‘A true champion of regionalism’

A tribute to former Prime Minister of Barbados, Owen Arthur

‘A true champion of regionalism’

By W. Andy Knight

Owen Arthur

At 12:26 am on Monday, 27 July 2020, Owen Seymour Arthur released his final breath in the intensive care unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados. This small island giant gave his heart not only to the citizens of his country, Barbados, but also to people of the entire Caribbean region. A few days earlier, Owen Arthur was admitted to the hospital suffering from a heart condition. The day before that, he was on the phone with me discussing an issue that had exercised him – the election fiasco in Guyana.

We will never know if the agitation over that particular concern, so clearly evident in Owen’s voice, led to his heart failure. But what I do know is that right up until the final moments of his life, Owen Arthur, the former PM of Barbados, was passionately advocating for adherence to the will of the Guyanese people, who in the general election of 2 March 2020 indicated they wanted a change of government. Arthur’s unselfish commitment to principles of democracy and good governance in the Caribbean was just one of the things that set him apart from his peers. 

Owen Arthur, born in St. Peter, Barbados, attended All Saints Boys’ School and Coleridge and Parry High School before going on to Harrison’s College (my alma mater). In 1971, he received a BA in Economics and History from The University of the West Indies (Cave Hill campus). He then moved to Jamaica to attend the Mona Campus of UWI where in 1974 he attained a MSc in Economics. Immediately upon graduation, Arthur was employed by the Jamaican National Planning Agency as an Assistant Economic Planner. He went on to become the Director of Economics at the Jamaican Bauxite Institute from 1979 until 1981. It was his knowledge of Economics that provided Arthur with the foundation upon which his future political career would be built.

Working and living in Jamaica no doubt broadened Arthur’s outlook on politics in the Caribbean. He recognized early on that economics would be the key driver for the social changes needed, if the post-colonial Caribbean region was to survive in the competitive thrust of the global political economy. He brought that knowledge and insight with him when he returned to his home and native land in 1981 – first in his job with the Ministry of Finance and Planning and then as a Research Fellow at the UWI’s Institute of Social and Economic Research; now renamed the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES). It wasn’t initially obvious that Owen Arthur would end up in politics. In fact, he did not follow the normal path of many Barbadian politicians.

Tom Adams was Prime Minister of Barbados when Owen Arthur was plucked from obscurity in 1983 by the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) to serve as a Senator. Adams saw potential in Owen Arthur, particularly his gift of providing economic explanations for the government’s furtherance of social development on the island. Arthur was encouraged by Adams to run in a by-election for the Parish of St. Peter in 1984, which Arthur won so narrowly that a recount was necessary. Two years later, Adams was dead at 53 years old, succumbing to a heart attack at the Prime Minister’s residence, Illaro Court — the first sitting PM to die in office. And, without the talented Adams, the BLP (under Bree St. John) lost the next elections in 1986 to Errol Barrow and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP). Barrow, at age 67, collapsed and died at his home one year after being elected as Prime Minister for the second time.

By 1993, while in opposition, Owen Arthur became leader of the BLP – making him the parliamentary leader of the Opposition. The following year, the BLP won a resounding victory in an early election call, and Owen Arthur was catapulted into the position of Prime Minister. He ran on a platform that prioritized economic growth and the development of international business and the financial industry. His focus as PM was to stimulate economic and social development by making radical changes to education and training policies and programmes. At the regional level, Arthur led the charge for the establishment of a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and for the removal and/or reduction of duties on regional and extra-regional imports as a means of stimulating liberalized trade throughout the Caribbean.

Arthur’s knowledge of economics helped steer Barbados into a transformation that made the island’s economy a model for the rest of the Caribbean. He dismantled price controls, reformed state monopolies, and created a virtual market place through the establishment of the Fair Trading Commission, telecommunications reform, new competition policy, dismantling of price controls, and reform of State monopolies. These policy moves allowed for the structuring of the Barbados economy amidst challenging times.

With his passing, Barbados and the Caribbean have lost a true champion of regionalism and a wise elder statesman whose knowledge of economics allowed him to make significant contributions to the social development of the countries of this region. He literally gave his heart to the Caribbean. May he now rest in eternal peace.