As our country recognizes our 58th year of Independence, the conversation about re-framing the relationship between state and citizens is a necessary one. It should really have been an ongoing one which encouraged all of us to dream big and dream about a brighter day. One commentator has cleverly described our country as being “in dependence” while the Prime Minister almost simultaneously advised us to “wean ourselves” from the state. They are both partly right. The time has come for us to relearn self-reliance, as well as how and where to apply it.
From the business leader to the beggar, we have had more than 48 years of conditioning with the message “vote for me and I will set you free”. This reliance on the state will not change overnight nor without upheaval. Focusing on education and Laventille is necessary but not sufficient, because the conditions which spawned the reality of the Laventillian ecosystem, exist like a poisonous mist across both islands, and those conditions have become deeply ingrained.
The system must be re-designed to reduce inequity and improve our quality of life. When citizens are advised to stay in their room if they exhibit signs of ill health, we seem to have forgotten that for the 20% who live on or below the poverty line there is no room in which they can self-isolate because of their shared accommodation. When we talk about blended learning and students using a device to communicate with their teachers, we must consider that there are both students and teachers who do not have access to a device. When we talk about logging on to the internet, we need to consider that there are homes in which internet access is not available.
The conversation is not simply about Laventille, education and teachers, it ought to be about the systemic changes that are necessary in order to remove the deep inequities which exist in our society. IndexMundi reports that 20% of our population lives under the poverty line and have done so since 2014. This is up 3 percentage points from 2007 when it was measured at 17% of the population living under the poverty line. The story this tells is that if you meet 10 people on your daily encounter, 2 of them do not have enough money for food, shelter and clothing.
The conversation has to be about including the beggar and the business person in a conversation about collaborating to make import substitution a reality; moving our manufacturing and production up the value chain and our individual diversification strategies including diversifying away from state dependence. We can no longer maintain the fantasy that 1-2% of the population is the cause of all ills. A capable government knows how to distribute resources with equity while not taking away incentive to do better. The beggar must be able to access food and shelter; the business person should be able to access good infrastructure to do viable trade, in or out of the country, yet beggar and business person alike must be incentivized to contribute tangibly to society.
There is a popularly held view that there is inequality in accessing state services and opportunities. As long as these views persist then the feeling of inequity will also persist. So, along with the necessary system changes, we must ensure that there is accountability, collaboration and transparency as we chart the next 5 years of our independence.
The success of this reframed conversation requires a deep conversation with our citizens under the guidance of a transformational leader.