Caribbean Champion

UWI, BirdSong Celebrate Kari Polyani-Levitt

Professor Kari Polyani-Levitt has been honoured by the University of the West Indies with a Doctor of Laws and toasted by the Birdsong pan fraternity for her contribution to the development of the Caribbean. Prof. Polyani-Levitt has spent almost 40 years working with scholars and activists in the Caribbean, mostly in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Following is the citation delivered by St Augustine campus orator Prof. Barbara Lalla at the Award ceremony at the St Augustine campus on October 31. The photos were taken on November 2nd at the Birdsong Pan Academy which hosted a celebratory event in her honour.

Kari with long time friend and associate Prof. Norman Girvan
Kari with long time friend and associate Prof. Norman Girvan

Professor Kari Polanyi-Levitt, Professor Emerita of Economics, McGill University, has enriched Caribbean scholarship and illuminated economic policy for almost fifty years. Although born in Vienna and resident in Montreal, Professor Levitt was embraced by peers as an “honorary Caribbean citizen” as recently as the 2006 launch of her book, Reclaiming Development: Independent Thought and Caribbean Community.

Daughter of renowned economist, Karl Polanyi, Kari Polanyi spent her undergraduate years at the London School of Economics while working, during World War II, in factories and in research groups in heavily bombed areas of London. Marrying Joe Levitt, she relocated to Canada as a war bride and conducted her graduate work at the University of Toronto.

Warren Buffet explains: “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.” As Visiting Professor over many years at St. Augustine and at Mona, Kari Levitt made returns that far outstripped investments on our side. Appointed to the George Beckford Chair in Caribbean Political Economy in the 1990s, she published the George Beckford Papers. Already she had demonstrated her worth to the region by attracting to McGill University graduate students who became eminent Caribbean figures, like Dr. Edwin Carrington (Secretary General, CARICOM Secretariat) and Dr. Ainsworth Harewood (former Governor of the Trinidad and Tobago Central Bank).

Kari receives the Doctor of Laws degree.
Kari receives the Doctor of Laws degree.

Professor Levitt also collaborated with Sir Alister McIntyre on Canada-West Indies Economic Relations, and contrived for William Demas to visit McGill and deliver lectures that established the foundation of his ground-breaking work, Economics of Development of Small Countries. With Lloyd Best, she sought to represent major trends in Caribbean economies marked by the legacy of plantation slavery and, after five years of her meticulous editing, The UWI Press will publish Best and Levitt’s Plantation Economy Models early in 2009.

Her international standing, manifest through membership in a range of associations and affiliations, rests on such achievements as the classic, Silent Surrender – a book that examines American interest in Canada to probe the role of foreign investment in effecting loss of sovereignty in a host country. Currently, she interrogates that “super-boom” through which economic growth, sustained through escalating debt, rescues and the financing of deficits, has produced a “permissive condition”. She urges us to remedy this economic disorder (advanced over six decades to potentially lethal proportions) by rethinking the real value of goods and services in social contexts defined by power relations between private and public authority. Against the backdrop of global trends she has unfailingly addressed toxic financial circumstances in the Caribbean, as in Origins and Consequences of Jamaica’s Debt Crisis (1991). Beyond scholarly work, notably on input-output studies, she has supplied practical advice -for example, to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago on national accounts, and to the World Bank on national accounts of Haiti.

Professor Levitt has wholeheartedly invested her energies not only in the Caribbean world of scholarship and finance but in its popular culture. A committed reveler in Carnival, she played mas as recently as 2006 with an independence of spirit that renders her indomitable in adversity. Vision impairment might slow or deter others but, in 2006, to the music of Invaders, Kari Levitt appeared unaccompanied, chipping up Charlotte Street. What frailer spirits might bemoan as misfortune or disability, she transcends. It is the same professionally. Lucid, forthright and intellectually fearless, Kari Levitt applies cutting edge scholarship to regional practice.

Kari, right, with friend John Maxwell, centre.
Kari, right, with friend John Maxwell, centre.

According to Jonathan Swift, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible,” and Professor Levitt’s extraordinary gift has been her ability not only to perceive acutely but to render clearly visible to policy-makers the subtleties of Caribbean Economics. She not only finds her own way with certainty but leads with breathtaking accuracy. Chancellor, I present Professor Kari Polanyi Levitt, and ask that by the authority vested in you by the Council and Senate of the University of the West Indies, you confer on her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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