A life of (global) meaning – in memory of Professor Norman Girvan

Norman Girvan’s life and work have made an enduring contribution to the political economy of the world

Gregory ChinLife has a way of presenting opportunities when we least expect.  A dear friend’s invitation to visit the University of the West Indies, in Trinidad, in February 2008 gave me the unexpected opportunity, and lasting memory, of meeting Norman Girvan.

I was introduced to Professor Girvan while gathering for a small intimate dinner.  My host kindly explained to Professor Girvan that I worked on China and Asia, and had worked for the Canadian International Development Agency, including in Beijing.  Professor Girvan smiled warmly and introduced himself simply as a political economist, with wide-ranging interests in international development.

He told me of his interest in China – of its role in the great political movements of the twentieth century.  We talked about China’s global rise, its dramatic and impressive development over three decades.  Professor Girvan felt that China’s rise presented an opportunity to countries of the South.  He noted that China (along with Brazil and India) was providing growing assistance across the South.  That social, cultural, physical infrastructure, and industrial projects were being supported, as well as scholarships, and assistance in education and health services.  He believed that the support from these providers was not conditioned on the adoption of the policies favoured by Washington-based financial institutions, and not coordinated with the programmes of the Northern donors.  He hoped that the help from China would increase the policy space for the South, and its room to manoeuvre within the established global arrangements.

Professor Girvan recounted in particular a proposal for the islands of the Caribbean to jointly share Embassy offices in Beijing so that these small states could maximise their collective (regional) leverage in their dealings with a large China.  But, in the end, the governments each went with their own small representative offices.

It was only later that I came to understand Norman Girvan’s immense contributions to the political economy of the South.  To the cause of Caribbean development, and the Global South.  Who he was.  A giant among the thinkers of the modern Caribbean.  His pivotal role in the 1970s.  That he was one of the key thinkers behind the bauxite cartel movement in the Caribbean in the 1970s.  His prominence in Michael Manley’s Jamaica.  His role in championing regional collaboration among the newly independent countries of the Caribbean, and with Latin America and Africa.  His work at the UN in the 1980s, including its then newly established Centre on Transnational Corporations.  His continuing work, through the years, at the University of the West Indies, in various regional cooperation initiatives, and at The South Center.

Only afterwards did it dawn on me how Professor Girvan must have been thinking about China in a very complex way.  That China’s rise, and that of the other so-called emerging economies, Brazil and India, did offer new opportunities to the South.  But that China would need to be, or at least, should be mindful of not repeating past patterns.  For his doctoral thesis at the LSE, Girvan had found that Jamaica had experienced a growth boom in the 1960s due largely to investment in the bauxite industry, but he concluded that the growth was not self-sustaining because the required structural changes in the economy did not take place.  He attributed this outcome, in part, to the effects of foreign-owned institutions in the economy, particularly in the bauxite industry and the financial sector, and to the pattern of public expenditure financed by foreign loans (he later suggested that domestic politics also played a role in defining the policy of the era).  As we stood and talked that night in February 2008, Chinese money was flowing into Jamaica’s bauxite industry.  Girvan must have been wondering about the outcome this time around.

More recently, I have learned that, back in the early 1980s, the Chinese translated and published the writing of Norman Girvan and Richard Bernal on Jamaica and the IMF during that turbulent period at the start of China’s now four-decade road of market reform and modernisation.  It’s interesting to ponder what lessons Peking drew from Girvan and Bernal’s reflections on Jamaica’s two failed IMF programmes, as the PRC prepared, back then, to assume the seat of ‘China’ on the Executive Board of the IMF.  Indeed, what thoughts continue to resonate to this day in the thinking of the senior officials of the People’s Bank, especially as my own research has uncovered that Chinese central bank officials have been calling since the late 1990s for reforms of the IMF so as better to reflect developing country needs and interests, and highlighting the supposed “irrationalities of the dollar-centered international reserve system”.  The PRC only borrowed twice from the IMF in the early 1980s, repaid the loans, and did not borrow again from the Fund (China borrowed 450 million and 600 million SDRs from the IMF’s General Reserve Account in March 1981 and November 1986).

Coming back to the present, and as time goes by, what I remember most was Norman Girvan’s kindness, and then his intelligence, and hopefulness. The world today seems very different from that of Norman Girvan’s time.  But Professor Girvan’s example reminds us that, by addressing the great issues of society, the most vexing problems that defy easy and quick solutions, it is possible to make contributions that transcend the temporary and the transitory.  Norman Girvan’s contributions will resonate as long as developing countries, and the small states of the Caribbean, continue to strive for their just development.

To paraphrase a passage from Norman Girvan: We can chart our future if we know our past; we can see further than those who came before if we stand on their shoulders.

About the author

Gregory Chin has published widely on the political economy of China, Asia, the BRICS, and global governance, and his current research is focused on Renminbi internationalization, and the financial politics of the BRICS. He is Co-Editor of the academic journal Review of International Political Economy. Gregory Chin will shortly be a visiting fellow at SPERI. This blog draws on Greg’s chapter, “China’s Rising Monetary Power”, in J. Kirshner and E. Helleiner (eds.), The Great Wall of Money: Power and Politics in China’s International Monetary Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014 forthcoming).