After 58 years of leadership in both parliamentary and mayoral elections, and 16 or 17 development plans, it has been decreed that the city of Port of Spain will finally be transformed into a shiny new metropolis in north Trinidad. It is a welcomed announcement, but like other similar declarations, some of us will adopt a wait-and-see attitude as the plans unfold.
Indeed, my heart sank when in quick succession it was announced that the government had big plans for the rejuvenation of Port of Spain while simultaneously declaring Queen Janelle Commissiong Street as ‘the toilet of the capital’.
This juxtaposition encapsulated the core of the problem, which is that you can have whatever plans, but the reality is that our people defecate on the streets and force us all to wallow in the stench. We are yet to explore the root causes of homelessness, crime and underperformance especially amongst the urban youth of African descent, many of whom roam the streets of our capital.
Have we invested in understanding what accounts for the proximity of squalor to the city centre? Alongside the plans for the new glistening buildings must be the programmes for the social transformation of our people. New buildings and structures alone will not solve the defecation problem.
Many years have elapsed since the days when I walked safely to the taxi stand at the corner of Nelson and Prince Streets or when I walked up to Jackson Place to Laventille Road and felt confident that no harm would visit me. Between those years of the early 70s and now, our people have lost our way, presided over by post-independence governments that believe concrete and steel will solve our problems and transform our people.
Transforming Port of Spain and indeed Trinidad and Tobago is not simply a matter of the nightly washing of streets—even though public health is important—nor the forced acquisition of properties to make space for the monied class. Gaining the trust of the two-thirds of the citizens who did not vote for the current PNM government will take inspired leadership, negotiation and diplomacy.
In the Port of Spain South constituency, there is only so much bulldozing that you can do before the wall of 16,000 persons who either voted against the PNM or did not vote unite around a common cause and stick a pin in the plans. The biggest challenge this dream faces is how to move from a plan to an implementation strategy which engages the imagination of our people.
If the senatorial rantings that the contract has been signed and awarded since 2017 are true, then the government has once again sidestepped the Office of Procurement Regulation. With the low level of electoral support, there is a greater need for transparency to allow the population to understand the who, what and how of this mega transaction.
The two pillars for the success of a re-imagined Port of Spain are transparency and accountability that the investment is fair and equitable, and the engagement of those long-standing property owners and occupiers who have neither the resources nor the know-how to navigate this ever-changing landscape.
The following column is based on my participation in the online forum by the Trade and Economic Division of the Department of Economics, the University of the West Indies, St Augustine on the topic The Funding of Tertiary Level Education in Trinidad and Tobago:
My favourite quote about education is from the late Malcolm X who said: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare today.” Our preparation for tomorrow requires that we spend some time collectively crafting our vision of tomorrow and garnering citizen buy-in to that shared vision.
As a country, we have done well to provide free education at the primary and secondary levels. We have tripped up at the level of tertiary education because our politics requires that incoming regimes destroy the work of their predecessors even at great cost to taxpayers. So out went ‘Dollar for Dollar’ and in came ‘GATE’ (Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme).
Twelve years and $6.46bn later, we are at a crossroad, asking the question should the government continue funding tertiary level education?
My position is clear: taxpayer investment in human development is more important than ferries, ports, buildings and any other vanity projects that distribute our wealth to a selected few. Education should continue to be free at the primary and secondary level because that is where we build citizens. At the tertiary level, there should be a means test with some arrangement for repayment at a future date.
Consideration of funding tertiary level education includes what has traditionally been described as the technical/vocational area. As we continue to figure out the post-Covid world and our shrinking economy, we will be forced to focus on repair and restoration. This means a deeper focus on the range of skills needed and the organising and managing of how these skills are presented in the market.
The time has come for us as a society to recognise and appreciate the value and operations of electricians, mechanics, plumbers and other tradespeople so that we all can thrive.
Whether or not we continue funding tertiary level education cannot be viewed as a standalone concept. It must be viewed under the umbrella question of what is likely to be the future needs of the country. In other words, where do we see ourselves and how will we get there as a people? In the absence of such a vision, decisions will continue to be made based on whims and fancies.
We have stumbled as a country in that we have not educated our people for citizenship. As island people, our disregard for the environment and for sustainable living is based mainly on our lack of understanding of our interdependence, and the fact that systems learning was not baked into the school curricula at any level.
If our education systems were successful, our citizens would not have to be told about protecting the environment. They would have understood it because the education system would have built-in concepts around sustainability and conservation.
When people are educated for citizenship, they understand how they are part of the whole of society and that they need to contribute economically and socially. Education leads to the overall improvement in decision-making and ultimately impacts the collective. The real work lies in redesigning our systems and processes to ensure not just the appearance of equality but the reality of equity and fairness.
What we need now is social cohesion and a national commitment to improving the lives of all. Continued investment in education, which is planned, organised, implemented and monitored, will lead to the overall improvement of our country. We should be investing our scarce resources in improving the quality of our education product at all levels, thus ensuring that the product offering in ‘affluent’ schools is the same as in schools in struggling areas. Internet access should be equally available in Biche as in Belmont.
Perhaps internet providers can produce ‘student-only’ internet accounts that are heavily firewalled from adult content and tied to the student’s school ID. If we intend to enrich our human capital, our only option is to increase our investment in all our people at all levels of our society.
I can blame Covid-19 for feeling stuck, but that would not be entirely honest. That feeling of ‘stuck-ness’ has been happening for a while and Covid-19 has only made it more intense.
My observation of Parliament, via the Parliament Channel, often evokes the thought that I have heard this before; particularly the comments that this-or-that critical piece of legislation cannot be passed because it needs a three-fifths majority and the opposition is not cooperating.
Assuming that the Opposition will spend the next 58 months taking that same non-cooperative approach, the government ought to change its strategy and charge ahead on issues which do not need their support.
Since 2001, constitutional amendment has been discussed with varying levels of intensity. During the 2010 general election, there was rigorous discussion on the campaign trail and the People’s Partnership promised to: ‘…establish a Constitution Commission to engage in the widest possible consultation as a prerequisite to constitutional reform’.
This promise materialised with the establishment of the Constitutional Reform Commission and the subsequent release of their report in December 2013, but there has been no real change and we remain stuck as a country.
Further evidence of this ‘stuck-ness’ can be gleaned from the continued low voter turnout that we have been experiencing. From highs of 69.4% in the 2010 general elections and 67.27% in 2015, the turnout in 2020 fell to 58.4%.
The current PNM administration has been endorsed by only 23% of the population. Mind you, it is the same percentage which the Congress of the People (COP) and the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) received previously without gaining any seats in Parliament.
From a government perspective, it should be worrying to consider that three-quarters of the population either voted against you or were so uninspired that they did not even register a vote.
Our constitution is clear on our rights and freedoms as individuals but does not describe what our duties and responsibilities are as citizens. Maybe a soft approach to engaging the 75% of the population who are either indifferent or against you is to begin a discussion about our duties and responsibilities.
This discussion would provide an opportunity to raise a national discussion about the extent to which we are interdependent and what our expectations of each other are. It may even result in citizens taking a moment to reflect on the role we play in each other’s lives and how we can participate in moving our country forward.
To introduce a listing of the roles and responsibilities of citizens requires an amendment to the constitution which can be had by a simple majority. Think of the profound impact this discussion can have on the thinking of the average person who isn’t interested or doesn’t understand politics and its effect on them.
If we accept the notion that awareness often precedes behaviour change, it could be the catalyst for the behaviour change which we often say is necessary. Imagine the profound impact such a discussion could have on our children, teenagers and ordinary citizens.
I reflect warmly on the discussions I heard as a child in the lead up to Independence and it makes me feel proud that the elders in East Dry River were engaged in these discussions.
After 58 years of independence, negative discussions about race, corruption and crime dominate the media and discussion platforms.
Maybe a national discussion about our duties and responsibilities as citizens could serve as the lever to propel us in a more positive direction.
If we are interested in an equitable and just society, we have to be interested in governance which begins with having a shared vision of the future based on common values and aspirations.
Ideally, when citizens are engaged in developing that vision, they feel committed to its realisation. The last time we had a vision which I understood was under the late Patrick Manning who had led the development of ‘Vision 2020’ on the basis of wide consultation amongst citizens. Since then there has been some reference to a revised Vision 2030 but it remains an unclear aspiration.
Trinidad and Tobago, like many developing countries, is a work in progress, so we must have some tolerance for our stage of development. If I use the analogy of a human being, the country has reached middle age while not exhibiting the maturity that accompanies that stage.
By middle age, most of us recognise that playing by the rules is the right thing to do and is in our collective best interest—that the rules are not there to ‘keep us down’.
Many of us talk about obeying the rules but easily look for the workaround when faced with a challenging situation. We forget that every bypass of rules and regulations slowly chips away at our institutions and contributes to wider systemic failure.
Worse yet, our systems allow the workaround because there may be a deficiency in the system due to the absence of accountability and the slackness of persons charged with the responsibility of monitoring. It may also be because correcting the system requires an onerous procedure which in itself leads to the need for workarounds.
The old saying children learn what they live is applicable here. We see unaccountability in every aspect of life from parliamentarians to policemen; there is no systemic framework for accountability, so citizens are left to believe that accountability is not important.
We learn the path of unaccountability because that’s what we live. We were recently regaled by a three-hour budget presentation which provided very few instances of accountability in comparison to the previous budget.
By way of example, I reviewed the PNM Manifesto 2015 which reported that the Integrity Commission had: ‘no less than six commissions in the last 10 years and in reality, the Commission has had a minimal impact on reducing corruption since its formation. Our ranking in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index has continued to slide, especially since May 2010’.
A review of the 2020 Manifesto showed that it included neither a reference to the Integrity Commission nor any reform of the institution. Further, a look at the annual reports of the Integrity Commission reveals that there is an allocation of TT$200k to be spent on reform of the Integrity Commission in 2020.
Surely if there was a serious concern about the Integrity Commission in 2015, there would have been some accountability or continuation in 2020.
We must do something different if we are to change the way we do business. It is clear to me that citizen involvement and active participation is the only way to impact our systems and force our politicians to act in the interest of the greater good of our society.
We all need to invest the time to understand what is needed to make our society operate in a manner that is just and equitable. Justice and equity must have no correlation to race, political party or position of power. It must have no correlation to economic status.
Justice and equity must be seen as fundamental pillars of our society. It is time for us to engage in civil conversations about our under-performance and how it will impact our future.
The devastation caused by Covid-19 is an opportunity to begin anew and to really adopt the view that we are each other’s keepers. It is no cliché that we have inherited a beautiful country and we have a responsibility to preserve and improve it for future generations.
Our current politicians have demonstrated that they do not have the desire or capacity to act beyond their own self-interest. It is time for each of us to play our part in realising our collective potential, and it can begin by holding the government and each other accountable.