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Raffique Shah


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Summit for neglected majority

By Raffique Shah
March 29, 2009

Let us forget for a moment the "spring cleaning" exercise the Government has undertaken in preparation for the Fifth Summit of the Americas. True, we all tend to put our best faces forward when we invite visitors to our homes. But one cannot live in an unholy dump year-round and clean up only for Christmas or for visitors-it's stupid. Trinidadians, more so than Tobagonians, have descended into a kind of nastiness that is difficult to understand.

Most people no longer care about the state of their shelter, matters not how humble they may be. And unless the much maligned CEPEP workers keep our surroundings in good order, we could not be bothered if mini-forests replace roads' verges or our drains are reduced to raw sewage ducts.

Plain nastiness seeps through this society from top to bottom. The Beetham Highway (among many others) has been an eyesore that grows worse by the day. Whatever government ministers may say to the contrary, it is no coincidence that the authorities decided to "clean up" those surroundings, block off the community with berms, walls, call them what you will, on the eve of the Summit.

Or the move to clear the streets of vagrants, planned 30 years ago, is only now being implemented: The Government knows vagrants will be back on the streets as soon as Barack leaves town. We are no fools, Minister Amery Brown.

How long have citizens and groups concerned about the crime-tide asked for CCTV coverage? Why has it taken until the Summit to have some cameras installed at strategic points? Also, with the outcry against the murder rate, how come that has plummeted-again, on the eve of the Summit? And don't tell me it's because of the foreign troops and policemen deployed here: They have little or nothing to with crime.

Their job is to secure the environment in which delegates to the Summit will be. All of the above show that we can get things done when we are serious about them. But we wait until we have visitors, important ones at that, before we take action.

Let me switch now to the Summit agenda, which is where I left off last week. When I suggested that food and nutrition security should be a prime consideration, the politicians slated to attend must have laughed at the idea. The Summit has as its theme, "Securing Our Citizens' Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability." Hmmm. That's as abstruse as you can get. What is the definition of "human prosperity"? That ten per cent of the 900 million people in the Americas enjoy a decent standard of living while 90 per cent fight for bare survival? That one per cent lives in absolute luxury while the others fight each other like mangrove crabs to climb out of the stench of abject poverty?

Last year the World Bank grudgingly raised the "absolute poverty" line from US$1 a day to US$1.25. How generous! ECLAC, a UN body that focuses on the Americas reported last December that 182 million people in the region lived in abject poverty, but that was an improvement of 0.9 per cent over 2007! "At the same time, the extreme poverty rate rose slightly, from 12.6 per cent of the population in 2007 to 12.9 per cent this year (68 to 71 million people). Factors that played a role in this increase were the rise in inflation, and especially food prices," ECLAC reported.

So we are back to food prices-as if it took experts to tell us that. That's why I place food and nutrition security at the top of the agenda. Human prosperity can mean anything. But wait: the US delegation is coming here with a book titled "The Obama Administration and the Americas: Agenda for Change. And what do they see as the toughest issues facing the hemisphere? Immigration, narcotics, energy, trade and development. Anything there for countries other than the USA? Nada! Illegal immigration is your problem, not ours. If you have a nation that must remain "high" all day, all night, who are we to help you curb that insatiable appetite for narcotics? Mexico President Calderon put the question squarely before Hillary Clinton last week-and she agreed.

No, señor, as Hugo Chavez would say. We need to address our problems, and food comes before narcotics. Water conservation and water management are next in line. Even as I write, India and Pakistan are engaged in a row over the flow of water in the Chenab River. The planet is running dry. The Amazon forest is under threat and rising sea levels are a concern for all the islands of the Caribbean. We have many more important problems than "crackheads" and illegal immigrants to worry over.

The USA and Canada will always remain two countries critical to the development of the Americas. They form the biggest consumer market. But if the Summit is to have meaning, it must focus on the woes of the hitherto neglected majority, not the pampered minority. Only then it would be worth the $300 million the Government and people of this country are sacrificing to host it. - PT I

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