A Caribbean woman causes a stir at the United Nations

Caribbean people love speeches. I have sat through so many speeches in Jamaica; most have been at least ten minutes too long. I have even written quite a few myself.

Yes, Caribbean people know how to “talk the hind leg off a donkey,” as the saying goes. Some political leaders have been famous for it. Michael Manley, for example, was a talker. A great orator, it is said. I recall in his second iteration as Prime Minister, Manley appeared on our television screens at least once a week, intoning: “My fellow Jamaicans…” He was a little more toned down during that period than in the fiery 1970s.

Then there is the annual United Nations General Assembly, where one can truly make one’s mark speechifying. At these sessions, there is always a speech that “wows” the audience, rattling their ear plugs as they sit at their desks. I always wonder how many of the assembly are actually listening to the speeches – perhaps about half? When the camera panned, a number of them seemed to be shuffling papers and talking.

Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019. (Screen shot)

This year, it was Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley who was Flavor of the Month; Ms. Mottley, who became the island’s first female Prime Minister in 2018, is also Minister of National Security and the Civil Service, as well as Minister of Finance, Economic Affairs and Investment. Here is her speech from 2019. I watched the video, but the text is also at this link. I think it’s best to watch speeches. This year, it was all Bob Marley quotes (what would we do without him?) and smartphones.

In a fit of cynicism on Twitter today, I suggested that making a grand speech does not necessarily amount to great leadership. The Barbadian PM has been loudly praised by many Jamaicans as “the Caribbean Prime Minister:” outspoken, fearless (I am not sure what she is supposed to be afraid of?) and exhibiting great leadership qualities. A powerhouse. She can do no wrong! The head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adnahom Ghebreyesus, tweeted his admiration for Ms. Mottley, praising her “bravery,” and thanking her for her concern about vaccine inequity (which was not mentioned in this speech – in fact, COVID-19 was not mentioned, either).

So, I was then challenged to look at the speech itself, rather than Ms. Mottley’s achievements to date. I am not a political analyst, but here are a few things that struck me about Ms. Mottley’s 2019 speech:

It was an idealistic speech, full of broad gestures, as UN speeches generally are.

I thought her comments on climate change were by far the most compelling, although I do not share her optimism that, because young people are engaged in the “battle,” all will be well. Her support for campaigner Greta Thunberg (and the attacks she has suffered) was well noted. However, time is running out for small island developing states, Ms. Mottley noted, and – this is the part that I support – there is definitely a lack of political will to really take action on the issue of climate change. She did not say what action her own country was taking, or would like to take. But there is a good point on the political will. That needs to be activated now, with or without younger generations being brought to the table (and this is not happening enough, and this should have been noted in this speech).

At this point, I would have liked to hear a sentence or two on the impact of climate change on women, and especially the role they play in dealing with those impacts.

Ms. Mottley also emphasized our propensity to talk, talk, talk (as I mentioned above) – and “we are still here today, singing the same chorus.” Indeed. This is a point in the speech where she (or I) got a little woolly, as she talked about “moral leadership” and the “existential threat” of climate change. Generally, however, she tried to avoid clichés and buzzwords, although the inevitable “sustainable development” crept in a couple of times. After all, she was at the UN.

A pile-up of sargassum in Barbados in 2018. (Photo: BBC World)

On the home front, she stressed, her island is facing two major climate-related issues: drought, and sargassum – the seaweed that piles up on beaches, choking marine life and no doubt affecting tourism. I understand that Barbados has no rivers of any significance, and few streams or ponds. Earlier this year, the island was importing water.

All fine. A good wake-up call to the developed nations, who are carrying on as usual, some of whom are commissioning new coal plants. Then on to other challenges for the Caribbean (I suspected the usual “victim” narrative creeping in here; she mentioned financial blacklisting, the illicit flow of weapons and non-communicable disease and poor diets encouraged by multinationals). Nevertheless she moved on quite quickly, with a very vague comment: “There are other instances and circumstances not of our making that may yet destabilize us.” For example?

I found the remainder of the speech equally fuzzy, although it ended well. “We” (meaning, I suppose, the Caribbean) are not there as mendicants, Ms. Mottley stressed, asking for handouts – but please, give us “fiscal and policy space to achieve sustainable development.”

Then we have these comments:

And we judge ourselves harshly because independence is a recent phenomenon for us. Others who have taken 150 years to get where they have gotten are still stumbling and falling.

And you want to judge those who have had less than 50 or 60 years to operate in a world that has not been made in their image and that does not reflect their interests.

OECS Press Room website, Media Centre.

(Who is “you”?) This is the “it’s not fair” narrative. Or, as Jamaicans would say “Donkey seh the world nuh level.” Why do I so often get this from speeches by Caribbean politicians on the world stage – or is it just me looking at it through my own subjective prism? I don’t know. Anyway, small island developing states are suffering from “bullying” and being “crowded out.” I wonder if speakers from Tuvalu or the Maldives would have made the same speech?

Ms. Mottley seemed to get quite mixed up with her pronouns. At times, they were all over the place. She almost sounded as if she was having a conversation with herself. For example:

For real. It’s only then that real value is placed on us and you ask yourself, how can people be so transparent and so lacking in dignity and conscience? May I remind you…

She received applause on three occasions: once, for her assertion that we must continue to have dialogue (What, more talking? However, this is something the United Nations always likes to hear); secondly, for the well-known Caribbean stance on Cuba, which was certain of approval; and thirdly, by observing that Caribbean countries are only turned to in order to make up numbers on committees and councils.

Small island developing states are “the canaries of the international community” she added – sounding a warning which you ignore at your peril” (“you,” one presumes, means everyone else who is not a SIDS?) I think this was a climate change reference, although many other countries are already suffering the ravages of climate change: Germany, India, China, the United States, etc. This did not seem a very strong point, to me.

There was a lot of talk about peace – a no-brainer really at the United Nations, which was of course founded at the end of World War II. There was a quote from Dylan Thomas’ famous poem that is very specifically about death (“Rage against the dying of the light”) and which didn’t quite work for me.

So, the speech ended on an idealistic note. It’s all about love and peace!

In terms of style and delivery, Ms. Mottley could have omitted the rather condescending (or ironic?) “my friends” inserted in some sentences. However, the speech was nothing if not passionate, even when it lost its way. The lowering of the voice every time the “most vulnerable” (poor people, in other words) were mentioned seemed artificial. However, drama was there, and that is something we all enjoy.

Yes, we enjoy the flourish, the drama. We can pick out a few points to consider. That’s the most we can expect from a well-constructed speech. However, this speech was perhaps trying to make too many good points all at once.

Nevertheless, let it not go to our heads. Speeches are just speeches – vehicles for, in this case, political leaders. They are not, in themselves, evidence of great leadership.

For me, leadership means, above all, taking action. As was said in a very popular 2008 Jamaican dancehall song, “Action, not a bag a mouth” (ironically, a song adopted by our current ruling political party for an election campaign). Many of our leaders in the Caribbean seem frozen in the headlights; the COVID effect, perhaps.

The recently resigned Minister of Agriculture Floyd Green resurrected that slogan on a party platform in 2018:

“I am happy to be a part of a party that gets the work done, that deal (sic) with action, not a bag of mouth.” – Min. Floyd Green, MP

Andrew Holness, Facebook page

But I digress. Let’s not get talking about action mixed up with action itself. It was a decent effort by Prime Minister Mottley. I would give the speech 7 out of 10.

As one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, advises:

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

“Mother Night”
Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley speaking at the United Nations General Assembly. (Screen shot)

3 thoughts on “A Caribbean woman causes a stir at the United Nations

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