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Raffique Shah


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A 'failed state'? Not my native land

By Raffique Shah
May 25, 2008

"Breathes there the man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land! If such there breathe, go, mark him well; for him no minstrel raptures swell; High though his titles, proud his name, boundless his wealth as wish can claim, Despite those titles, power, and pelf, the wretch, concentered all in self"
-Sir Walter Scott

Recently, many politicians, columnists, academics and ordinary citizens have boldly applied the new global catchwords, "failed state", to Trinidad and Tobago. They cite unbridled crime, the seemingly powerless protective services, and the consequential insecurity of the population, as signs of a collapsed State. They argue, not without merit, that the judicial system is subverted by shoddy police investigations, murdered witnesses, and others who conveniently lose their memories in the witness stand. Most of all, citizens' insecurity seems overpowering.

To add to this cacophony of discontent, President Max Richards is reported as having described the country as being "backward". The President lamented the fact that less than ten per cent of the population has achieved tertiary education. In contrast, he argued, in successful countries like the USA, Japan and Korea, up to 38 per cent of the working population have attained higher education. Besides President Max, others also point to a failing education system, a health system that fails to deliver and poverty levels that are inconsistent with the country's wealth.

While I agree with all these observations, gross inadequacies on the part of the Government and its agencies, I cannot call my country a "failed" or "failing" state: my soul is not dead, nor is my patriotism shattered by the failings of the Government, the State, and most of all the people.

There are many definitions of a "failed state", but the one I find most applicable is by the US-based Global Policy Forum: "Failed states can no longer perform basic functions such as education, security, or governance, usually due to fractious violence or extreme poverty. Within this power vacuum, people fall victim to competing factions and crime, and sometimes the United Nations or neighbouring states intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster."

The Brookings Institution's definition: "In other words, weak states are unable or unwilling to provide essential public services, which include fostering equitable and sustainable economic growth, governing legitimately, ensuring physical security, and delivering basic services. Yet, lacking concrete metrics to evaluate state capacity in each core area of state responsibility , policymakers and scholars resort to a host of adjectives-"weak", "fragile", "failing", "failed" and even "collapsed"-to distinguish among countries suffering from a wide variety of capacity gaps."

If we agree with these definitions, can we seriously classify Trinidad and Tobago as such? In education, while we are far from where we ought to be, we can safely assume that 90 per cent of children have access to primary and secondary levels education. More recently, with the introduction of free tertiary education, almost anyone who has five CXC passes can enter some institutions, while others need Advanced Level or CAPE passes. So the state provides the means by which parents can easily educate their children.

I do not agree, however, that tertiary level education is a measure of intellect, or even of intelligence. Nowadays, here, and in the high-performing countries President Max referred to, many products of those institutions are hardly more intelligent than post-primary students of yesteryear.

We point to the high failure rates at all levels of the education system. Who are to blame? Government? Teachers? Parents? Students? Quote "It's unacceptable that 20 per cent of pupils go from primary to secondary not fully functional in literacy and numeracy." TTUTA? No, that's from an Ofsted report in the UK last week. It added that ten per cent of teens are "dropouts". Violence and drunkenness among the young are reaching alarming proportions in England. A more frightening development there is a rise in numbers of violent "girl gangs". So shall we call Britain a "failed state"?

That we do have an intractable problem in runaway crime and citizens' personal security is indisputable. Government and its security forces have failed miserably in reining in the bandits and murderers, in eradicating "gangsta culture".

While Prime Minister Patrick Manning proceeds merrily with his notion of skyline development, I often wonder is he spares a daily word in his nightly prayers for the hundreds of victims of criminal activities.

Robberies and rapes in broad daylight: the lawless no longer need to cover of darkness to conduct their nefarious activities. A policeman doing what he thought was his duty was shot five times by a thief, such is the criminal world's disregard for the law and its officers.

Still, do all these negatives make us a "failed state" or a "backward" country? Think of life in these randomly selected countries before you answer: Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Nepal, Nigeria, DR Congo, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Would any Trini, from pensioner to "piper", professional to politician, opt to live in these countries? I think not.

Part II