Caribbean Commentary – Guyana Tribalism And Competence


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By Terrence R. Blackman, Ph.D.

News Americas, BROOKLYN, NY, Weds. June 9, 2021: In her essay, The Trouble with Tribes, Susan Fowler invites us to focus on the red dot in the center of the blue circle above. Within thirty seconds, we experience the Troxler effect. When we fix our gaze on the red dot, the blue circle disappears, and all we see is the red dot amidst a field of white. Everything in the periphery fades away when our brain is fixed on a priority.

The Troxler effect is a metaphor for the pitfalls of Tribalism. When we focus on only what is good for our tribe, we lose a sense of the greater community, and, in particular, we lose the understanding of how our tribal embrace damages the world around us. In our families, our communities, our institutions, and in our society at large, Tribalism threatens to tear the fabric of Guyana apart. 

To thrive, we must satisfy three psychological needs: choice, connection, and competence. Our tribe creates a space for us to succeed, to find choice, connection, and competence. Across the political spectrum, Guyana’s political leadership thinks that by appealing to their narrow political tribes, that they’re providing psychological safety for their tribesmen and tribeswomen when, in fact, they are doing just the opposite. 

Guyana stands at a crossroads. The gross recoverable resource for the Stabroek Block is now estimated to be more than nine billion oil-equivalent barrels, including Liza and other successful exploration wells on Payara, Liza Deep, Snoek, Turbot, Ranger, Pacora, Longtail, Hammerhead, Pluma, Tilapia, Haimara, Yellowtail, Tripletail,l, Uaru-2, and Mako. Guyana is expected to have up to $500 million in oil proceeds by the end of the year, an addition of US$263 million in oil revenues atop the US$267 million already in the Natural Resource Fund. These revenues are the inheritance of all Guyanese, a patrimony to be shared, equitably, by all.

Effectively managing the resulting revenues requires open, independent, rational, national, and objective discussions about Guyana’s oil resources and how the payments can better Guyana and the Caribbean Region’s future.

Two broad questions should guide these discussions:

  1. How can Guyana’s energy resources be best used to improve lives and transform the country and the Region’s future? And,
  2. How can we effectively and efficiently channel Guyana’s oil revenues through the various sectors to improve the state of general and public services, including infrastructure and education in Guyana and the Caribbean, while avoiding the mistakes of other petrostates?

This conversation is larger than any political party or government official and requires bold ideas and broad rigorous and respectful engagement. It is a dialogue that must engage the whole Guyanese tribe.

On all sides of the political divide, the Guyanese political leadership must be challenged to create tribal choice instead of using fear, threats, and power to garner cooperation. Our political leadership must be challenged not to fix their gaze on their narrow tribal interests but to seek to author a Guyanese tribe, whose leaders, even if political opponents, are unselfishly dedicated to Guyana’s success.

In the early 16th century, Niccolo Machiavelli famously wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” That same Machiavelli who advocated leading with fear also wrote, “The best fortress which a prince can possess is the affection of his people.” Five hundred years later, research has established that respect for leadership and its vision will trump fear every time.  Guyana’s political leadership must be encouraged to seek to possess the affection of the Guyanese people. Our leaders must create tribal connections instead of sowing divisiveness. Our institutions must incentivize the building of community through collaboration among tribes rather than competition between tribes.

We join tribes to feel a sense of belonging because of our psychological need for connection. Genuine relationships without ulterior motives that align our goals to values, purpose contribute to the greater good. Our leadership must refrain from promoting the insular tribal logic of “us versus them.” The welfare of all must mean those outside our immediate tribe, too. We need tribal members from all of the various tribes dedicated to sharing their love of Guyana and her people, all of her people. This articulation sounds naive, but when a leadership expresses an authentic, loving heart, the tribe’s energy isn’t focused only on the red dot. Just the opposite: The tribe member’s share their values, products, and services with the world.

Guyanese often worry that when we deemphasize our tribe that we lose our tribal identity.  Our greatest fear is that we become less Black, less Indian or less Amerindian and lose our sense of place and belonging.  Malaysia and, to a lesser extent, Singapore, provide positive examples where aspects of the various ethnic and racial identities that make the nation have been integrated into their constitution, institutional structures, and arrangements for political representation.  These multiracial and multiethnic governance structures offer us a model for a way forward. 

To envision Guyana and Guyanese as one multi-racial and multi-ethnic tribe is the non-negotiable anchor needed for a stable and prosperous Guyanese nation. The logic of competence must subsume the narrow tribal logic that currently shapes our significant national policies. The logic of competence must inform our education, housing, and political priorities, among others.

Imagine embedding and entrenching the whole Guyanese multiracial and multiethnic tribe in public and political discourse surrounding the Sovereign Wealth Fund – this is necessary for the substantive and critical discussions needed for Guyanese to make the optimal decisions to negotiate our current polarized political environment and the reality of our newfound good fortune.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Terrence R. Blackman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of mathematics and a founding member of the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics at Medgar Evers College, is a member of the Guyanese diaspora. He is a former Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor at MIT and a current member of The School of Mathematics at The Institute for Advanced Study. Dr. Blackman has previously served as Chair of the Mathematics Department and Dean of the School of Science Health and Technology at Medgar Evers College, where he has worked for more than twenty-five years. He’s a graduate of Queen’s College, Guyana, Brooklyn College, CUNY, and the City University of New York Graduate School.



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