June 4, 2001
Protests on the East Coast in the wake of the March 19 election have brought into sharp focus the conditions of some of the more depressed communities in the country and their stark needs.
Much political capital can be made of the state of these communities so it is important to establish a few markers. First, the decay in these villages did not set in last week, the month before or even three years before. The creeping crumbling in these communities took hold much before then. Second, impoverished communities and pockets of dehumanising depredation exist in every single part of the country regardless of political affinity. Third, there isn't evidence in the recent past that some communities were systematically left out in the cold while others basked in the warm glow of abundance. What there is ample testimony of is a haphazard way of dealing with the needs of deprived areas. Fourth, it is clear that given the well-articulated needs of villagers of some of these areas that local government systems and central government have not been responsive enough or proactive in dealing with these needs. It is clear also that these communities themselves have not being doing enough through established channels to table their concerns.
In the spirit of the dialogue between President Jagdeo and Mr Hoyte, there is no room for recriminations or acrimony over how these villages came to be how they are. What both sides need to do is to concentrate on how they can give these villages a facelift and devise a depressed communities programme that would minister to the needs of all needy areas countrywide on a continuous basis and in a structured manner.
The Depressed Communities Committee (DCC) set up as a result of the Jagdeo/Hoyte talks has visited Buxton/Friendship, Eccles/Non-Pariel, De Kinderen and Met-en-Meerzorg and listened to the heart-felt concerns of residents. Visits will be made by the DCC to witness for itself the things spoken of and to short-list the pressing priorities for submission to the leaders - obviously not every need can be met. Each community is entitled to passable roads, potable water, functional drainage, a community centre, a health centre, electricity and access within the area or close by to schools for their children. Other necessities such as daycare - a pressing need with the large number of single-parent families - should also feature in the discussions.
Outside of these basic concerns, the two leaders and the DCC face the pressing problem of how to help the villagers lift themselves up from the state they are in. The answer, of course, is jobs. While alleviating infrastructural problems and providing basic facilities will bring some relief, a more permanent sense of hope needs to be injected into many of these struggling villages and jobs and economic opportunities are the only salvation. It isn't clear as yet how the DCC will treat with this cry for jobs and the opportunity to earn a livelihood.
What has been started here with the DCC can be built on and expanded to serve as an advisory body for coping with immiserised neighbourhoods and settlements. The process initiated can also serve as a lightning rod for the government to seriously review its multi-chanelled approach to fighting poverty to make it more potent. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper which it is crafting for the international financial institutions (IFIs) will presumably set this out in great detail though in the aftermath of the discontent on the East Coast it would be worth having a second look and involving other stakeholders.
There is also the issue of the optimal coordination of the funds coming into Guyana for poverty alleviation. Besides its own poverty alleviation programme, projects are also financed through the Social Impact Amelioration Programme - autonomously and in line with the rules of its financier - the Basic Needs Trust Fund and a host of bilateral aid programmes. Funds will also become available for poor rural communities through the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Caribbean Development Bank
Ideally there should be a clearing house through which poverty alleviation proposals are channelled and through which all of the relevant agencies could coordinate their interventions to ensure the best use of funds. Coordinating these funds have long been talked about but in developing countries governments, donors and IFIs have had a difficult time making a seamless transition.
The outpouring of discontent about conditions on the east coast is also indicative of the ineffectiveness of local government at all tiers. There has been very little evidence of organised representation on behalf of these communities at the national level. But local government officials must be deeply involved for the DCC's efforts to succeed. They must be set benchmarks and those who have put them there must monitor their performance and remove the dead wood.
There is rising hope in the communities visited by the DCC that tangible improvements in basic services will be seen. The leaders and the DCC must do their utmost to ensure that this materialises.