July 20, 2004
The debate on the Guyana National Service has been rekindled years after the Government 'demilitarised' its operations, discarded its paraphernalia, dispersed its officers, and discontinued its core functions of production, development and defence.
Major General Joseph Singh, the GNS's longest-serving Director General and former GDF Chief of Staff under whose tenure the GNS was demilitarised, recently proposed its re-establishment. Delivering the feature address at the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana's (THAG) Annual General Meeting (AGM), General Singh expressed confidence that an institution such as the one he headed from 1981 to 1990 can play a significant role. He said, "I have a vision of Omai Mines in the Essequibo that, if it does close in 2005, as has been announced, the infrastructure there can support up to 500 youths, instructors and teaching and administrative facilities." He envisaged the new National Service being used productively to conduct vocational training specially tailored for hundreds of unemployed or unemployable youth.
Several letter writers to this newspaper, moved by nostalgia as well as convictions about the necessity of such a Service, supported General Singh's proposal. But given the circumstances surrounding the birth, stormy existence and sudden demise of the controversial GNS, will General Singh's proposal be given a second thought by the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports Gail Teixeira who is charged with responsibility for it?
The 'old' GNS has already been replaced by the Youth Entrepreneurial Skills Training (YEST) programme. Minister Gail Teixeira some time ago, explaining the rationale for YEST, said that the GNS had "lost its importance since the 1980s" and had discontinued serious technical-vocational training.
The original GNS faced many serious problems which doomed it almost from the start 30 years ago. Launched with lofty ideals expressed in a 'White Paper' in the National Assembly, and conceived as an institution to alleviate unemployment among young people by encouraging education, training and settlement, the GNS became a spectacular showpiece of the PNC Administration. It its early days, no visiting dignitary could escape a trip to Kimbia and the ritual tree planting by the lake.
Internally, however, policy drift swayed the Service away from education and employment into risky commercial activities, especially in the tricky business of large-scale cultivation on the intermediate savannahs' marginal brown sands. Its centres were scattered widely in five Regions, necessitating an expensive and elaborate transport and logistics infrastructure and a large staff of employees many of whom were called upon to manage a new enterprise with more enthusiasm than experience.
Externally, several sceptical social groups and political parties objected to the compulsory conditions of service especially for students and scholarship winners. Others nourished fears about the administrative standards and the dangers of undesirable relations and behaviour, not dissimilar to those recently reported among Guyanese students in Cuba.
Whether or not the deficiencies and failures of the GNS were incorrigible, or the fears of families justifiable, is another matter. It is evident that, by the early 1990s when the Administration changed, the GNS was a shadow of the shining service of the 1970s and 1980s which was once awarded the 'Medal of Service'.
There is little doubt that a serious youth unemployment problem persists; many school-leavers are unprepared to participate fully in the economy; many young males might have turned to idleness, petty crime or worse.
Whether or not General Singh's advice is accepted, there certainly needs to be a serious rethink on an institutional mechanism to deal with youth unemployment.