In an enthralling display of visionary wisdom and profound insights, the Honourable Gaston Browne delivered a captivating keynote address at Said Business School.
Assembled before a distinguished audience of accomplished professionals, the esteemed leader shared his thoughts on responsible leadership, emphasizing the need for courage, innovation, and resilience in today’s rapidly evolving world:
“I am greatly honoured to be invited to speak to such an accomplished group of professionals drawn from our global community, and particularly from the world of business.
Kindly allow me to pay tribute to the visionary founder of this Business School, Wafic Said, whose belief in the transformative power of education and investment in talent has left an indelible mark.
The world would undoubtedly be a better place with more individuals like Wafic Said.
I thank him for the leadership he has so unselfishly given.
Today, I speak on the subject of responsible leadership, not only from the theoretical aspects, but will also share some practical examples of leadership, from the perspective of the leadership of Antigua and Barbuda – a small island-state in the Caribbean, facing significant challenges in the global community.
As alumni of one of the most celebrated schools on the planet, each of you has been trained to be responsible leaders to serve your community, your country and all of human civilization. You were trained as a committed global force for good; to provide solutions to resolve problems facing our planet, including the current economic and climate crises, conflicts and security threats including cyber security threats, among others.
A responsible leader is a person of integrity, one who is courageous, visionary, innovative, strategic, resilient, entrepreneurial, transparent and accountable. A person who sets the vision and organizational objectives, while ensuring that the ethical values and moral culture of the institution are aligned with good governance principles; recognizing that good governance is good business.
Responsible leadership is about service to humanity; it recognizes the interconnectedness of the different stakeholders of people, organizations and society; while balancing the moral, ethical, and normative obligations among stakeholders.
Ultimately, leaders must seek to be transformative in their performance, to create positive impact for the long term growth and sustainability of the institution; that is responsible leadership, compared to simply maintaining the status core.
Transformative leadership has revolutionized societies and our planet, resulting in the contemporary Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0. The fourth Industrial Revolution has seen the advancement of information communication technologies (ICT’s), resulting in increased inter connectivity, smart automation and overall digitalization of our societies. I am duty bound to remind you that these advances were not driven by leaders who maintain the status quo, but by transformational leaders.
Digitalization, which is the use of digital technologies, has resulted in the transformation of business models to digital businesses, providing increased opportunity and new revenue and value -producing opportunities.
Virtually all contemporary businesses comprise of some form of digitalization for increased productivity, and value-added digital services that could be monetized and delivered virtually without the need for physical premises.
It is estimated that digitalization will be embedded in the fabric of virtually every job thereby, accounting for most of the new jobs created in the future; with careers in exciting areas to include: cyber secuirty, analytics, gaming, digital marketing, designing, social media management, political strategy etc.
The most exciting area of digitalization is still in its infancy; that is Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is fast becoming a mainstream concept with the generative chat box, Chat GPT, that has taken the world by storm.
Generative AI has potential implications for responsible leadership and could result in serious geo-political implications. In fact, it is projected that AI will be far more impactful than previous technological advancements.
AI’s unique characteristics utilizing the power of computer algorithms will impact literally all aspects of development, to include biotechnologies, nano technologies, politics, creative arts etc.
There are however serious downside risks associated with the potential misuse of AI to generate misinformation and disinformation, which could challenge our traditional foundations of global peace and security. This will necessitate the need for a strong regulatory framework to proactively curb, or eliminate the use of this exciting technology for nefarious purposes.
Early adopters of AI in their planning and decision making processes will certainly benefit from increased competitive advantage and AI is likely to shift the balance of power between nations who develop and control the technology.
Currently, AI is seen as a strategic priority, and tens of billons of dollars are being invested by private sector technology firms and nation states, especially the USA and China.
It was reported in September 2017, that Vladimir Putin told a group of students that “whoever becomes the ruler of AI will Become the ruler of the world.”
Today, I say to you, this distinguished group of Oxford alumni that countries, leaders, artisans, professionals who are early adopters of artificial intelligence will obtain competitive advantage over their competitors.
Future sustained competitive advantage is unlikely to be achieved without the adoption and application of AI.
As I indicated before, AI is not properly regulated at this time and comes with certain threats. The technology could be easily misused and could challenge the integrity of leaders. This reinforces the need for responsible leadership with the integrity and self regulating standards to avoid misuse of the technology.
A typical example is, AI could be used to generate misinformation and disinformation to achieve political influence at home and abroad. Also, it could give large technological companies that control its oligopolistic space, more power than nation states.
Despite these challenges, responsible leadership and regulations can ensure that AI is utilized as a force for good to take human civilization to the next level of progress and development; that is; industrialization 5.0.
Innovation and creativity are crucial aspects of responsible leadership and are driven by vision; that is, the ability to plan with wisdom and, or imagination for a sustainably better future.
It’s the creativity, that is, the inventiveness and the new ideas, methods and products of innovation, that have resulted in the various industrial revolutions; transitioning the global economy from an agrarian one a couple hundred years ago, to a service dominated global economy today.
Having established the theoretically foundation of responsible leadership, I now wish to share some practical leadership examples.
I shall utilize examples from my island state to include the challenges that we had to surmount since we achieved our independence in 1981. Perhaps these examples of responsible leadership are apropos in that, leading a small island with extremely limited natural, financial and mineral resources, is far more challenging than a country with significant resource capacity.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the idea that change is the only constant. I am not sure that the latter is an absolute, or permanent truth in the context of the constant and myriad challenges confronting small states like Antigua & Barbuda.
These myriad challenges include climate change, debt, access to concessional financing, derisking, among others.
I hope that the experiences our leadership has been compelled to provide, will be of some comparative benefit to each of you in your careers.
Our leadership had to be innovative, creative and resilient to transform our country from an economic backwater when it became independent in 1981, into a modern society today.
That work is still in progress.
I am pleased to share these pragmatic examples with you, because, as present and future leaders; in your hands resides the opportunity to contribute to an economically prosperous world, in which my country might have better prospects.
The desirable world is one with responsible leadership, that recognizes our common humanity and that mankind will only flourish in conditions of peace, where markets are stable, where inequities are eliminated, and where business is transacted in a relationship of fairness.
Unfortunately, that is not the world in which we now live.
Russian aggression in Ukraine, in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law is the most obvious manifestation of the phenomena in the world, that prevent mankind from inhabiting our one homeland – the planet Earth – peacefully for the benefit of all its people, particularly the small and powerless.
Small states such as mine have no military might and no economic power.
We can neither threaten economic sanctions, nor give financial support to advance our interests.
Nor can we threaten or invade any other territory.
For us, a rules-based world is imperative; and adherence to those rules by all is essential.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has harmed our economy and has raised the cost of living to our people, by creating a shortage of food products and driving up the costs of shipping and other logistics.
But there are many other urgent problems.
Climate change is one of them, and is the most significant existential threat facing our country.
With its relentless impact on civilizations, ecological systems; climate change threatens Antigua and Barbuda and many small island states around the world.
Currently, ten nations are responsible for more than 90 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions; this and the historical emissions of the G7 countries are largely responsible for climate change, global warming and sea level rise.
And despite, year upon year of so called “global negotiations”, the world is now set to fail in the declared objective of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, which is the tipping point to disaster for many of us.
The powerful may be hearing the pleas of the powerless, but they are certainly not listening. Responsible leadership also requires a listening ear, empathy and proactive action to avert crises.
The most critical problems faced by countries such as mine are compensation for the repeated loss and damage, that we have suffered from repeated disasters caused by Climate Change; and the need to build resilience to the impacts of Climate Change faster than they are occurring.
We have incurred large debt on commercial terms, to repeatedly rebuild after disasters, and to build resiliently to resist the destruction caused by others.
The UN process of an annual meeting of the Committee of the Parties (COP) has promised much and delivered little.
Consequently, we have had to take on leadership roles in the international community, to protect ourselves from the disinterest in our plight displayed by the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters.
Along with the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, we founded the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS) two years ago, in Glasgow in the margins of COP26.
The purpose of COSIS is to seek first an Advisory Opinion from the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), on the obligations of all states not to cause ecological and environmental damage to other states and their responsibility to compensate for losses flowing from their actions.
ITLOS has scheduled a hearing for our case in September in Hamburg.
We are hopeful for a helpful Opinion; that will support the principle that the polluter pays.
Hopefully, the threat of litigation will force more responsible leadership, in curbing the profligate use of fossil fuels to save our planet from the catastrophic consequences of climate change.
Ladies and Gentlemen, today, the world is witnessing a retreat from multilateralism which will adversely affect global business.
Protectionist barriers to trade are reemerging, ideologies are resurfacing, and divisions between the global north and the global south are becoming more pronounced.
None of this contributes to the enhancement of a world community where peace prevails, trade prospers, and economic development is achieved with equity and fairness.
The world, if anything, consists of rivalry, unfair competition, inequity, and the might of power.
Successful business needs a world in which there is greater economic integration, common and fair rules, non-discriminatory and just regulations, and more open borders.
To most of the world my island-state in the Caribbean is an alluring postcard of white sandy, beaches, sunshine, parties, and intoxicating rum.
We ourselves have had to market that image, because at our independence from Britain 42 years ago, we inherited no manufacturing sector, no commercial agricultural production, no real means of production, and no university. All that we had were beaches and sunshine and defunct sugar plantations.
Our infrastructure at independence was less than inadequate.
We had a poor roads system, inadequate housing, even worse capacity for water and electricity supply, a small seaport and airport and a largely untrained population.
As a result of impactful transformational leadership, today, we have several tertiary level education institutions, including a University about which I will say more later in this presentation.
In less than 50 years, we have transformed our small island-state from a backwater of the world, to one of the premier global tourism destinations, improving the lives of our people; and striving diligently to achieve and sustain a better quality of life.
We now have two major seaports – one for cruise ships, including the world’s largest Oasis cruise liners, and the other for commercial shipping vessels than can accommodate the large Panamax vessels.
We also have the most modern international airport in the Caribbean serving direct flights from several major US and European Cities and throughout the Caribbean.
How we achieved this in less than 50 years, as a work in progress ?
We took responsible leadership – the overarching theme of your consideration this week.
Our leadership was driven by a desire to attain a higher standard of living for our people.
Remarkably, it was not the small, under-resourced and risk-averse business community that drove that ambition.
It was the trades union movement that initially propelled it, pushing for better terms and conditions for our people who had emerged from 300 years of slavery, followed by another 100 years of worker exploitation on sugar estates that fueled the British economy.
Therefore, throughout the period since independence, our leaders had to maintain a steady vision of transformation.
They had to be creative and innovative in ways to attract foreign investment, in areas that would create better jobs and higher incomes.
Sadly, when we did manage to establish a significant offshore banking sector as a second string to tourism in our economy, the powerful countries with a vested interest in the world’s financial services, made sure that our offshore banking sector did not compete with theirs.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD) or the ‘rich man’s club’, initiated global rules and regulations for which they had no authority, except raw coercive economic power to impose sanctions.
Those rules and regulations, which were continuously changed by the OECD, succeeded in their objective by emasculating our offshore industries in the Caribbean, and leaving them alive and thriving in Delaware, New York, and Miami in the United States; in London; in Paris; in Zurich, and of course in Hong Kong and Singapore for trading by the most muscular companies in the world. Our gaming industry which once ranked among the largest in the world suffered a similar faith; was decimated by the United States despite our obtention of an arbitral award from the WTO against the US which they refused to settle fifteen years later.
So, leadership – and responsible leadership – has always to bear in mind the oversize responses of competitors, especially if they are large and powerful.
Essential elements of such leadership must be the readiness to persist; resilience, even in the face of adversity.
As I said before, responsible leadership requires courage and resilience.
But always leadership must have clear goals and objectives – objectives which bring benefits for all, ensuring that growth and development is steady and supported by all stakeholders.
Today, Antigua and Barbuda is regarded by the World Bank and the IMF as a ‘high income’ country – so much so, that we are now denied access to concessional financing; even though we live in a hurricane belt and are prone to persistent storms; experience years of continuous drought; and have had to contend with high costs for as much as 70 percent of the goods and services, including food, that we are compelled to import.
Our efforts to widen the criteria for access to concessional financing beyond high per capita income are continuous, requiring us to invest the intellectual and innovative power necessary to present an irresistible case to the world’s rich nations, which fix the policies of the international financial institutions.
After 30 years of advocacy for the development of a multi-dimensional vulnerability index, Beginning in February 2022, along with Ms Erna Solberg, then Prime Minister of Norway, and I have co-chaired a UN Committee that has developed a multidimensional vulnerability index for small Island developing states, including on its potential finalization and use.
This is another indication of the demands of leadership – how to think beyond the confines of a localised situation to find broader solutions to pressing problems.
Leadership also requires the courage, determination and resilience to face seemingly insurmountable challenges.
In 2018, my country took a stand against US financial regulators and lawmakers in Congress whose policies led to the termination of correspondent banking relationships with many developing countries, including my own.
This had a significant impact as small vulnerable states in the Caribbean lack access to alternative trade settlement currencies and correspondent banking architecture, leaving them entirely reliant on multinational correspondent banks centralized in developed countries.
The consequences of de-banking and barring these countries from the international payment system are unjust and detrimental.
It hinders their ability to pursue their development agendas without cause and leaves them without any recourse.
In response, my government launched a diplomatic campaign, including high-level visits to the Banking Committee of the US Congress and meetings with representatives of the World Bank and the IMF.
Through extensive intellectual and diplomatic efforts, we convinced US regulators and Congress that their stringent requirements imposed on US global banks were misguided and harmful to global trade.
We highlighted the potential increase in poverty and the emergence of an unregulated black market in financial transactions, among other potential consequences.
Without the significant diplomatic work we undertook, the termination of correspondent banking relationships would have intensified, severely impacting international businesses operating in the Caribbean and cutting off the region from global trade.
The economic, political, and social effects would have been disastrous.
Our efforts not only protected our country, but also contributed to the preservation of global trade and the well-being of developing nations.
This serves as an example of the courage and determination necessary to confront challenges and advocate for justice and fairness in the face of adversity.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the other aspects of leadership, vision, strategy and innovation demand further comment.
Often persons responsible for financial planning focus on the immediate need to generate income and profits in the short term, neglecting the gains that could be achieved in investment in the longer term.
In April 2002, speaking during the dedication of this hall in his honour, Nelson Mandela made two profound observations about the Republic of South Africa, a nation he led as President after the dark era of apartheid.
Mandela recognized that emancipation from illiteracy and ignorance was an integral part of the liberation struggle in South Africa, and education emerged as the key to that transformation.
Similarly, in Antigua and Barbuda we too recognized that education was the ladder on which we could climb out of poverty and economic backwardness.
Upon gaining independence, our nation inherited great poverty, high unemployment, low literacy rates, and an educational system designed to perpetuate colonialism.
The education our people received was primarily tailored for low-level tasks in the colonial public service or basic roles in the foreign-dominated private sector.
Mandela’s wisdom resonated deeply when he emphasized the need for a broad corps of educated, highly skilled, and well-trained individuals to become the winning nation that could provide better lives for all its people.
We shared this understanding, recognizing that the colonial education system would not produce the educated and highly trained workforce our economy needed.
It fell to our leaders to build secondary schools and to locate them across the country.
In 2014, when we assumed office, my administration was determined to expand the access of my people to tertiary education, not only to give them the wings to which they could fly to higher heights, but to equip them to develop the country.
Consequently, in 2018, we engaged in negotiations with the leadership of the University of the West Indies and were successful in establishing a campus in Antigua.
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the campus began offering courses in various fields, including Humanities and Education, Management, Sciences and Technology, and Health and Behavioural Sciences.
We expect that, as a result of the University, within 10 years and thereafter; we will have a solid core of educated and trained persons who can contribute knowledge to the creation of new businesses and the enhancement of existing ones.
The establishment of the University campus demonstrates that the success of every project relies on vision, strategy, determination and courage.
Finally, I emphasise the symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between governments and business and the need for innovation and entrepreneurship; to think outside the box and even to challenge conventional ideologies, policies, systems and processes.
My administration assumed office nine years ago with a vision to transform Antigua & Barbuda into an economic power house, with the objective of pursuing first world living standards for our citizens and residents.
The successful transformation of our country required not only realignment of processes, staffing, structure, systems and strategy, but also a realignment of our economic policy ideology. This resulted in the novel economic concept of empowerment capitalism; which is a hybrid form of a state capitalism investment model, in which the public and private sectors partner for profits.
This model reduces the supernormal profits of private corporations, reduces income inequality and results in the further socialization of profits, through the payment of dividends to fund socio-economic development. The model calls for greater domestic ownership as a form of local empowerment and greater retention of profits in the local economy to spur faster rates of economic expansion. This model has yielded superior sustainable growth compared to the largely extractive economic models, that dominate the regional Caribbean economic space, where the majority of profits generated are repatriated to other regions.
In Antigua and Barbuda, my government has been entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial, actively, engaging in partnerships with, the private sector to exploit large business opportunities, which otherwise would have been exclusively reliant on foreign capital. These firms are managed by the private sector partners, without any intervention of the government. To date, all of the investments we have made in banking, petroleum storage and distribution, telecoms, hotels and dredging are profitable contributing significant non tax income to the Treasury.
These partnerships resulted in benefits accruing to the state as well as the company – that is the essence of successful business.
I mention this model to encourage you to challenge the conventional wisdoms and to develop bespoke business/economic models that will benefit the organization and the state.
The final examples I wish to share are examples of courageous and resilient leadership during COVID and the rebuilding of our sister island Barbuda in 2017, after the destruction by hurricane Irma.
Antigua & Barbuda’s economy was constructively closed for several weeks in April & May of 2020, when airlines ceased flying and cruise ships ceased sailing into the country. However, we were the first to courageously reopen our borders to air and sea travel in the Caribbean, leading the way for other Caribbean countries.
Whereas we accepted and respected COVID as an extremely dangerous and menacing disease at the time, we remained undaunted and developed quick capacity to mange the COVID risks, arising from the exposure of reopening early. The impact of the decision, was such that, we had less infections and deaths than many more destinations that pursued risk averse COVID policies, to include extended lockdowns and we averted long term economic scarring. Our economic recovery post COVID was strong, averaging about 8 percent per annum for the past three years; we successfully bounced forward beyond the 2019 levels of growth and development.
A classic case of resilience is our rebuilding of Barbuda from the mangled wreck it was in 2017, into what is now emerging as the most exciting luxury island destination in the Caribbean to rival St. Barts and other luxury island destinations in the Caribbean. Today, Barbuda has attracted more investment per capita, than any other island community in the Caribbean and is a beacon of resilience. This is yet another example of surmounting challenges and bouncing forward after Barbuda was decimated by hurricane Irma in 2017.
I end this presentation by thanking you for participating in this forum and to encourage the sharing of ideas during the discussion stage of the dialogue to facilitate a synthesis of ideas that will redound to the benefit of all.
My heartfelt wish is that the experience I have shared with you today will add something however small, to the considerable knowledge, skills, and capacity you already have in great abundance.
May your endeavours bring forth positive change of responsible leadership and contribute to a more stable world from which all can benefit.