During the 1973 energy crisis, British economist E.F. Schumacher published a collection of articles and essays titled Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered that called for a holistic approach to human society centered around small-scale, localized solutions.
Schumacher’s arguments that the dogged pursuit of output and technology was dehumanizing; that the workplace should be dignified and meaningful first, efficient second; and that large organizations can work only if they behave like a related group of small organizations, flew in the face of orthodox thinking. “Perhaps we cannot raise the winds. But each of us can put up the sail, so that when the wind comes we can catch it,” he wrote.
The Fifth Summit of the Americas, a gathering of the heads of state of 34 governments in Trinidad and Tobago from April 17 to 19, closed the era of bigness in hemispheric relations and elevated Schumacher’s notion of smallness. Big-stick policies, big-country interests and the paramountcy of big corporations no longer would be the order of the day in the new era envisioned by the heads of state. The citizens of the Caribbean islands mattered as much as the citizens of the big lands in South America and farther north and had equal say in shaping the path to peace and prosperity in the hemisphere. “There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values,” President Obama said in his opening statement.
Cuba, absent because it does not boast a “democratically elected government,” nonetheless hogged the limelight as one head of state after another peppered President Obama with calls to end the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo of the small island-nation. And small businesses, which comprise most of the businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean, were given their day. “Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises are fundamental to economic growth, employment creation and poverty reduction. We call on the World Bank, [Inter-American Development Bank] and other regional banks to accelerate their efforts to promote private sector expansion and development by doubling lending to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises and tripling the numbers of enterprises accessing credit by 2012,” the heads of state declared in their joint communiqué.
Entrepreneurship, not corporate mega-ness, must be nurtured for the sake of economic growth. “In order to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, we commit to increasing investment in research and development to a minimum of 1 percent of GDP by 2015 and to strengthening the linkages among universities, science institutions, the private sector, multilateral agencies and workers,” the summit declaration states.
In his opening statement in T&T, Obama announced a new U.S. Microfinance Growth Fund whose sole aim is to help “power businesses and entrepreneurs in each and every country that’s represented here.” This isn’t charity, Obama insisted. (Insist he must. Imagine the economic, social and political consequences for the entire region if entrepreneurship and small business in Latin America and the Caribbean died.) “Let me be clear: This is not charity,” Obama repeated. “Together, we can create a broader foundation of prosperity that builds new markets and powers new growth for all peoples in the hemisphere, because our economies are intertwined. …Our success must be measured by the ability of people to live their dreams.”
Finally! People and smallness matter. It may just be heads of state talking, but it’s a start.