Looking at the contribution of our fore-parents

View Point
By Mr. Hydar Ally,
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education
Guyana Chronicle
August 7, 2001

GUYANA is described as a multi-ethnic society. With the exception of the Amerindians, all the other ethnic groups owe their existence in Guyana to the cultivation of sugar, in particular East Indians and Blacks, which together comprised roughly 90 per cent of the total population.

I propose in this Viewpoint to focus on the contributions made by our fore-parents, in particular, our African and East Indian ancestors who came to this country over a century ago to provide labour for the sugar plantations owned by Europeans. Even though the nature of engagement of the two groups were not quiet the same, they both were made to suffer the indignity of plantation servitude for which they received very little in return as the fruits of their labour were siphoned off to the Metropolis.

The structure of the plantation society was geared primarily to create wealth for export. The same pattern of development, or rather underdevelopment, was evident with the coming into being later on with the production of bauxite by North American investment which, like sugar proved extremely lucrative and strategic especially during the war years. Both industries were extremely labour-intensive, employing a sizeable labour force and accounting for roughly three-quarters of the country's export earnings.

The economy, for all practical purposes, was export-oriented with little or no forward linkage to promote integrated growth and development. The situation has reached a point where, as one economist noted, we produce what we do not consume and consume what we do not produce.

It was not until the 1940's that some structure and organisation was put into the political and social organisation of the Guyanese society. The return to the colony of Dr Cheddi Jagan from studies in the USA and the eventual formation of the PPP in January 1950 paved the way for a new political order - the politics of protest - in which the colonial status quo based on subservience and exclusion was effectively challenged. In 1953, Universal Adult suffrage was won for the Guyanese electorate, which saw the removal of income and property qualification in the exercise of the franchise. During this period, Dr Jagan was ably supported by stalwarts such as Janet Jagan, Aston Chase and H. J. M. Hubbard, who were the leading members of the Public Affairs Committee, the forerunner of the PPP. Those were the days when the country was united around the goal of national independence and liberation from shackles of colonialism and exploitation.

The country has come a long way since those sordid years. The significant point to note is that the early foundations of present day Guyana is not the work of any single ethnic group but of the collective efforts of all Guyanese, in particular East Indians and Blacks. The presence in Guyana of the various ethnic groups is the results of certain historical processes beyond the control of any ancestral group. It is to our advantage therefore to put our collective energies to work for the common good of us all.

The demographic structure of the Guyanese society is one that can allow for ethnic polarisation along political and cultural lines. While there is nothing wrong in preserving our separate identities, there is everything wrong in forming opinion and judging issues through the prism of race and ethnicity. This sadly, is not uncommon in our society. There is a fair amount of ethnocentrism based on a misplaced sense of ethnic and cultural superiority .The time has come for us as a people to reassess the way we relate to issues and to reference groups other than our own.

True emancipation can only take place in an environment of trust and respect for diversity. Guyana is full of opportunities for us all to realise our dreams for a brighter and secure future for our children and ourselves. But this can only happen if we put the national interest above narrow, partisan interest.