By Earl Bousquet
Saint Lucians today observe the annual joint birthdate of the island’s two Nobel Prize Winners Sir Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott on a low key, celebrations tempered by COVID-19 protocols and protection and prevention restrictions on gatherings – and a ban on local alcohol sales.
However, on what would have been Lewis’ 106th and Walcott’s 90th birthdays, respectively, fellow citizens this year honour their heroes with some added pleasure: fresh and refreshing news that another son-of-the-soil is about to step into the shoes and follow the footsteps of the island’s first laureate.
Sir William Arthur Lewis was the founding president of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB)1970; and five decades later, another internationally-renowned Saint Lucian economist is about to take his seat at the president’s desk.
The CDB’s board of governors earlier this week announced the election of Dr Hyginus ‘Gene’ Leon, whose own history is much akin to Sir Arthur’s, as its next president.
Like Lewis, Leon topped his class to earn an early doctorate.
His work also took him far and wide – and largely away from home – for most of his working life, likewise serving multiple countries across continents, contributing to theoretical and intellectual discourse on global and regional economic issues, carving his own shape along the path.
Like with Sir Arthur when he won his Nobel Prize in 1979, most Saint Lucians hardly know of Dr Leon – and/or why he was selected, above all other nominees, for the top job in the region’s top development bank.
Who then, is Dr Hyginus Leon?
‘Gene’ attended St Mary’s College (Lewis and Walcott’s Alma Mater) and the ‘A’ Level College, the island’s premiere tertiary institution, subsequently renamed the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC).
One schoolmate recalls, Hyginus had a photographic memory, so while we studied notes and chapters, he would study an entire book.
‘We used to joke about how he sounded like he actually wrote the text for R.G. Lypsey’s classic An Introduction to Positive Economics … But look where it’s got him!’
Like Lewis, Leon will take the helm with three decades experience charting and navigating macro-economic and financial policy for governments in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caribbean.
He worked in Jamaica and Senegal and served for more than 24 years as Mission Chief to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the Gulf States of Oman, Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as for The Bahamas, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
Dr Leon was also a candidate for the top position of governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) and head of the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU), which issues the EC dollar – with a portrait of Sir Arthur adorning its strongest currency note, the $100 bill.
The president-elect is preparing to take the CDB’s wheel at a time when it’s facing-up to the multiple challenges of the COVID pandemic stalling growth across its shareholding member-states, mainly Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations, as well as regional public and private entities.
Under outgoing president William Warren Smith (and his immediate predecessors), the bank paddled and steamed its way through increasingly turbulent waters each time the region had to respond to international crises.
It has survived the 2008 US financial crisis, the effects of global warming and climate change, natural disasters and emergencies in the latter decades of the 20th Century and entered the 21st Century of online banking, worsening regional weather crises, deeper devaluation of primary products and emergence of online trading with cryptocurrencies.
Other competing regional and international banking institutions with different objectives – from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) – are also permanent factors.
Dr Leon does not claim to be (and is not being here presented as) ‘another Sir Arthur’.
But, like Lewis in 1970, his expertise has also long been in very high demand in the farthest corners of the world – and none of his top jobs were ever based in Castries.
Dr Leon is likewise little-known at home, except by generational peers or young professionals in related fields.
Indeed, he was last home in 2016 – to deliver that year’s annual Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture to observe his birthday.
In most cases since his latest appointment, Saint Lucia’s latest source of patriotic national pride has had to be identified by association with any of his three well-known brothers: retired veteran director of finance and economic policy Calixte Leon, consultant Gynecologist Frumentus Leon and the veteran local calypsonian known simply as ‘Bingo’.
Dr Leon’s selection, election and appointment followed a very vigorous selection process that demonstrates, crystal clear, the high levels of confidence directors have in his ability to lead the institution with no less zeal and purpose than any of his predecessors.
He will succeed Dr Warren-Smith, who will retire in three months after a decade at the helm, during which the bank weathered all economic hurricanes or storms under his watch.
CDB presidents today have capable teams representing a select share of the Caribbean’s best brains by age, gender and expertise, heading departments and divisions at the proactive and responsive regional multilateral institution.
Dr Leon takes his seat at Sir Arthur’s original desk on May 1, 2021, five decades later, four decades after he earned his noble Nobel laurels for Saint Lucia and three decades departing along the River of No Return.
It will be both Dr Leon’s envied and unenviable sole task and responsibility to ‘lead from in front’ (as his fellow nationals would say …) at the bank Sir Arthur led.
And in this COVID age when everything has become a new norm, he’ll have to not only walk in his mentor’s oversized shoes but also to start between the end of the Second Decade of the 21st Century and the beginning of the Third Decade of the Third Millennium.