education of experience. Many a scientist entering a new place have rode in on their high horses dismissing local knowledge as useless against their grand university degree and many a scientist have been in for a rude awakening when they’ve seen the residents’ warnings ring true. The world is waking up to this reality; Antigua & Barbuda should not be caught sleeping.

Suman Sahai, the founder and chair of Gene Campaign, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of genetic resources and indigenous knowledge, recently wrote a paper on why governments, which accept only Western-style science as the basis of evidence-based policymaking, cost their countries dearly. Sahai explains the problem stems from a colonial past, which has nurtured a ‘look West’ elite who take their Western inclinations into policy formulation.

Italian researcher Fulvio Mazzocchi recently wrote of communities that, “their knowledge embodies a wealth of wisdom and experience of nature gained over millennia from direct observations, and transmitted—most often orally—over generations. The importance of this traditional knowledge for the protection of biodiversity and the achievement of sustainable development is slowly being recognized internationally.”

Scientists, or “water engineers” as the PM calls them in this case, have their use, but even a scientist learns from the experience of experiments. Old Road residents have lived and experienced real life experiments and they know a thing or two about the village they call home. Ignore their warnings at your own peril.

But the PM’s language speaks to a broader issue. When consultations in Old Road began, Browne was quick to warn residents he was not there for their permission. Why come then was the reply of many Old Road residents. They decried a consultation in which there was no intention to listen, as a sham.

More recently, the developers agreed to a consultative group but developers’ representatives have let on that the only intention was to “appease residents”, with plans already set, and not to take any meaningful input.

It’s a dismissive and disrespectful approach that makes us fear for this country. When the Callaloo Cay project was in its earliest days, one of our reporters was spending a Sunday at Morris Bay when they encountered PM Browne driving through the area. A farmer happened to be herding his goats through the area and on seeing PM Browne let him know of his objections to aspects of the hotel project. Browne’s response was to berate the man for the “ugly” state of the area and dismiss him as an “illiterate ***”, as other profanities were hurled.

The farmer may be wrong and his fears unfounded, as may be many of the residents, but a nation led by a man who dismisses, ignores and disrespects his people while encouraging others to treat them with “benign neglect” is one headed for trouble.

We wish Callaloo Cay was the only example of disrespect being meted out to the people and the only example of foreign investors being encouraged to scorn those to whom this land belongs. Unfortunately, we cannot forget the warnings from Yida International representatives that those who do not share the ABLP’s vision will be left “in the dustbin of history”.  We also remember how easily a ‘comrade’ in the senate was discarded when he dared to stand up on behalf of the union members he represents.

The PM is nearly three years into his term. It would be wise for him to learn that he is leader for all the people, not just those who have multiple CXC subjects, or wear red and sing and dance along to his every tune.

As a former banker, he may be willing to take a now famous word of advice from World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, who said, “No matter how good you think you are as a leader, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better. So, for me, the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.” Or to put it more simply in the words of former US President Woodrow Wilson, “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people”.

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