David Salmon | Pragmatic reparations versus noise

‘TRILLIONS FOR REPARATIONS’ was the June 9 front page Jamaica Gleaner headline. Oh, boy! For months I have avoided commenting on the reparations debate because I think it highlights the problems when pragmatism gives way to intellectual grandstanding.

The current ‘conversation’, if I can call it that, shows only one group of actors speaking among themselves in an echo chamber but none are any closer to having a tangible impact. Yet, some pragmatism is needed as politics is the art of what is possible. However, this debate has become an elitist exercise dominated by academics who prattle but very few citizens are interested or even care to understand what is being discussed.


Does Britain owe reparations for slavery? Yes, I think it does. Do I think that it would be useful for those who profited from this institution to apologise and pursue reparatory justice? Yes, I think they can and should. But do I believe in the current strategy to accomplish these goals? Then I most definitely do not.

When you start to seriously market a trillion-dollar bill that must be paid, then you have relinquished all forms of credibility and any desire to achieve anything meaningful. While I commend the work of The Brattle Group who calculated the sums various countries owed for reparations, I believed that their conclusions were a more academic exercise rather than a serious negotiating position.

That was until I saw an August 27 Sunday Gleaner column by Professor Verene Shepherd who argues, “…Britain owes Jamaica US$9.559 trillion. A development package for social infrastructural development using that sum or close to that sum would surely be welcomed by all.” I have complete and utmost respect for the venerable academic. Nonetheless, it is absolutely absurd to expect the United Kingdom to pay three times the sum of their economic output to any country much less almost eight times their economic output to the Caribbean.

If you are taking the reparations discussion from that starting point, then you are bound to end in failure as no country is going to willingly agree to impoverish themselves to atone for whatever wrong previously committed. Hence, advocating from this standpoint is simply noise. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the debate have not recognised this point.


I have seen where the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) has developed a 10-Point Reparations Action Plan. As to the specifics, it leaves much to be desired. For example, point 3 focuses on ‘Funding for repatriation to Africa’. The CRC argues that there should be, “A fully funded resettlement programme that allows for the repatriation of the displaced Africans in CARICOM Member States who wish to return while also addressing issues such as citizenship and re-integration.”

How exactly does this advance the region’s interests? While this is by no means trivialising the commission’s work, plans should be more targeted based on what can advance our development rather than a laundry list of ideas that sound good.

Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley understands the benefits of this targeted approach. Therefore, it is unsurprising that she has embedded the reparations discussion in the wider goal of seeking support for her Bridgetown Initiative. This proposal aims to provide new access to financing and development assistance to mitigate various regional risks. That is how you root the reparations debate within the wider strategic priorities of the region.


Being targeted also does not mean that you pursue programmes that have little relevance in people’s daily lives. For example, the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies (UWI) are currently offering a joint Masters in Reparatory Justice. Seriously? The University of Glasgow is one of the leading institutions in the world for fields including biomedical sciences and psychology. And yet, the first joint programme between Glasgow and the UWI is a Masters in Reparatory Justice. Who benefits from this?

Furthermore, let us assume that the current reparations advocates are successful in lobbying the UK government for reparations. How will these additional funds be coordinated and spent? Certainly, not through our regional governments. I have not seen where those details have been worked out. Neither have I seen which of these 10 points should be prioritised.

This lack of a coordinated strategy presents a major problem. In fact, this week The Gleaner cited a confidential CARICOM assessment which revealed that the region lacks a common negotiating strategy, a team of negotiators and even agreement on other forms of compensation owed. Ten years since the establishment of the CARICOM Reparations Committee, there is still no systematic strategy.

Furthermore, unless you create the environment where individuals would want to reside in the Caribbean, then any reparations expenditure will be used to produce skilled graduates who, in turn, will continue to migrate to the same countries who provided said reparations. The actor who benefits the most from this arrangement is the receiving country who is ‘paying’ to atone for their actions. If you do not give people confidence in their own society and governance institutions, then reparations would never be impactful.

Complicating this matter is the fact that the current reparations debate does not examine what role does the diaspora play. Those Caribbean nationals who migrated are deserving of any proposed reparations given that their ancestors would also have been enslaved. Based on the current approach, those who reside in countries like the UK would be the ones who would partly fund any reparations bill while not benefiting from anything. So the question must be asked, who benefits and who does it cost?


There has been some progress made with seeking apologies and reparations from British families and institutions. Although as far as we can tell these efforts have largely been driven by these families’ attempts to atone for wrongs done by their ancestors rather than through the lobbying of the various regional reparation committees.

Recently, both the prominent Trevelyan and Gladstone families have apologised for slavery and both have agreed to establish funds to support reparation research. That is nice if you are a UWI reparations researcher and you need funding for your PhD. But if you are seriously examining how to build wealth in the region to improve people’s standards of living, then we need to wheel and come again.


In the absence of a coordinated strategy, here are some suggestions. First, regional governments can approach respective families who received slavery compensation in a clinical way. When presenting the argument for reparations, show specific ways how their efforts can improve people’s overall well-being and expand opportunities for Caribbean nationals.

I would welcome opportunities to see more Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals gain access to British higher education institutions. Providing research and development grants to expand scientific innovation as well as startup capital to local entrepreneurs are also avenues that can make a tangible impact. We must understand that slavery was an economic institution and unless you improve the region’s economic environment, you can continue to do reparations research, it will not benefit people’s lives in a meaningful way.

I acknowledge that those in the intellectual space may use the educational opportunities I benefited from to pursue a flimsy attempt to discredit the views in this column. However, until the discourse focuses on what is possible, the current debate surrounding reparations is simply a pipe dream accompanied by a choir of noise.

David Salmon is Jamaica’s 2023 Rhodes Scholar. Send feedback to davidsalmon@live.com

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site