August 17, 2002
In a recent letter Dr David Hinds made the statement that no government including that of the PNC had continuously tackled the issue of African economic marginalisation. Can that proposition be sustained?
The Burnham government was certainly not unaware of the problem. The co-operative movement which it sponsored and sought to develop was widely viewed as an effort to encourage Afro Guyanese to return to farming and substantial time and money was spent on that programme. The opening of the Guyana National Co-operative Bank was an effort to create a bank that was less conservative and more customer friendly than traditional banks had been. The socialist thrust and the 'miniaturisation' of private businesses accompanied by the centralisation of importation and distribution together with widespread nationalisation went some way towards the empowerment of a black managerial class.
It is therefore unfair to suggest that the PNC government did not seek to tackle the problem. What can be validly criticised, however, is the methods it used and an effort can be made to understand why those programmes did not succeed in the long run. It must also be recalled that since l989 the Economic Recovery Programme sought to reverse the widespread state ownership of the economy, which was widely accepted to have failed here and in other parts of the world, and to remove subsidies. That programme would clearly, as was noted at the time, have impacted more severely on urban communities.
Are Afro Guyanese now poorer than Indo Guyanese? Are African villages more depressed? To answer these questions one would have to look at the UNDP report on poverty by Dr Clive Thomas and the Household Income and Expenditure Survey. What seems clear at this stage is that the general problem of underdevelopment and poverty afflicts both communities. The Dialogue Committee on Depressed Communities had started to identify both African and Indian villages that needed urgent help and that is surely the kind of active, enlightened approach that is needed to deal with this problem.
But that is not the end of the matter. Historically, slavery and the discriminatory practices that followed emancipation left a bitter legacy of dispossession and alienation. Organisations like the African Cultural Development Association recognise that this problem still exists and seek to solve it by teaching about African history and culture. Forbes Burnham and the holding of power by the People's National Congress provided a deep psychological balm (though, to use the American context, Burnham was more Adam Clayton Powell than Malcolm X or Martin Luther King). That explains the emotional investment made by Afro-Guyanese in Mr Burnham and his party. It also explains the shock caused by the loss of power in l992 and what has since then been seen as political marginalisation and the widespread replacement of the senior administrators that were running the show. The strong perception of marginalisation springs from this and some acts of discrimination that have inevitably occurred in replacing the old power structure.
This is surely the inarticulate major premise of the claim for more inclusive governance that informs the present political debate. And it needs to be recognised and taken seriously. In a multi-ethnic society all sides must make every effort to understand the insecurities of each other. What is needed is a structured dialogue and good faith efforts to recognise the problems that exist and to find ways of dealing with them.
At the end of the day one is seeking to have a vision of the nation that is broader than the ethnic groups but includes them all and draws nourishment and pride from their respective strengths and achievements. Ideally, these should be unifying rather than divisive. The nation must be built by statesmen who have the courage and the strength themselves to take the broad view and to make the compromises needed to work for its achievement.