November 28, 2004
By Raffique Shah
IN last week's column I focused on some infrastructural imperatives that the population expects the Government to act on today, not in or by the year 2020. Most of these ought to have been achieved many years ago given the oil wealth that this country has always enjoyed, even during lean times.
In addition to those outlined in that article-and because of lack of space, many more were omitted-it bothers me that in the richest country in the Caribbean we still have wooden bridges. While one may excuse such archaic river-crossings in remote "traces", how does one account for them still existing on several main roads?
In the Toco-Matelot districts, for example, residents would often offer visitors directions by the number of wooden bridges you have to cross before reaching your destination. A similar situation holds true on the Mayaro-Guayaguayare Road, in districts like Penal Rock Road and its environs, in Moruga, Cedros and many more rural towns and villages.
What is alarming in the case of Mayaro, for example, is that this district has been the hub of our offshore oil production for more than 30 long years. Some main bridges have been upgraded by the oil companies out of sheer necessity, and during the UNC term in office the Basdeo Panday government upgraded some key bridges on the road to Mayaro (and elsewhere in the country).
How can we boast of "Vision 2020" yet accept such symbols of under-development as being normal? Another test of whether or not we are ready for "developed world" status is our maintenance programmes, or lack thereof. From roads, on which we spend huge sums of money to resurface, to costly public buildings, we seem to have no planned maintenance, allowing them to deteriorate to the point where they cost taxpayers considerably more money than we ought to spend on them. A cursory look at many public buildings will bear out the point I'm making-the grime that has been allowed to cover whatever paint or other finish that once was. This is shameful, wasteful and unacceptable.
Speaking of highways, do we really have roads that can be so designated? The Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, which Minister Franklin Khan plans to expand into six lanes, with the resulting dangers I pointed out last week, has traffic lights and road junctions almost every 800 metres. Is this a highway or a very wide street? On the Butler Highway, every doubles vendor or car parts dealer or businessman who so chooses, constructs his own entrance/exit onto the roadway. Governments have all threatened to remove these illegal entrances, but not one has had the guts to enforce the law. So here again we have a regular main road being deemed a highway. Or, put another way, a highway reduced to a main road.
But these are only infrastructural problems that make us under-developed even as we boast of achieving developed status. What of the many social ills that bedevil us notwithstanding our wealth? The Patrick Manning Government boasts of an improved social mitigation programme that is meant to ultimately eliminate poverty, a goal that other governments also gave high priority when they were in office.
But thus far greater wealth (Central Bank Governor Ewart Williams says that we now have reserves of US $2.8 billion!) has not meant greater equity in the distribution of wealth. If anything, we are going through the classical capitalist mode in which increased national revenue results in the widening of the rich-poor gap. And this is one barometer of measuring a country's status, whether it's developed or under-developed on undeveloped.
In Europe, moreso in the countries there that adopted the "welfare state" mode many years ago, one can see the super-rich, the rich, a big middle class, and, yes, some poverty. But poverty in such countries is relative in the sense that not only do governments ensure that there is a good "safety net" in place to ensure that people do not go hungry or without shelter, but that their children have the means to acquire education and skills that would help lift them from the pit of poverty. This is really one of the acid tests in determining a country's true social and economic status.
Let me explain. Over the last few decades we have seen the rise of the so-called "Asian Tigers"-meaning countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. They have all acquired and exploited thriving manufacturing and heavy industries' sectors, they are largely self-sufficient in food, and most of all they boast of cities that rival any metropolis in Europe or North America. In fact, because of their GDPs, they now rank high on the UNDP listing of rich-poor countries. But reality is that one does not have to spit too far from the centre of their manicured city-centres to hit the poor sods who barely survive in the slums that surround their facades of wealth. This is a common factor in most Third World countries that boast of being wealthy by dint of visionary thinking on the part of their great leaders and hard work of the masses.
It is also what distinguishes truly developed nations from those that pretend to be developed. While there is poverty in England, the USA, Canada,or France, people live generally better off than their counterparts in the "Asian Tigers", and their city scapes are not marred by necklaces of slums that form only the "first front" of poverty that hits you in-the-face as you go farther away from the cities. Is that what we want for this country? That you make Port of Spain a showcase city, a manifestation of our wealth, but you leave Sea Lots, East Dry River, Laventille and Morvant as festering eyesores by day, with hungry people who will strangle it by night?
Development cannot be measured by the gross wealth of the country or by the number of millionaires we have, the many mansions that sit perched on the hillsides, the number of luxury vehicles we see on the clogged roads. That is the IDB, the UNDP way of measuring success. Development can only be truly measured by the absence of poverty, by the way a society seeks to close the rich-poor gap, by the elimination of illiteracy, by uplifting those who cannot help themselves.
Issues like constitutional reform and the size and composition of parliament are only incidental to these hurdles we need to cross if we are to achieve developed status. And these are issues that need not wait for a 2020-solution. We need action now, and most of all we need to channel our wealth in a way that it benefits the many, not just the few.