Yesu and economic growth

With the discovery of oil off our shores, there is much talk about economic growth and development, and how to make it “sustainable”. The passing of business tycoon Yesu Persaud reminded me of a comment by Robert Lucas, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered “endogenous growth” theory. While, like the “exogenous school”, the role of technological progress for growth is stressed, internal factors like “human capital”, as stressed by Lucas, are critical. Human capital embodies the skills and knowledge in the labour force which can be augmented by further education that leads to an increase in their productivity.
So how does Yesu’s life enter the picture? While his work is quite esoteric, in his 2001 book, “Lectures on Economic Growth”, Lucas cited: “V.S. Naipaul’s great novel of economic development, A House for Mr. Biswas…(He) is born in rural Trinidad, a grandson of immigrants who had come from India as indentured servants. As a small boy, his ambition is to become a herder of cattle like his older brothers. (But) his life is a story of amazing progress.
By the end of Biswas’s life, his oldest son, Anand —Naipaul’s own fictional counterpart — is a scholarship student at Oxford… Through all his misfortunes and setbacks, Mr. Biswas is able to maintain the sense of himself as a man with possibilities, with options, a man who is in a position to set limits on what he will put up with. And equally important, he lives in a society that will let him survive with this attitude.” Lucas was stressing the role of education and human agency in generating growth at the micro (Naipaul) level, and cumulatively at the macro level. Naipaul had, of course, received his Nobel in 2001.
But I believe Yesu’s life epitomises Lucas’s point more aptly as a story of Girmitiya progress. Born in a logie at Diamond Estate, to which his great-grandfather had been “bound” from Uttar Pradesh in 19th century India, Yesu was born in 1928. He was one of the first in the estate to actually graduate from primary school in 1943. This illustrates his parents’ drive to educate him, since so many other children were sent to work to supplement the family’s income during the Great Depression. In 1939, when Yesu was 11, five workers at Leonora were shot and killed for protesting working conditions. Diamond and Leonora were owned by the same company.
Poverty did force him to leave high school(s) in Georgetown in 1945 to work in the kitchen at Atkinson Airfield (now CJIA). This had been built and run by the Americans during the war, and exposed him to new possibilities. Unfortunately, malaria forced him to quit, only to experience class and colour discrimination in Georgetown’s commercial sector while job hunting. Forced to accept menial jobs, he returned to Diamond Estate in 1947 at age eighteen. He did a variety of low-level jobs in the fields, but being diligent, was promoted to supervise cleaning cane punts. On each job, he applied the motto of his parents: to learn a job and always improve one’s performance. This was Arrow’s “learning by doing”, which the endogenous growth school extolled.
But post-WWII had opened up further vistas – one of them being England, where he could educate himself formally. Now married, he emigrated in 1954, at 27, to study accountancy, and qualified while working in factories, before landing an accounting job where he excelled. He returned to Guyana in 1966 to work in the Government’s taxation department. In 1975 he landed a job with Diamond Estate corporate owner’s Sandbach Parker subsidiary as Chief Finance Officer.
In 1976, the PNC would nationalise the entire sugar industry, along with their two distilling operations – Diamond Liquors Ltd (DLL) and Guyana Distilleries Ltd (GDL). Yesu had assisted in nationalisation negotiations, and was made Chairman of the merged Guyana Liquour Company (GLC) in 1983 on his initiative. He continued making a series of critical decisions that exemplified the power of human capital and his drive to succeed. Not the least was to strategically diversify away from supplying bulk rums by creating and marketing the premium bottled 15-year-old El Dorado brand as a world-class product in 1992. That he presciently bought out the trademark for a brand with that name, and recently secured Geographical Indications was typical for him.
Founding Demerara Bank and IPED, and pushing for a democratic environment further exemplified his developed human capital and Girmitiya, parental-imparted drive for success. Guyana needs more Yesus for economic development.