Army of youth Editorial
Stabroek News
June 13, 2002

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The current crime wave has shown that most of the usual suspects being sought by the Police and Defence Forces probably were not yet born when Guyana became independent thirty-six years ago. The wanted men all seem to be relatively young and, probably, unemployed.

When the shooting stops in this latest criminal episode, the twin questions about the education and employment of the country’s young people will still have to be answered if the next crime wave is to be forestalled. Every year, over 10,000 young people drop out of, or withdraw from, our primary and secondary schools without adequate certification or qualification but hoping to enter the world of work. With shrinking employment opportunities in the copra, rice and sugar industries in the countryside; the collapse of the bauxite, and contraction of quarrying and other mining industries in the near hinterland; and serial business failures and disinvestment in the towns, many will end up being recruited into the large army of unemployed youth.

This is not a new problem. When the PNC-UF coalition replaced the PPP’s 1957-64 Administration in 1964, an attempt was made to deal with it decisively. UN consultant Robert F. Landor wrote a report, Problems of Unemployed Youth: Youth Corps, in February 1966 based on which the Guyana Youth Corps was established in January 1968. The Youth Corps was made up of unemployed boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 20 years who were taught various vocational trades and given military training. The intention was that they would settle in the hinterland and border areas after graduation in the pattern of the Israeli Nahal and Kibbutz communities, becoming an army of youth both to develop themselves and to defend the country.

Six years later in 1974, the Administration decided to expand the Youth Corps to embrace the entire education system, not merely the unemployed and dropouts, renaming it the Guyana National Service, with similar objectives of education, employment, military training and border settlement. But there was an immediate outcry, especially against the demand that university students, winners of scholarships and other beneficiaries of free education should be compelled to enter the Service and live for a period in hinterland training centres.

The PPP never made a secret of its dislike for the GNS and Mrs Janet Jagan herself published a booklet, An Examination of the National Service, denouncing it as a "PNC para-military force to back up the coercive apparatus of the State in maintaining a minority party in power." Despite this controversy and allegations of mismanagement, and although no border settlements materialized, over 20,000 youths, most of whom had entered the Service voluntarily, received sufficient ‘useful’ training during the GNS’s 25-year existence to enable them to re-enter the mainstream of education or employment.

When the PPP was re-elected to office in 1992, the writing was on the wall for the GNS. The training centre at Kimbia was closed (though some of its vocational courses were transferred to Kuru-Kuru); Finance Minister, now President, Bharrat Jagdeo promised, in his 1998 budget speech, to establish a Youth Empowerment Programme through which young people could be trained; and the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, Head of the Presidential Secretariat and GDF Chief of Staff embarked on the final de-construction of the GNS, agreeing that it be renamed the National Youth Service and that it be stripped of its para-military trappings, a prelude to its termination on 16 May 2000.

The destruction of the GNS created a vacuum in the lives of thousands of disadvantaged youths by eliminating their ‘second chance’ for self-improvement. It is axiomatic that, without education and employment, young people will turn to some other activity to satisfy their needs or wants, and this has been a contributory factor to juvenile crime.

A closer look at Guyana’s occasional ‘crime waves’ would suggest that they have their origins not solely in deportees and escapees but also in economic depression, inadequate education and unemployment which confront young school-leavers today. Such reflection should have persuaded the Administration to think twice before demolishing the GNS without replacing it. Recent efforts, such as the President’s Youth Choice Initiative, National Youth Council, Youth Parliament, and the promised Youth Empowerment Programme, are ornamental and do not address the fundamental issues of remedial education and employment.

In the absence of an education renaissance or an economic miracle, jobless Amerindian, Indian and African boys and girls will find little to do but hang around their villages, towns, slums and squatting settlements, more likely to become prospective prisoners of the penal system than potential pioneers in national development.