[Patsy Robertson was the Director of Information at the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1983 to 1994. She has also served with UNICEF, the UN and is currently the Chair of the Ramphal Institute, Widows Rights International and the Commonwealth Association. She agreed to write this article for Round Table following the death of Bishnodat Persaud on 24 July.]
The death of Professor Bishnodat (Vishnu) Persaud has robbed the Commonwealth family of one of its most distinguished Caribbean intellectuals. But it has also caused immense sadness among the hundreds of colleagues who worked with him for many years not only in the Caribbean and the Commonwealth, but also in the wider development community where his contributions were admired and acknowledged.
He will also be remembered for his service in the Secretariat when the Commonwealth was a leading force in the worldwide efforts to end racism in Southern Africa. Commonwealth countries had declared, from the early 1960s when the momentum for independence was unstoppable, that they would not tolerate the overt racism which prevailed in South Africa and the then Rhodesia.
Under the uncompromising leadership of the first two Secretaries-General, Arnold Smith of Canada and Shridath Ramphal of Guyana, newly independent countries from Africa and the Caribbean were determined to mobilise international support for this struggle. The Secretariat was able to recruit some of the best and brightest young diplomats, economists, and development experts from around the Commonwealth, and they provided the solid intellectual foundation which enabled the Secretariat to take the battle to the United Nations and to the United States itself, and to accomplish the adoption of sanctions against South Africa.
This group of young intellectuals included Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria, who later became Secretary-General, and the success of this campaign was acknowledged by Nelson Mandela, when a week after his release from prison in 1992, made his first overseas visit to Lusaka, Zambia, to thank African countries and the Commonwealth for their role in the decades long struggle to end the noxious system of apartheid.
Born and educated in Guyana, Vishnu was of the generation of young Guyanese who were the brightest young scholars in the Caribbean, and who were flocking to the newly established University of the West Indies and overseas and in particular to the United Kingdom. He was also in that group of Caribbean intellectuals who came into prominence as the islands became independent in the 1960s and for the first time, they were able to take their place in the worldwide discussion on development issues.
He travelled to Queen’s University, Belfast where he obtained a first in economics and then went to Reading University for his doctorate in Agricultural Economics. He then went home to spend ten years as a Research Fellow at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Barbados from 1965-1974. He then joined the staff of the Commonwealth Secretariat the year before his fellow Guyanese Shridath Ramphal became Secretary General in 1975. As Director of the Economic Affairs Division, his ten year leadership (1982-1992) energised his staff and with them, and with his fellow co-Director, Dr Vince Cable, created in the words of Shridath Ramphal “a centre of economic thinking that served the world and very specially the developing world”.
It was a time when Commonwealth Finance and other Ministers met regularly and the Division provided briefing papers for many Commonwealth and other delegations for annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In addition, Shridath Ramphal was a member of all five International Commissions set up by the United Nations in the 1980’s to bring fresh thinking to global issues. These included the Brandt Commission on international development issues (1980), the Bruntland Commission in 1983 on Environment and Development , the Palme Commission on Disarmament and Security as well as the South Commission in to strengthen South-South Cooperation in international affairs.
In the Secretariat, Vishnu was a leading member of the team which supported the Secretary General’s participation in these high level discussions, and in the compilations of the final reports. At that time, he was able to make a huge contribution to the decisions made by Commonwealth expert groups on such issues as ‘A New International Order’, ‘Climate Change’ and the ‘Vulnerability of Small States.’ These issues were then taken by member states to the United Nations where they became integral items on the agenda of the international community.
Caribbean/ small states role
Vishnu also served the Caribbean well after he left the Secretariat in 1992. He went back to UWI as Alcan Professor of Sustainable Development from 1992-1996, was Chief Technical Coordinator for the Caribbean Community 1996, as well as a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Committee on Development Policy (CDP) 1994-2000 and Senior Associate, Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery 2002-2010.
His expertise on the problems of small states was recognised by several appointments including the sub-committee which advised the UN’s ECOSOC on the classification of states as Least Developed and on the Review Group on the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. In 1994, he was appointed as joint leader by the Inter-American Development Bank of a team to prepare a report on socio-economic problems of Guyana.
The UN also called on him in 1998 to co-chair a UN Expert Group on the vulnerability indices for small island developing states and again in 2000 of another Expert Group on the Vulnerability of Small States. In 2005, he co-authored a study for the World Bank and the Commonwealth Secretariat on Towards an Outward Oriented Strategy for Small States.
Despite his extraordinarily busy work life, he was a prolific writer of articles and reviews in journals and technical reports. He co-edited and co-authored two books: in 1987 on Developing with Foreign Investment with his then Commonwealth Secretariat colleague Dr Vince Cable and in 1995 on Building Consensus for Social and Economic Reconstruction in Guyana with the late Professor Mike Faber, a former Secretariat development expert.
But most of all Vishnu was a wonderful colleague and a genuinely nice man. He was a firm supporter of the Commonwealth Association, representing the alumni of official Commonwealth organisations in London. He kept up his contacts with the world of finance, and was a knowledgeable investor in the markets, becoming a go-to person for advice on these matters.
His immense pride in his family – his wife Lakshmi, who wrote brilliant novels depicting life in the Caribbean and in the achievements of his sons and daughter – was shared with his many friends who had a quiet pride in this remarkable Caribbean family.
Finally, on a personal note, he was not only a good friend and mentor but a calm and loyal advisor who always kept in touch for over four decades. I know that his friendship, support and advice was given to many and that like me, they will treasure the many happy hours which we shared with him as we discussed this irritating, disappointing but wonderful world we inhabit.