HAD Sir William Arthur Lewis still been with us physically, he would have been celebrating his 100th birthday 15 days from today. The outstanding Saint Lucian economist, whose name is often mentioned whenever topics bordering on greatness and determination are being discussed, has demonstrated quite excellently how meaningful an impact one’s lifetime and life’s work can be when one perseveres.
By the time Sir Arthur would have won the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1979 (which he shared with Theodore Schultz of the United States), he had already ascended to greatness. In the field of economic development, for which he had an exceptional talent, Sir Arthur was able to impart his knowledge to the world by developing some of the most important concepts about the patterns of capital and wages in developing countries. Beginning in the latter half of the last century, his contribution to development economics had a significant impact, especially as many colonies decided to seek independence from Britain.
Sir Arthur was a global man, having served in key positions the world over, making decisions that still have a lasting impression on policymakers, scholars and especially his fellow Saint Lucians. During the 1940s and 1950s, he lectured at the University of Manchester before serving as Ghana’s first economic advisor when that African nation became independent in 1957. Sir Arthur was instrumental in formulating Ghana’s first Five-Year Development Plan that spanned the 1959-1963 era.
Sir Arthur was appointed as Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies in 1959, before moving to the United States in 1963 — with a knighthood to his credit that year — where he was a professor at Princeton University for two decades. In 1970, he was selected as the first president of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB). After a stellar career that has spawned generations of scholars devoted to his writings, Sir Arthur passed away on June 15, 1991, in Barbados. Today, the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, a stone’s throw from where he was buried, stands testimony to the philosophy that Sir Arthur embraced passionately: that through education poverty can be overcome.
For about two decades now, a fitting tribute to Saint Lucia’s two Nobel Laureates has been a staple on the Saint Lucian calendar of must-do’s. Held in January, Nobel Laureate Week pays homage to the sterling achievements of the island’s two sons who many are convinced “put Saint Lucia on the map” through their creative magic. Like Sir Arthur, poet/playwright, Derek Walcott, has proven that greatness and genius can emanate when ordinary people from little-known locales do extraordinary things that have a meaningful and lasting impact on humanity. Walcott, who turns 85, also on January 23, is more of a man of words compared to Sir Arthur who was consumed by how using the right numbers and methods, people can rise above their socio-economic dispositions.
Every year, a great deal of effort and resources are expended to ensure that Nobel Laureate Week continues to inform, engage and inspire people about how two determined boys from average socio-economic backgrounds were able to tap into their cognitive strengths to become great men that inspire many. Winning a Nobel Prize is by no means as simple as many think it is. It takes a great deal of hard work, dedication, thoughtfulness and a desire to change the world through one’s concept. That both Sir Arthur and Walcott were able to pull that off in a 13-year period proves that the possibilities of finding groundbreaking talents in this country remain positive. I strongly believe that excellence still resides in us.
Having been to a number of the Nobel Laureate Week activities over the years, I have gotten a sense of what the organizers are trying to do. Summarily, they’re trying to set the tone for what can be achieved when we look within. Within us, they seem to suggest, are a few shades or Sir Arthur and Walcott just waiting to burst into a colourful mix of energy, passion and change that can benefit us all. While many of us might not be au courant with a complex economic theory from Sir Arthur or an abstract and cryptic poem from Walcott, the essence of the Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture and the Derek Walcott Lecture is to simplify how amazingly beautiful both economics and literature can impact our lives.
However, many Saint Lucians still view the Nobel Laureate Week activities as either exercises in futility or merely social events organized to cater to the intelligentsia and elite. Truth be told, much of what I know now and the higher level of appreciation I now pay to both Sir Arthur’s and Walcott’s works has been through attending those lectures. One of the highlights for me is walking into the venues where those lectures are hosted and seeing university and college students from other countries there getting crucial information for their theses. For the naysayers who continue to complain that Sir Arthur and Walcott never did anything meaningful for this country, that’s something to ponder on if you do show up for any of the two lectures this year.
This year’s Nobel Laureate Week will run from January 18-24 and held under the theme “Celebrating Excellence: National Initiatives, Global Perspectives”. The official launch of this year’s NLW is scheduled for next Monday at Government House where the NLW Committee will give more details about this year’s programme of activities. It would do one a great deal of good if one paused to contemplate that if out of us came greatness for the world, then we have the capability to continue propagating such spirit of excellence. Great achievements serve us best when they are continued and recognized – not ignored and negatively criticized.
If you asked me, the centenary of Sir Arthur’s birth should add greater meaning to this year’s Nobel Laureate Week programme of activities. Now more than ever, given our current bleak economic climate, we need to see through Sir Arthur’s theories for what they are: lessons that can teach us the way out of adversity. Sir Arthur’s often-cited quote, “The fundamental cure for poverty is not money, but knowledge”, can at best be a summary of all his theories. Given high unemployment and a stagnant job market, education is the best tool to use in navigating the job market or making a dollar stretch into five. And while many still have their qualms about poetry, Derek Walcott has proven one poem at a time that everything begins and ends with words.