The value of experience Editorial
Stabroek News
March 29, 2002

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It is a not unnoticed fact that some of the sternest critics of any kind of institutional activity and some of the loftiest advocates of reform or of new projects are themselves quite incapable of carrying out the simplest tasks. That does not necessarily invalidate their criticism or their proposals but it does mean that lacking all experience of what it takes to get things done they underestimate or overlook the practical aspect of the matter in their estimate of what can be done or should have been done. That detracts, often quite severely, from the value of what they have to say.

A good example in this country of this phenomenon can be found in the field of legislation. Many laws have been passed that are potentially useful and valuable but they have immediately become a dead letter. The reason for this surely is that the members of parliament who passed them did not give any thought to the financial and human resources that would be required to implement them properly, they lacked the experience to visualise the problems that lay ahead and did not factor this into the equation.

Take the legislation on domestic violence. There was undoubtedly a need for this. There is a high level of wife beating and child abuse. A law that could provide battered wives with some relief and perhaps gradually lead to a change in social attitudes was clearly desirable. But to make this even partly effective in practice one would have had to have carried out a sustained programme of public education acquainting women with their rights and explaining in detail to them what steps they could take under the new legislation. Policemen would also have had to have been trained to make them effective and sympathetic enforcers of the new law and other support mechanisms would have had to have been put in place. The law is not a complete dead letter, there have been a few cases filed by battered wives, but as everyone knows domestic violence is still unfortunately alive and well. And the law itself creates subsidiary problems of its own, both here and in other jurisdictions, as it has been found that sometimes when wives make complaints against violent husbands they need protection from possibly murderous reprisals. Furthermore, if husbands are jailed they may be left without financial support.

A law was also passed unanimously before the last elections to make racially inflammatory statements a crime. Did anyone realise at the time that the provisions of this law were being broken daily on television programmes and that if it were to be implemented it would lead to a number of prosecutions and sentences? The law was a paper tiger, no one took it seriously and no prosecution was ever filed.

There are several other laws, or parts of laws, that have never been implemented due to a lack of public education and the provision of appropriate resources and mechanisms. The motto has been if it sounds good, pass it whether we intend to do anything about it or not. The motto should be if we're not serious about it or don't have the resources, don't pass it.

Education can help a bit. Children who are exposed to working on a school farm or a science project or raising funds for a charity may get some idea of the difficulty of doing things. They may thereafter be less ready to put forward ideas that are completely unrealistic.

Experience teaches us that undertaking major projects requires a combination of intelligence, flexibility, imagination and stamina. It is easy to go wrong and make mistakes.

There is a final, related point. It has become popular to set up new commissions and committees to deal with various tasks. The amended constitution has proposed several new commissions to deal with human rights, women and gender equality, indigenous peoples, rights of the child and ethnic relations. A good case can be made for all of these but a nagging question arises. Can a chairperson, deputy chairperson and other members be found to run these commissions who will be competent and dedicated or will they become another set of white elephants? As is well known, the high expectations entertained for the office of the Ombudsman were never realised and there are other institutions that never really got off the ground.

Good ideas are not in themselves enough. There must be a practical back up to make new institutions viable. If that is not available it is better to proceed modestly.