Untold riches Editorial
Stabroek News
May 15, 2002

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Guyana despite our current political woes and economic constraints is in one respect a very rich country, as compared with many developed countries. Guyana is rich in children when compared with the dwindling child population in the industrial countries where the childless couple or one child family has become the norm.

In Georgetown there are children everywhere. Every town and village teems with children. Not so in the industrialised countries, where there are lots of children, the children are the offspring of migrants.

Take the situation in the famous European city of Vienna once the focus of the romantic imagination. There are so few children in Vienna that it is reported that any woman who resides there and bears a child gets special support from the authorities. Vienna, as it once was may still be a place of gaiety but in such gaiety there is no longer the laughter of children.

These thoughts have been provoked by the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Children which met in New York last week. The UN has in recent decades held special sessions or sponsored world conferences to focus attention on pressing global issues such as the problems of women, the environment, population and racism. These meetings aim to rivet world attention on problems which outstrip national frontiers and resources and to mobilise political will and funding for implementing agreed programmes.

In the case of the UN special session held last week there was a truly revolutionary development. It was preceded by a children's forum where all the delegates, hundreds of them, were children.

They were of every ethnicity and location and language.

Guyana had a delegation of children at the forum. At the session itself the Guyana delegation was led by Minister Shadick and included First Lady Varshnie Jagdeo who has devoted so much energy to mobilising funding for Children First projects.

This special session is for the time being the culmination of decades long UN action on behalf of children who now form 40% of the world's population.

In l989 the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention which provides an internationally recognised legal framework for the protection of children has been ratified by every state in the world except the United States and Somalia. Somalia is a failed state; the US has failed its children.

A year later in l990 there was the World Summit on Children. Such conferences never wholly succeed in their objectives but they never wholly fail. It is often a long time before ideas take hold and even longer for public opinion to mobilise behind political will. But there has been some achievement. Thus it is reported that in the year 2000, three million children survived who ten years before would have died from preventable diseases. Yet the global statistics are still profoundly disturbing. Every year l0 million children die from preventable diseases. In short, for the more than twenty-five thousand children who die each day from preventable disease, each day, including today, is for the world a worse than September ll tragedy.

The partial catalogue of facts in what has been described as a world unfit for children include 250 million children in exploitative, dangerous work, 600 million who live in absolute poverty, l30 million children, mostly girls who have no access to education, and for good measure the three hundred thousand boys who as soldiers fight and perish in deadly conflicts.

While we must remain self-critical it is fair to say that the children of Guyana are not exposed to the extremities of the dire conditions for children as briefly itemised above. Yet there is little reason for self-congratulation, there is cause for deep concern. The National Development Strategy (NDS) document notes that while Guyana's health profile still suffers in comparison with most of the Caribbean, as a result of the economic decline in the l970's and l980's, there has been remarkable progress in the decade between l988 and l998. The infant mortality rate stood in l998 at 24.5 per thousand births as compared with l4.9 in Barbados and l6.2 in Trinidad and Tobago. On the other hand Suriname stood at 25.l and Jamaica at 24.5. It should be remarked that on much maligned Cuba the rate is six (yes 6) per thousand births.

In the case of primary education which is compulsory, net enrolment, the NDS notes, is about 98% but actual attendance rates while improving vary greatly among the regions.

So much for the basics but the overall picture is grim. For an authoritative assessment one must return to the NDS document. Some ten years in preparation the NDS has been twice laid in different sessions of parliament but it is still to be debated. Although mentioned from time to time like window dressing it is not clear to what extent the NDS has been integrated if at all into development planning and thinking. Nor is this surprising in view of the inexplicable failure to establish the Ministry of Planning and Development.

So what does the NDS, an indispensable mine of carefully assembled information say about Guyana's children and youth estimated at about 60% of the population if one uses a cut off point at age 25. The NDS observes that "Guyanese children and adolescents are growing up in a context where there is still an unacceptably high incidence of poverty; inadequate expenditure on education and health and a desperate shortage of houses....".

"In short the Guyanese child is being born, nurtured and educated in an environment in which his or her physical and psychological health, viewed from any angle is far from optimal. Cultural traditions are no longer being passed down to the young generation... Children and adolescents are poorer for not having this value system as apart of their knowledge base and are more prey to what was described earlier (in the NDS) as the growing culture of illegality, violence and disorder."

"Not only are many children coming out of school not trained in terms of work or life skills for the labour force; they also face inadequate opportunities for good jobs. Across two decades, a large part of what the economy has created is the opportunity for casual, informal sector and sometimes illegal work".

While it is acknowledged that over the last ten years there has been steadily increasing expenditure on health and education the massive reallocation of resources to cope adequately with child development will require what scholars call a paradigm shift in thinking about development, a new way of thinking about the sources of development. Development is still seen in what must be described bluntly in colonial terms as a condition which must come from overseas in the form of foreign investment, mainly for the development of natural resources.

The difference now that we are independent is that we must behave well and correctly if the foreign investment is to come.

While there is no denying the importance of foreign investment, the great exemplars of development have done it for themselves. Nearly deprived of natural resources Japan modernised without external intervention. At the other end of the scale and in recent times a much smaller Singapore, likewise without natural resources. Or take a current example of a country somewhat similar to Guyana in demographic make up and economic structure (sugar), the island of Mauritius, 700 square miles, which in a decade has made itself into a world class producer of knitwear. A member of the ACP group of countries, open to the same benefits, opportunities and constraints of the other 70 or more ACP countries, it is almost the only one which has diversified its economy why, the answer almost certainly lies in the skills and resourcefulness of its people.

It is a matter of putting major resources into education and skills development.

In South Korea there was so much education that it was once said that even bus conductors had university degrees but in a decade, a disordered poorly developed country when the American forces withdrew after the Korean war had been transformed into an industrial power.

It will be too easy to describe the above paragraphs as a gross over simplification. They are, but one hopes they also make an important point, that the main sources of development are rooted in the quality of a country's people.

From that perspective it is no paradox to speak of Guyana as being very rich.