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Three more years are left of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, which is intended to focus upon justice and development for African people, and I am not aware of any government commitment to a definitive plan with specific time-bound benchmarks to improve the condition of African and related peoples in Guyana.
Some years ago, I argued that governments should commit to implement policies geared to establishing equitability in all areas of social life (SN:29/06/2011). I later called upon the APNU+AFC coalition to do less preaching and conceptualise and implement policies to attain equitability, but today we are still hearing lofty platitudes about the need for racial equity in Guyana. I believe that this matter is of sufficient importance for me to postpone the discussion on coalition politics to indicate what a sensible plan should look like.
Particularly in ethnically divided societies, all the talk about growing national unity is drivel if the perception of ethnic inequality is widespread. After ethnic riots in 1969, the incoming coalition government of Malaysia rightly concluded that ‘National Unity is unattainable without greater equity and balance among Malaysia’s social and ethnic groups in their participation in the development of the country and in the sharing of the benefits from modernisation and economic growth. National Unity cannot be fostered if vast sections of the population remain poor and if sufficient productive employment opportunities are not created for the expanding labour force.’
So while the organisations of the various groups may lobby for and monitor the process as it applies to their group, a national plan must consider the condition of all ethnic groups. Secondly, a successful plan cannot be based simply on the liberal capitalist laissez faire provision of financing for small business. Indeed, such an approach can be counterproductive for it holds the possibility of disproportionately helping those who understand and are already in business. A sensible plan must be based on an scientific understanding of the difficulties facing ethnic groups in all social sectors: business, public and security services, etc, the establishment of achievable time-bound benchmarks, the provision of comprehensive supportive mechanisms and the existence of a national institution to monitor the process.
In 2016, after widespread consultations that included people of different ethnicities, governmental and non-governmental organisations, etc., the United Kingdom government launched a racial disparity audit and established a Racial Disparity Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office to direct and monitor the process. The first report published in 2017 showed large disparities between how people are treated depending on their race. For example, a black Caribbean is 3 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than her peers, a black woman is 7 times more likely to be detained under mental health legislation than a white woman and people in ethnic minority households are almost twice as likely to live in relative poverty then white people.
This is the kind of approach that should be used to develop achievable goals against which the various ethnicities and others could urge and judge their progress and actual commitment of governments. For example, referencing the 2017 British report, The Equality and Diversity Forum called upon the government ‘to develop robust policy measures to tackle the disproportionate outcomes for different ethnic groups in the UK. It is time to implement a cross-departmental race equality strategy to facilitate rapid progress, particularly in key areas such as education, employment and criminal justice.’
After the 1969 ethnic riots mentioned above, the New Economic Polity (NEP) of the Malaysian government set the kind of targets of which I speak to seriously reduce existing inequalities. The policy was quite comprehensive; dealing with wealth and income distribution, ethnic Malay (Bumiputras) participation in the professions, education, and so on. For example, while in Guyana there are claims that relative ethnic economic inequality is increasing, as can be seen above, corporate equity held by Bumiputras (ethnic Malays) moved from 2.4% in 1970 to as much as 16.2 in 2016 and the amount of equity held by individual Bumiputeras increased from 1.6% in 1970 to 18% 2008.
Finally, ethnic disparities will not be sufficiently reduced in a timely manner, if at all, in a laissez faire framework: disadvantaged people also need various kinds of support mechanisms and the following is a good example. In 1941 a young Roman Catholic priest in the impoverished Basque region of Mondragon in Spain set about using co-operatives to improve the condition of his parishioners. In 2015, co-operatives in the region employed about 75,000 people, had assets of US$25 billion and revenues of US$12 billion. In 2013, 71.1% of turnover came from sales from exports and they had 125 subsidiaries – 15 in China, 17 in France, 5 in Brazil, 3 in UK, 4 in Germany, the Mondragon University has about 4,500 pupils etc. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PR40zAeeGSM).
The infant movement needed support and especially in the first two decades, the most important of these support institutions was the group’s bank: the Caja Laboral. Generally, poor people find it difficult to acquire adequate financing and Caja Laboral now has some 370 branches that serve the wider Basque region. However, while financing was important, the major input of the bank – and what had glaringly absent during the period of co-operative development in Guyana – came from its ‘entrepreneurial division’, which provides extensive management and technical consulting to new and expanding ventures and to troubled firms in the network. This was ‘crucial to the long-term success of many enterprises in the group’ (Ibid).
The above examples are given to indicate the kind of scientific approach that is required if timely success is to be achieved. Of course, one must expect entrenched interests: governments themselves to possibly rant against such a project. After all, it contains the worst nightmares of governments: concrete benchmarks against which their usual empty rhetoric could be judged. Furthermore, it could also lead to a redistribution of opportunities and wealth, sometimes from the regime’s constituencies.
What is certain is that we need to stop the talk and walk the walk, beginning with a transparently developed plan that can be properly monitored to hold governments accountable. Simply throwing money about in an haphazard manner is more likely to benefit the haves rather than the have-nots: it has not worked to seriously reduce inequalities in the past and will not do so now.