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Kamla's synthetic world

Express - May 06, 2001
By Raffique Shah

I EXPECT that UNDP resident representative in this country, Mr Hans Geiser, and those professionals he hired to compile the contentious National Human Development Report on Trinidad and Tobago, will soon announce the name of the political party they are due to form (or that which he proposes to join-it must be the PNM!). Because if we must judge its contents and conclusions by what Education Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said, then the UNDP document is more a "political manifesto than the serious analytical report expected from the UNDP".

Indeed, so incensed were the minister and her colleagues about the negatives in the report about the nation's children and young people, they appointed a team headed by UWI professor and Independent Senator Dr Ramesh Deosaran to review the document. Deosaran and company took two weeks to compile their own report which told the minister that "there were no missing children (from the school system) and the 1998 data used by the (UNDP) team suggests the exact opposite, that every child of primary school age was in school".

The Deosaran Report, the minister said, revealed the "dangers to which T&T can be exposed by misinformation and the findings raise questions of methodology and professionalism in research". "The review team stated they were quite surprised at the lack of clarity or coherence and the level of inaccuracies contained in the report. Even information present (sic) from previous reports were full of errors."

Now, I have not seen or read either document, although in the past I have read other UNDP human development reports for this and other countries. Based on the information contained in those reports, I have no doubt that some of the data may have been inaccurate, and some of the conclusions flawed. Indeed, such deficiencies are common in most reports, be they Central Bank documents or World Bank reports that are often used by politicians to trumpet their achievements, to tout T&T as the "fastest growing economy in the West".

But I really want to read this particular UNDP report titled "Youth at Risk". And I'd like to ask Deosaran and his esteemed colleagues how, in two weeks, they could do a head count to determine that "every child of school age was at school". The UNDP's team will have spent many months reviewing data and doing field work before arriving at their findings. Too, they were all nationals of this country, hence they would have known where to go and what to look for. And even if they did make mistakes, how could Dr Deosaran and his fellow-academics double-check the data in two weeks?

The Deosaran team assured minister Persad-Bissessar that "every child of primary school age was at school". They certainly did not visit the very short street on which I live, and where, of a pool of about 30 children of school age (primary and secondary), at least four never saw inside a classroom except on the few occasions they went there for free meals. Beyond my street, there is a squatter settlement. I have not done a physical check, but based on the number of kids I see playing in the area, and those I see in uniforms heading for school, I should think that as many as 20 per cent of those children do not attend school. And if I were to take street-by-street, main road included, as I proceed up the road (Cedar Hill Road, Claxton Bay, Madame Minister), there are scores of school-age children either hustling for a few dollars to put food on the family tables, or just liming around, many of them apprentices at the National Institute of Training in Crime.

Now, I've dealt with just a tiny district in one of the most economically prosperous parts of Trinidad. Anyone who is observant and who simply drives around the country would see hundreds, nay, thousands of school-age kids out of school doing nothing but whiling away time. So there is empirical data to support the UNDP finding that there are children who are out of the school system, although I don't know if the number at the primary level is as high as 34,623. There are even more "dropouts" at the secondary school level. And if we include those who "graduate" from junior and senior secondary schools, a high percentage of them are functionally illiterate.

Add to that lot Mrs Bissessar's "model schools" students and we can safely assume that the number of barely literate young people is probably higher (on a percentage basis) than it was in 1945. Because then, if one failed to secure secondary education, the level of knowledge one received up to the post-primary classes was vastly superior to what junior secondary school "graduates" achieve today. From this huge cesspool of "dropouts" come the very young criminals and vagrants who today make mockery of this country's claim to being close to developed status.

And therein lies Mrs Bissessar's main inadequacy. She and her colleagues in government cannot face the reality that development in this country has always been skewed, but never more so than since the IMF and World Bank clamped their dirty hands around our necks. What has passed for economic growth over the past five years (and for around 10 years between 1973-83) is in fact the enrichment of a few at the expense of the many. The middle class has been reduced to rubble, barely surviving above the poverty line, and the noveau-riche are riding the boom in their BMWs. When the "bust" cycle comes around (as it must), the latter will have to hand over their keys to keys to million-dollar apartments and luxury cars and "buss it" from the country.

Against such background, the UNDP will have examined the realities that face us on the economic and social fronts. And their conclusions, while they may be flawed to an extent, reflect the true state of the society. If anyone is looking to use the report for political purposes, it is Mrs Bissessar, not the UNDP. The minister's call for the UNDP to "retract" the report must be seen in this context. Mrs Bissessar's real concern is that "it promoted an incorrect and skewed perception of the country which would be distributed to international libraries...".

What Mrs Bissesar wants from the UNDP is a tourist brochure, a synthetic T&T, not a realistic report. For that, she must go to Tidco, or try Roy Boyke or Rodney Charles. They will give her a picture-perfect Trinidad and Tobago. And superficiality, like mediocrity, is a politician's paradise.

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