Commonwealth Past and Future with Professor Tony Payne

First published in Canvas:  March 3  2014

You spent thirty years working in and around Commonwealth issues.  How did you come by that particular area, and how did your work progress over time?

Like many students in the early 1970s I became especially interested in issues to do with development and poverty.  We talked then of a ‘Third World’, of developing countries, even of the particular problems of ‘new states’, given that the moment of passage from colonialism was still very recent for many countries.  I read French well enough and had some Spanish, but I didn’t think my languages were good enough for me to do proper research on a non-English-speaking part of the world.  So I was limited practically to the ex-British Empire, as it were, which by the time I was taking decisions was in effect the Commonwealth.  I then developed a notion of a ‘Commonwealth Third World’ as a framework within which one could compare parts of Africa with parts of Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and thereafter I was off and away along this particular road.  It’s been a lot of fun.

 You focused on the Caribbean specifically.  How have Caribbean issues developed in the past thirty years?

I initially planned to write a PhD thesis on West African politics and development.  But at the first meeting of my incoming cohort of students at Manchester I sat by chance next to a West Indian student who became a friend and who gradually persuaded me to divert my attention to his part of the world.  I have never regretted the switch.  By the way, he is now Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, one of the small independent states of the eastern Caribbean!

Caribbean issues have gone through quite a shift during the period that I have been researching them – from an early period of tentative, cautious emergence into the world of sovereign statehood, to a turbulent and radical phase in the 1970s marked by the turn to democratic socialism in Jamaica and the revolution in Grenada, to a tougher engagement with neo-liberalism, structural adjustment and the IMF in the 1980s. Currently, the region faces a quiet crisis – characterised by high levels of debt, failing economic performance, growing crime and a lack of far-sighted leadership.  It no longer attracts much attention from the rest of the world, which is a pity and a problem for it.

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