July 6, 2003
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In our edition of June 24, we carried a report from the Barbados Nation, on a warning by Andrew Downer, Professor of Economics at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies, about a human resource crisis which could be looming for the Caribbean. He was reported as saying that an unacceptable rate of high-school drop-outs coupled with poor CXC results, more especially in English and Mathematics, as well as an insufficient number of students pursuing tertiary education could trigger the crisis.
He is, of course, Barbados based, and that particular island has always been regarded as unusually well-endowed in terms of human resources relative to the size of its population. However, Professor Downer is clearly seeing a trend which could lead to a problem even in the more skills-abundant territories of Caricom, one of which Guyana is not. Our human resource deficiency was apparent a long time ago, and had its origins as much in politics as it did in education or the economic situation.
Nevertheless, the Professor’s assessments still have relevance here. He was reported as referring not just to a lack “of essential training and skills to meet new work requirements,” but also to poor work attitudes. That too is something which Guyana knows a great deal about. We have the distinction of raising an entire generation in the ‘barrel’ and remittance culture. Of course in many cases where the recipients are elderly, or are people working for low wages, remittances have kept the wolf of abject poverty from the door. However, on the other side of the coin, there have also been instances of young people being left here by their emigrant parents, who have become dependent on the regular ‘brace’ from abroad. That money is sometimes worth more than any wages that could be earned for unskilled labour, leaving no incentive for them to work.
The situation is aggravated in a low wage economy by the prevalence of the drugs culture and its lure of easy money, coupled with the relentless bombardment of TV advertisements for luxury consumer goods beamed directly into our homes. Wander around the city during working hours, and there will be any number of able-bodied young men liming on bridges with no obvious occupation to fill the passing hours. Some of them, there is no doubt, will be genuinely unemployed in the sense that they cannot find a job, some of them may be able to get a low-paying job but won’t accept it “because the money can’t meet,” but almost all of them will be unskilled. Whatever the case, a work ethic cannot be acquired while spending working hours liming on the bridges - or anywhere else in Georgetown and the villages.
Allowing for the fact, as stated above, that Guyana has had a human resource crisis for many years, rectifying the situation requires more than just ensuring that a larger number of students aspire to a tertiary education, although this will obviously play a role. The deficiencies of the education system are being addressed by the Ministry of Education, although whether those strategies will be effective, will not be clear for some years down the road. In any event, we are nowhere near to solving the teacher crisis, and no educational reforms, no matter how innovative, will produce results if there are insufficient qualified teachers in the classrooms.
In addition, we are not exempt from the growing trend for more boys than girls to drop out of the educational process. The reasons may be complex, but among them must surely be numbered the fact that having a good education is no longer a status symbol, and does nothing for a youth’s ‘street cred.’ In our materialist world, the only thing that counts is money, along with the flaunting of all the brand-name symbols of that money. Addressing the specific question of boys’ underachievement in schools, therefore, will also be necessary.
And then there is the drugs trade, which is seducing so many of our young people and wasting their lives. It seems that that particular cancer has crept up on us unawares, and with our open borders and degraded security situation, the local authorities will not be able to tackle it alone. Where that is concerned, at least, we may require external assistance in one form or another.
At the bottom of many of our problems, however, is quite simply the political situation - a problem with which Barbados does not have to contend. Without political stability there cannot be serious economic development of any kind; and without security and a viable economy it will not be possible to induce qualified personnel to remain here. In this harsh globalised environment, as Professor Downer indicated, a human resource deficit spells an inability to compete. And if we cannot compete, we cannot survive as a state.