Investing in education Editorial
Stabroek News
February 1, 2007

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In an increasingly competitive world, the demand for learning is growing exponentially. In the globalized marketplace, where developing countries are hard- pressed to compete with richer, more technologically advanced nations, those that have been able to gain a competitive foothold are those that have invested in their most valuable resource, their human capital. In the Caribbean, Barbados is the prime example of this thinking.

In Guyana however, we have recently had the national embarrassment of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana, our country's premier educational institution, bemoaning the paucity of resources at his disposal to maintain even minimum standards at UG. It would seem that we are failing to give our youth the education and the promise of the better future to which they are entitled.

Ours is a national setting notable for less than stellar economic and social indicators. Over the past thirty years Guyana's Human Development Index ranking has been relatively static. Despite official assurances of a high literacy rate, CXC results and anecdotal evidence would suggest an alarmingly high level of functional illiteracy, as well as a high level of functional innumeracy.

Meanwhile, the debilitating brain drain continues, as Guyana haemorrhages people and skills, especially those we can perhaps least afford to lose - our teachers. Given the government's inability to turn the situation around, the time has come for more innovative thinking.

The private sector is clearly the main sector possessing many of the leadership and entrepreneurial skills indispensable for growth. But while the private sector cannot and should not displace the role of the government in providing an adequate level of education for the younger citizens of Guyana, there must be space for engagement with the private sector to address the problem of our human infrastructure.

We are not here talking about more private schools, for we are seeking a more equitable solution. Rather, if the private sector is truly to be the "engine of growth" - and so far this has been more of a political cliché than a reality - then there has to be a role for the private sector to be more involved in working out strategies and actions to address broad development issues, with a particular focus on our pressing education problems.

The private sector, after all, needs people. It needs people for two simple reasons: they form the labour force and they are the domestic market for the majority of products and goods.

The private sector therefore has a vested interest in the people and it must be encouraged to invest in the people, if it is going to have a milieu in which to function successfully and prosper.

Growth and wealth creation can no longer be regarded as the exclusive purview of a select few. The stereotype of 'fat cat' businessmen feeding off the toil and dreams of the masses has to be dispelled. Businesses that do not put something back into society will in the long run prove to be unsustainable. Very few will get fat for long in a failing society or a failing state.

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has of course been around for some time, even before the term came into vogue through linkages with sustainable development theories and practices. Service clubs like the Lions and the Rotary are excellent examples of a basic form of CSR. But CSR as it has evolved goes beyond charity and philanthropy, embracing the philosophy that firms have a duty of care to all stakeholders in society.

The Geneva-based World Business Council for Sustainable Development defines CSR as "the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large". It is essentially a concept based on the idea of partnership.

What we need therefore is a new public-private partnership - a lower case ppp, as it were - between government and the private sector aimed at sharing private sector skills and bringing private sector financial resources and business networks to bear, in the interest of developing an imaginative approach to improving the quality of education in Guyana, at all levels, primary, secondary and tertiary, including technical and vocational training. School boards were to a certain extent a tentative step in this direction. Unfortunately, only a few faltering steps have been taken in the direction of genuine partnership and division of responsibilities.

A broader dialogue on the subject is now necessary, perhaps with donor support. Indeed, the partnership should be expanded to embrace the donor community, with a view to tapping domestic and foreign resources to unleash the great potential to be found in the intellectual and entrepreneurial capacity of our young people. Only then will we gain a competitive edge.