[Sir George Alleyne, The Grooming of a Chancellor, University of the West Indies Press, 2018]
The Grooming of a Chancellor is an enthralling portrait of life of Sir George Alleyne, a renaissance man. His extraordinary work in medicine, public health and development; his leadership in the international arena and academia together with his humanitarian efforts have contributed to his reputation as a global icon. This clearly articulated biography reveals Sir George Alleyne as quintessential role model. His passionate commitment to human development underscores this fascinating, honest and human memoir replete with a rich sense of humour and wit. It provides an opportunity to celebrate the emergence of a Barbadian boy of humble origins standing astride of a colonial experience that produced Windrush, and the fluctuating fortunes of a Pan Caribbean movement to becoming an internationally respected advocate of global solidarity, equity and social justice.
The Family as an agent of socialization
It is clear that the nurturing by a father who was a teacher and a mother a home maker who later became a librarian were essential ingredients in channeling young George Alleyne’s ambitions. They provided a vibrant environment for him and his six siblings: a reverence for books, a revelry in family debates where all ideas contended and a profound respect and affection that they shared for each other. In his reflections, Sir George emphasizes the importance of family in his development: as he described it, “a nuclear family with established roles such as security of belonging, allegiance and a sense of responsibility, a sense of humor and a “joy de vive”.
An Education System combined with an exceptional intellectual Gift and Discipline
If the family was a critical component of George’s socialization, the Barbados educational system provided another, which he seemed to master due to his exceptional intellectual gifts and commitment to hard work. These were hallmarks that would prevail in his sustained high achievements at the University of the West Indies; outstanding record as a teacher and a researcher; with an output, including 7 books, over 200 articles, 180 guest and distinguished lectures and most recently as Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, 50 graduation speeches. When asked how he could successfully switch to medicine, graduating at the top of his class after specializing in the classics in high school, Sir George’s answer provides a major lesson for us all. He said, “the discipline of preparation, the essentiality of planning, the priority to be accorded to punctuality were all hard-wired into me during those critical years at school.”
Champion of Caribbean Unity
With special reference to the Caribbean, his contributions influenced decisions, policies and programmes embraced by CARICOM Heads of Government, government officials, leaders of non-governmental organizations, the private sector and most of all his students, his regional and international audiences and the youth. Reading about the many pioneering ventures leave no doubt of the well deserving conferral of the highest regional accolade by CARICOM Heads of Government in 2002, Order of the Caribbean Community. Among the litany of his contributions include:
▪ Initiating the Caribbean Cooperation in Health 1984 now in its fifth iteration
▪ Shaping of the Nassau Declaration, 2000, “the health of the Region is the Wealth of the Region” (2000)
▪ Being one of six signatories to the formation of the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS (2001)
▪ Chairmanship of the Caribbean Commission on Health and Development that produced the seminal
blue print for tackling health priorities (2004-2005)
▪ Piloting The 2005 Report of the Commission on Caribbean Health and Development in the public domain and advocating for its recommendation that formed the basis of the Port of Spain Declaration: fighting to reduce the Non Communicable Diseases (2007) and the international leadership of the Caribbean in the Commonwealth, the Summit of the Americas and at the UN High level Meetings 2011 and 2018
▪ Acting as a catalyst in the formation of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, which under his patronage has become a highly acclaimed international NGO.
▪ Inspiring the establishment of Caribbean Public Health Agency, the merger of 5 Caribbean public health institutions into one agency.
▪ Advocating for functional cooperation as a pillar of regional integration so adequately illustrated in the fields of health and education in which he was involved, but whose successes may also apply to tourism, agriculture, and most of all foreign affairs and community relations.
Dominant Sprit in Pan Americanism and the wider International Community
The combination of his incisive intellectual leadership, management skills, diplomacy and boundless humility are understated yet aptly documented in this book. It captures not only his outstanding academic achievements and invaluable contribution to the Caribbean Community but also in the global arena.
The lessons for successful career shifts are etched in the chapters on his scientific career, becoming professor of medicine and his extensive international experience. These, together with his reflections on the myth of retirement are all gems of wisdom and inspiration. They illustrate that among the main ingredients for success are building a track record for high quality work, establishing goals, keeping an open mind on available options, choosing mentors and being amenable to taking advice and guidance. A profound lesson from his clinical experience emerged during his early years as an intern " I learned that no one has the right to remove hope from a patient and sometimes what appears to be pandering to whims was satisfying some of the hope". Then later as a member of the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit at UWI he was emboldened by 'a small dose of arrogance' that "I or rather we West Indians could be as good at research and explaining clinical phenomenon as any other persons".
These are tenets that Sir George carried to some of the most prestigious engagements as examiner in the MRCP examinations in London and The Royal College of Physicians of Canada, the opening of the new nutrition centre in Chiang Mai and with the Universities in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone, among others.
Sir George's move from professor in medicine UWI to administrator in public health at PAHO/WHO illustrates further, lessons in nimble approaches for changing gear, adopting to a new bureaucracy and having to master a new language, Spanish. It is fascinating to note how acumen, commitment, discipline and political instincts played a role in his elevation to the position of PAHO Director. His being appointed and reappointed unopposed for his 10years at the helm is a testimony to his towering reputation. This he was to enhance by his creative leadership and dominant vision of equity in health.
Between his two terms at PAHO, Sir George embarked on a new international challenge as a candidate for the post of Director General of the World Health Organization in 1977. His observation of the election process is that "it has to be one of the most fascinating lessons in international politics that I have experienced" and so it was from all accounts. The capacity of a small country like Barbados to mount such an organized and brilliantly executed campaign; intensive lobbying, negotiations that were at times scurrilous, a field of contestants whittled from seven to two, leaving the final result to 4 rounds of voting before Dr. Gro Brundtland of Norway, emerged the victor. As Sir George reflected that "this is the first time I had lost any contest", his reputation and prestige soared.
As the first UN Secretary General Special Envoy for HIV in the Caribbean, which followed immediately after his 10-year tenure as Director of PAHO/WHO, Sir George's presence and influence in the international arena. It ushered in a new era that quite clearly illustrates the masterful management of the overlapping roles with his tenure as Chancellor of UWI and Director Emeritus of PAHO. His account of the hectic schedule in this period reinforces the "myth retirement".
Returning to UWI: at the Pinnacle
The audacity that heralded Sir George's inauguration as as Chancellor of UWI a position he held for 17 years is fully demonstrated in his choice of music for the academic procession, Bob Marley's “River of Babylon… there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion” Sir George reminded the gathering that the theme song was the musical version of Psalm 137; 1-4 which was "one of the most poignant expressions of longing and lamentations, both physical and spiritual.
Vision of Equality and Justice
Especially in these “strange and uncertain times”, illustrated by “racist nationalism” and “angry isolationism”, it is reassuring that Sir George’s biography epitomizes a vision of equality and justice shared by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. He believes that the future of the Caribbean and a world governed by these principles can achieve more peace and more cooperation in the pursuit of a common good. These same principles reinforced the socialization of a young scholar who at UWI, by his own admission, transitioned from "being a Barbadian to becoming a West Indian". Hence, he explains the dissolution of the West Indies Federation as due to jealousy, short sightedness of leaders who could not see beyond national parochial interests. But he maintains his pride of things Caribbean. He refrains from equating this vision with faith which by definition is belief without data. He is emphatic that “[while] much of the religious dogma is not really vital to me now. I believe that the relevance of many of the nostrums for a good society remain with me and the centrality of the essential commandment, do good and love ye one another is one by which I try to live”
This book is indeed essential reading. The importance of family is enshrined in the dedication of this book to his wife, Lady Sylvan Alleyne and children Carol, Andrew and Adrian. But it is to Lady Alleyne, herself an accomplished professional and former Professor on whom praise and glory must be given. She is truly revered by Sir George as his 'lover, partner and nurse'. Indeed this trinity of attributes over years of marriage must be acknowledged as contributing to the blooming and grooming of a Chancellor.