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The real worth of political manifestos in the Caribbean

By Dr. Isaac Newton

I was the guest speaker at a prestigious University recently. My topic was “Caribbean integration and change agent leadership.”


The atmosphere was laced with anguish realism and undaunted hope. Students demonstrated an extraordinarily rare diasporic deliberation, over how to make enduring contributions to the Caribbean.


Many of the students had political interests as scientists and practitioners. Knowing that, I presented several models on political leadership. One of the students surprised me with an unexpected inquiry, “Doc what is the role and function of the manifesto, in providing the political mandate to govern the State?”


Although I am usually ready for intellectual fireworks and political fire backs, I had to make swift connections between my topic and the student’s question. Immediately, another student shouted, “The manifesto is a pure public relations document, nothing else.” Conspicuous arguments followed, and the whole thing turned into a worthy intelligent discussion, much to my liking.


Realizing then, that this discussion had wider Caribbean significance, I decided to explore the politics of manifestos.  


Dissecting the politics of Caribbean Manifestos


I have brainstormed, participated in writing, fine-tuned, and laid the foundation for several manifestos across the Caribbean.  Until the students engaged me, I did not think too deeply about the purpose of manifestos, because I was frequently absorbed with pre-elections strategizing.


I know that whatever politicians do to win elections, cannot be sustained on the side of managing the State. Therefore, there is always going to be a massive gap, between winning elections and governing the country.


After reflecting on why so many Caribbean Manifestos were not implemented, I began focusing on why it is near impossible to execute the lavish claims that these documents make. Here are my conclusions.


1.     As pre-elections documents, manifestos are arguments against the incumbent governments. They are designed as political showcase, flaunting off the Oppositions’ view, that they are the better alternative to rule. The aim is to convince the populace that the Oppositions have superior ideas, when compared with the reigning governments.

2.     Manifestos are part of the political rituals of winning the elections. That is why, as soon as an Opposition wins, they put away the manifesto and get down to the complex task of managing the country.

3.     Manifestos are monumental abominations against the bureaucratic complexities that make countries work. They are published for public relations impact, to convince voters of the promises of a brighter tomorrow, and to create a liberating ethos of change. They are not designed as functional guides or instruments of change.

4.     The incumbent governments on the other hand, usually use manifestos as a laundry list to highlight achievements. For the governments, manifestos are announcements of programs in motion, and marketing tools for completed projects. Manifestos are intended for celebration. Governments do not use them to monitor or measure, success or failure.


Why manifestos cannot work?


A.    Manifestos cannot work because they are not grounded in the actual procedures, protocols and principles that operate ministries.

B.    Manifestos are part of the false hope of reinventing governments. One obstacle to governmental transformation is how most civil servants/technocrats adhere strongly to the policies, practices and laws of the land. Their bureaucratic expertise, gives them the space and power to perform their duties with some degree of independence from the politics of change and exchange. They reinforce the rules of the system. These rules function on consistency not change.

C.    Enthusiastic politicians, who treat the manifestos as ethical referendums to implement new ideas in their respective ministries, are usually the first casualties of the government. Not realizing the snail-like slowness of bureaucracies, they faint early with frustrations, and become overwhelmed by the pressures of doing things, the same old way.

D.    Interests groups tolerate a certain degree of change. For example, the Labour Unions, Gender Affairs and Pensioners, all have their diverse interests to protect, and are committed to reflect those interests when new policies are on the table.  These groups disguise resistance in the language of “careful review.”  Further, they are prepared to bombard the government with signatories of rejection or major reconstruction of new policies.  In turn, the government cannot easily proceed with its manifesto’s plans.


Not by manifestos but by results


By what standard of evaluation does a conscientious citizen determine the failure and success of an incumbent government? A government should be judged not by the promises made, but on the evidence of achieved results. Not simply by what it starts, but also by what it finishes.


Voters elect and hold governments accountable based on their manifestos. However, all governments over-promise and under-deliver. On the moral plane, actions when combined with words, speak loudest, but on the political front, only actions speak.


Put differently, does the government:

        Expand life chances

         Improve social conditions

         Advance the economy

         Establish better health care systems

         Reduce crime

         Build and improve better infrastructures

         Offer more educational opportunities

         Establish programs and structures to promote virtue and prevent vice in public office

        Care for the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable citizens

         Encourage freedom and prosperity and,

         Create an equitable-gender sensitive nation.  


Turning manifestos into action documents


With governments, talk is cheap when performance is poor.  Only on the sustainable success of its achievements and its capacity to deliver better results, must governments be trusted with a second or third term in office.


It is not surprising that less than five percent of all manifestos are implemented.  Ninety-five percent are not.  If politicians want manifestos to work, a grand, actionable, effective, and relevance vision of change must inform them. Since politics does not have its own ethics, and politicians must appeal to higher values on a consistent basis, political will and competence are not enough.


Manifestos can become change-documents, when politicians capture wide-ranging, bipartisan support, around a compelling program of transformation. That program must caress the people’s hopes and aspirations, must be inclusive and fair, and must harness human flourishing. 


Rallying the national imagination around public issues that foster sea change is an awesome achievement. Creative thinking must be entered into, for the purposes of improving standards of living.


To make great things happen, political leaders must possess charisma, moral authority, likeability, passion and innovation. They must engage in high-level thinking and sophisticated planning. They must also exercise sound judgment in choosing the right time and personnel to execute their plans.  


Political leaders exploding with galvanizing energies will rescue manifestos from the status of marketing documents by turning them into strategic action plans.


 Dr. Isaac Newton


International Leadership and Change Management Consultant and Political Adviser. He specializes in Government and Business Relations, and Sustainable Development Projects. Dr. Newton works extensively, in West Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America and is a graduate of Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. He has published several books on personal development. 


P.S. No part of this article should be reprinted, in part or in whole, without the written or verbal consent of the author.

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