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Raffique Shah


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Crime pays

By Raffique Shah
November 20, 2011

There has always been a "disconnect" between what Governments (note plural) say and what they do. The People's Partnership's first major policy document since coming to office 18 months ago, the Medium-Term Policy Framework (MTPF), is a comprehensive statement on where Trinidad and Tobago is today, its strengths, weaknesses and potential, and where the Partnership Government wants to take it in three years.

The first pillar of the MTPF speaks of "People Centred Development (being) at the heart of Government's development strategy, around which other Pillars coalesce."

Later, discussing new directions for the economy, the document says: "We clearly lag behind in terms of the robustness of the economy, competitiveness, productivity and innovation."

It notes, too, "In addition, there has been little or no attempt in the past to develop a comprehensive workforce development strategy. This has resulted in a capacity problem where 20 per cent of the workforce is classified as unskilled."

Those who drafted the MTPF, like their predecessors who put together Patrick Manning's "Vision 2020", recognised some common problems we need to address before we can even think about achieving developed country status.

These include abysmally low productivity, across the board, from senior management to daily-paid workers. We also have a pathetically poor work ethic. And we can add to our woes an absence of civic-mindedness, and a propensity for wanton lawlessness.

One would assume that having recognised these core problems facing us as we strive to take a place among advanced societies, that we would use every opportunity to rectify our deficiencies. Criminals appeared to be about to seize control of our lives, so how did Government respond? It declared a State of Emergency, imposed a curfew, and locked up more than 6,000 persons in a three-month period. Not bad.

Today, however, in an about-face that reeks of political expediency, the same Government has allocated $300 million to employ people to clean and beautify their own backyards! What you and I see as our domestic and civic responsibilities—keeping our surroundings clean—others are being paid to do it.

Something is very wrong here. I have no problem with the State deciding to share some of the country's wealth among the neediest in society. We who have jobs must recognise the plight of those who do not, or others, who, because of age or infirmity, cannot work. As a people, we have always extended the milk of human kindness to those in need.

But it is nonsense for the Prime Minister to "hoff" $300 million of taxpayers' money and allocate it to people who would watch their close-to-free apartments deteriorate, then pick my pocket to pay them for cleaning their mess.

Many of us grew up in homes where, from the time we could use the latrines (more recently, toilets), our parents assigned us clean-up chores. Boys would sweep yards, feed and care for the fowls and goats. Girls would clean rooms, wash dishes, help around the homes.

Mark you, we would perform many of these tasks before going off to school in our one outfit with cheap "watchekongs" on our feet—boys and girls. Others we did after school hours. Our fathers, assisted by their boys, would keep the roadside drains and kerbs clean, using hoes, spades and cutlasses.

In communities, there were undeclared competitions among residents to see whose premises looked best. There was pride in keeping one's surroundings clean. No one asked to be paid to perform what they saw as their civic duties.

This "Colour me Orange" is a shameful waste of taxpayers' dollars that could have been applied towards boosting productivity in the country. Government could have broken free from similar programmes of the past by adopting innovative approaches to social mitigation.

Indeed, it would have been better if Government had identified the neediest cases across the country, not just in HDC housing blocks, and given those people grants. That way the programme would not have triggered the tensions we have seen thus far...or the threats of "bloodshed" that may yet turn orange into red.

But no; Government had to pander to the very communities it had declared "crime hot spots" months ago. Some of those I saw queuing up for "wuk" were bedecked in jewelry, and wore brand-name sneakers I will not buy because they are too expensive. I'm sure many also sport the newest smartphones that they feed daily with pre-paid cards. And most must have music wherever they go...iPods, iPads, whatever.

As some of my columnist-colleagues noted of this handouts programme, it's a case of feeding the beast that will turn around and bite politicians and law-abiding citizens alike. This feeding-frenzy takes place even as many unfortunate souls across the country live in dire circumstances, in two-by-two shacks with no chance of ever seeing inside an HDC apartment.

The worst aspect of the programme is its negative impact on productivity and the work ethic, which, as I noted earlier, the Government has vowed to improve. This country has been saddled for decades with different incarnations of the non-productive, "lahaying" URP. Then Manning added CEPEP, which, conceptually, was better than the URP. That soon degenerated into contracts-for-the-financiers and party hacks, a more lucrative URP.

Now, the Government has taken another step backward with "agent orange". This flies in the face of all the sound policies outlined in the MTPF. It has turned hope into despair. Worst of all, it sends a loud, clear message to young people who are seeking to map out their careers: crime pays.

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