The Alliance For Change Column
April 22, 2007
The AFC recognizes that Guyana is blessed with extraordinary human and natural resources which remain unutilized while our people continue to struggle with poverty, under-employment and joblessness. Whatever strategy we employ to alleviate this status, it is our belief that the Diaspora, whose remittances have now surpassed the country's sugar earnings, should have a say. In today's column we publish an open letter by Mr. Oma Sewhdat who lives and works in North America .
Brief Biography of Oma Sewhdat
Oma holds a Professional Accounting degree from the Association of Certified and Chartered Accountants (ACCA), UK . He spent 30 years in IBM in various management positions, and worked on special assignment in IBM's Corporate Headquarters in NY for 3 ½ years, leading the development and deployment of IBM's Financial Systems for Italy , Germany , France , UK , Japan and Canada .
Over the last 8 years, Oma's more significant accomplishments include serving as President of jCert - an industry technology certification body sponsored by high tech companies like IBM, SUN, Oracle, among others; and being Vice President of a prominent University in the USA .
An Open Letter
To the Guyanese Diaspora shared with those living the reality at home…..
I am writing to you as one of your peers - an ordinary Guyanese torn from our homeland many years ago. Whether you live in Guyana or in the Diaspora, I believe that in terms of our homeland, we share many of the same fears, pain, frustration, love, hope and passion.
I believe that given the right opportunity and environment, we would want to work together to do what we must as a generation, to bring the dawn of a new era to Guyana . I ask that you take the time to read these few pages, and after you have, search your conscience. Ask yourself like I did: ‘If not us, Who? And if not now, When?'
I am asking you to join with thousands at home and around the world, who are on the move to break the shackles in which we find ourselves as a nation. Join with us to create the environment needed to unleash the energy, creativity, ingenuity, fairness and goodwill that we know we have, so that we can see Guyana become what we know she can be – a proud, glorious, prosperous and richly diverse beacon in our part of the world.
Even though I left Guyana in 1976, deep inside, like many of us, Guyana never left m e. Guyana has always been, and will continue to be home. I have been involved socially and politically all along in one way or the other, sometimes more intensely than others.
Like many of us, I am happily settled in my adopted country, Canada . But I have looked on from a distance, in sadness, as the Guyanese dream became a nightmare. In Canada , I grew personally and professionally, raised my family and saw reward for my hard work.
In many ways, I cannot imagine how it would have been spending the past 30 years in Guyana instead of Canada . Looking at it as one of the hundreds of thousands of us who left, I think we are better off for having left when we did.
I believe that we have had opportunities for growth personally and professionally that we may not have had. I also think we are probably more tolerant and appreciative of each other, and can look at ourselves and our homeland differently. I think we are in a great position to use some or all of these assets and gifts to help our homeland in really significant ways.
I will always hold Canada close to my heart, but it will always be ‘home away from home' for me. I always felt that this was temporary, and that one day, I will go back to the land where I was born; to walk where I used to run, and to be able to be part of a rebirth in Guyana . I saw for Guyana a place where there would be hope, safety, fairness, mutual respect among people as people, and enjoyment of each other as Guyanese.
For 30 years, like many others, I tried to help support change but what needed to happen has not happened yet. There have been changes, of course, and some positive ones as well. But as a whole, I see Guyana sadly stagnant in many ways, sliding backwards in others and taking on new troubling characteristics that in my view will hasten its underdevelopment and instability in the future.
There is enough for all in Guyana , but I believe that the opportunity to harness the abundance of the land and the generosity and spirit and of her people has been squandered. Guyana has become the blight in the Caribbean ; her people ridiculed, unwanted and stigmatized; their individual and collective pride and will seriously damaged. Despite our renown for being innovative, bright, hard working, peace loving, law abiding and generous, it is sad to watch the unnatural character that has found its way into the plod and grind of daily living in Guyana .
People do what they have to do to survive; and having had to do it for so long, it's hard to remember that these same people were once the brain and bread basket of the Caribbean, generous to a fault, and able to see life through a wit, laughter and gaiety that infected everyone who came close.
After 40 years of independence, institutional racism, neglect, greed, corruption and a culture of entitlement has engulfed the country is strangling it. The Guyanese people have had to pay an unforgivable price over the past 40 years:
We paid being discriminated against, intimidated and marginalized in our own country;
We paid with the youth we lost, escaping in the 60's, 70's, and 80's and even today;
We paid with the breakup and dispersal of families all over the globe, many of us losing ourselves and our way;
We paid with the dreams and the heritage that we lost;
We paid with the humiliation we felt just for being Guyanese during and following the national destruction of the Burnham years;
We paid by having to accept racism, underemployment and loss of identity in our scramble to survive out of Guyana ;
We paid as we watched from a distance as parents and loved ones suffer and grow old - wanting, disenfranchised, intimidated for their beliefs or for being born a certain race;
And above all, some who did not leave, paid, and continue to pay with their blood and their lives.
What is disturbing about all this is that all of this seems to have been for nothing! Sure, there were some improvements. But in many ways, and by many measures, the country and the people are worse off than they were before Independence ; and at current course and speed, we are headed for the bottom!!
For Guyana to prosper, every citizen MUST have the opportunity as a person in his or her own right; to dream and create dreams; to succeed and help others to succeed; to fulfill and be fulfilled; to live and let live; to respect and be respected; to hope and give hope; to have and defend true freedom - free from fear, racism, discrimination and political victimization.
I know that m any of us have enjoyed some of these rights in our adopted countries and are keenly aware that we had to leave Guyana to enjoy them. I also know that m any of us feel robbed of many of the other dimensions of life and living because we had to leave when we did.
We are scattered, away from our families, relatives, friends and communities, with gaps and voids in our being that we think about and feel forced to live with in sadness, silence, despair and sometimes in denial and anger.
Whether we choose to try to forget or to avoid this, it is there, familiar to many of us in the Diaspora, and I believe it will always be there. As we continue the rhythm of life in our adopted countries, there will always be a conversation, reflection or some event taking place in Guyana or affecting Guyana that will stir these emotions with different levels of intensity.
Despite all of this, many of us continue to help in many ways, and will continue to do so because we care about our friends, family, people and homeland.
Help in whatever form it is given, is needed in Guyana , and I know that it is both deeply appreciated and sometimes abused. Despite our best efforts, I believe that the need goes much deeper than the help we are able to give individually.
Because of what was unleashed institutionally on the people of Guyana over the past 40 years, there have been deep negative changes to the value system among many Guyanese living at home, depending on how their circumstances unfolded.
Work ethic, personal responsibility, self sufficiency, fair play and basic honesty are some of the qualities which defined us as a people before, but have eroded over the past 40 years. This is not to lay blame; it is just to openly recognize the reality as a place from where to start.
There are many reasons for the character changes that have afflicted Guyana , and I believe that lack of leadership, bad government, racism, corruption, greed, mismanagement and lack of opportunity were at the root of what happened.
At this point in the history of the country, I don't think it's useful or helpful to try to pinpoint which political parties, personalities or organizations were responsible for what. There is enough to go around to those who had a hand in what went on; and besides that, I believe that we all know more or less how we got to where are as a nation.
We may have soft spots for certain players and want to be less harsh on them than others, but it is my view that the whole pack of them failed the country. They do not deserve to be in office; do not collectively have the skills to do what's needed; and are too inward looking and ‘small minded' for a job that needs to be done.
There are lots of ‘small men' who have become ‘real men' in Guyana and many of them who are not deserving. So rather than rant about this, I just wanted to make that point as a basis for what I would like to ask of you; as Guyanese in the Diaspora.
As a Chartered Accountant, retired IBM executive who worked on special assignment in several European countries as leader in the development and deployment of IBM's financial systems and currently Vice-President of a prominent University in the USA , Oma Sewhdat is without a doubt a successful member of the Guyanese Diaspora.
Last week, in an Open letter to the Diaspora that he shared with those of us living the reality at home, Oma Sewhdat agonized about the fears and frustrations many at home and abroad experienced.
It was his view that Guyana was sadly stagnant in many ways, sliding backwards in others and taking on new troubling characteristics that will hasten the country's underdevelopment and instability in the future.
However, it was his view that given the right opportunity, many in the Diaspora would be willing to be part of a rebirth in Guyana . A Guyana where there would be hope, safety, fairness, mutual respect among people as people, and enjoyment of each other as Guyanese.
He continues his open letter to the Diaspora thus: -
I believe that the Diaspora is probably one of Guyana 's most valuable, most abused, least respected and under-utilized strategic resources. By some counts, including the current government's estimates, there are about 960,000 of us out here when you include our descendants. That is bigger than the current population of Guyana based on the last census!!
Many countries making quantum leaps in development have realized this; India and China are the leaders in tapping into their Diaspora. The PPP and PNC have abused the Diaspora, keeping them at bay and tapping into their bank accounts at election time, every 4-5 years. They also know that the Diaspora, being decent and caring Guyanese will continue to pour in the US$300+ million a year into the country to help their loved ones, neighbours, schools, churches, etc.
You will probably hear the words ‘Money Transfer' in presentations coming from the current government to the Diaspora. That's right! That's what they see as our major role!! While we do this, many of those in power continue to squander the resources of the country and wallow in malaise.
The truth is: the ‘powers' in Guyana cannot handle the Diaspora. They cannot handle their candor; intellect; skills; experience; work ethic; demand for quality; progressive attitude; and impatience with the malaise and dysfunction that seems to be the accepted norm across most parts of the Guyanese society.
So what do we do? Is this something that people in the Diaspora want to spend their time and money fixing? And for those who want to get involved, how can we get involved with assurance that our contribution is welcome and put to the intended use?
These are difficult questions. Some people who have tried in the past have found it very frustrating and aggravating. This can turn you off and send you away, determined never to do it again. At the same time, we know that the opposite is also true. Many times, the depth of fulfillment and satisfaction of helping our homeland and our people can be very profound; almost spiritual.
Looking at the state of the country today and how the future is set to unfold, I have concluded that in addition to all the good work individuals and organizations do at social, religious and other levels; unless we, as a generation, tackle the cancer of race-based politics; the endemic greed, corruption, incompetence, mismanagement and malaise; we will never go beyond tinkering with the symptoms; we will never get to and remove the root causes, and we will never see Guyana start to achieve her potential of abundance. We will continue to see ‘petty people' strut around the capital and the country with their arrogance and ‘entitlement mentality', oblivious to the continuing decay and Guyana 's race to the bottom of the list of nations.
Guyana will continue to be known for borrowing more than it can afford, and begging for relief. She will have a hard time starting to be a ‘developing' nation in the true sense; and whatever is meant to be Guyanese over the past 60 years will be a distant memory in the next 10-15 years.
I know that dotted around in this landscape are good, well meaning people struggling to do their part both inside and outside of Guyana ; but it is not enough; and has not been enough for 40+ years.
I believe that there needs to be a fundamental change in how the country sees itself and thinks about itself if there is to be real change.
I believe that while the generosity of the Diaspora will continue to be a survival kit for Guyana , if that is all the Diaspora does, it would have misunderstood its role; its power and its responsibility.
I believe that the Guyanese Diaspora has the maturity, wisdom, means and ability to collectively take on and significantly influence the task of the rebirth and remaking Guyana in our lifetime, in partnership with those at home.
I believe that it is up to our generation to do this.
We are probably the generation who has gotten the most out of Guyana ; and I think we have a collective responsibility to help her in her hour of need; and that time is now.
We have it within us as Guyanese; for our homeland:
To care more than others think is wise;
To risk more than others think is safe;
To dream more than others think is practical; and
To expect more than others think is possible.
My view is that the rebirth and the remaking of Guyana can only happen if it starts with the remaking and refocusing on the political culture.
What does this mean?
It has to become a culture that condemns racism, not one that denies it, or silently allows leaders to be racist in all but their words. It has to become a culture where those who want to be in Government must be prepared to serve the people, not join government so that they can get people to serve them.
It has to become a culture in which privilege is given to the people, not one where political office is used to accumulate privilege for those in power, their functionaries, friends, family and campaign contributors.
It has to become a culture where accountability and transparency are expected, practiced and demanded from top to bottom; not something that ‘other people do'. It has to become a culture where ‘meritocracy' is the new watch word. Merit not bribery, merit not connection; merit not party affiliation; merit not family name; merit not race;
So what am I asking you to do?
I am asking you to consider that for this change to have the impact needed and to have institutional longevity, it needs to start and take hold at the political level.
Take a hard honest look at the political landscape in Guyana . I am suggesting that both the PPP and the PNC are too tainted, institutionally dysfunctional and incompetent to do what is needed. They have too much baggage, too many skeletons in the closet, and are too tied to their past.
The PPPC, in particular spend too much time looking in the rear view mirror of the car to be able to drive it and navigate the difficult and dangerous roads; see, seize and create the opportunities ahead.
I believe that early in the history of our nation, the PPP and PNC and their leaders served Guyana well in some very important areas. Through this work they were able to successfully take the country to the brink of independence.
Unfortunately I think they have been failing the country ever since. They did not have the stature, grace, generosity of spirit and courage to compromise, all of which were required to take Guyana into independence and onward to an explosive era of glory that she was poised to enter.
They had all the ingredients: a learned, skilled, innovative and industrious population that was the envy of the Caribbean; a country laden with riches, again, the envy of the Caribbean; a time in the country's life which was ripe for growing up, taking charge, and making home the way we wanted our home to be.
Instead, they let ideology, ego, envy, and ‘power for the sake of power' cause them to squander what was possible and along with it, the lives of close to 750,000 people at that time. The rest, as they say, is history.
Learning from history, it takes different people, dynamics, skills, discipline, processes, etc. to take families, people, companies, organizations and countries from stage to stage in their development.
Some leaders provide what is needed to recognize the need and spark and organize the change; but in most cases they needed others to finish the job.
Those who failed to recognize this and yield to it, ended up sacrificing the same causes which they spent their lives working to change. Those who recognized it and had the wisdom, grace and courage to pass the torch, truly saw their life's work fulfilled; and history is kind to them.
Look at a few examples: Moses freed the people from Egypt , led them for 40 years through and out of the wilderness, but had to pass the baton to Joshua to finish the job. The Mahatma brought India from domination to independence then passed the torch to Nehru and others to take her into and beyond independence. Mandela dismantled segregation and stabilized South Africa , then passed the torch to the next generation in the ANC to tackle the task of building ‘one South Africa '.
I will leave it to you to think about examples of our leaders who led and made great changes, but were unable to grow big enough, wise enough, strong enough and generous enough to fully serve the people, the cause or the movement that called them in the first place.
Over the last two weeks, we have featured an Open Letter by Oma Sewhdat who is a successful member of the Guyanese Diaspora in his adopted country, Canada .
After thirty years Oma Sewhdat retired from IBM where he led the company's development and deployment of IBM's Financial Systems in several European countries. Currently he is Vice-President of a leading University in the USA .
In today's column he concludes his open letter to the Diaspora which he shares with those of us who live the reality at home.
Leaders have to have the insight and courage to put the good of the people and the country first. Sometimes blind loyalties, ideologies, political ambition and egos have to give way. Leaders must be able to let the collective interest of the nation take precedence over persons and organizations.
I have thought about this since I was a young man, watching and studying the ebb and flow of events around us in Guyana . Some things made sense and some didn't, but I felt even then, that many of the basic things that were wrong started at the top, with the leadership.
It didn't matter whether it was the church, church organization, a sports club, a council, a political party or the government. To me, even as a boy, the pattern was the same; and I always thought it could be so much better if…just if the leaders served the interest of the people and organizations rather than their own. I guess being very young, I had the freedom to be honest and naïve with myself and my own thoughts.
After these many years, I am convinced that Guyana needs a new breadth of life into its predictable and stagnant politics if it is to wake up and stop lumbering along the road to the bottom.
We in the Diaspora have a significant role to play and we need to use our skills and bring our collective strength to bear on the need for fundamental changes in Guyana . Coming fresh off the spectacle of cricket, this may be a good time for us to do what's needed, as it provides a good case study.
Like those at home, many of us in the Diaspora are bombarded with news, reports and opinions on the state of affairs in Guyana . The government has already claimed a major cricket success by their measures, and while they are doing that, the calls for full disclosure of the facts have not yet been answered.
Those of us who went home for the events would have come away with a wide range of impressions depending on who you were with, what you did, who you talked with and what you were looking for.
I do not want to get into the pros and cons of the whole cricket and stadium discussion here. That requires its own separate focus, but it gives us a good opportunity to look closer. I want to ask you to ask questions and seek unemotional answers when you do.
Having been in and out of Guyana regularly, and based on my views about the overall health of the country, the cricket spectacle reminded me of encountering nice people with hair well combed and clothes bright and neat, yet as you get closer you realize that behind the outward veneer, are the realities of bad breadth, smelly arm pits and bad body odour that cause you to take a few steps back.
I am sure that the government will try to use the cricket veneer to come out to the Diaspora with all kinds of rosy investment proposals and other ideas aimed at getting us to continue to fund the economy, and mask the lack of real progress in political reform, job creation and economic development.
I am all for investment and job creation in Guyana , but we need to go beyond the nice hair and clothes and check out the smells. Ask questions and get the facts.
Go beyond the hype, and talk about what changes are needed as preconditions for investment. I am talking about all the things I discussed earlier - race based politics; endemic greed, accountability, corruption, incompetence, mismanagement, malaise and so on. We cannot let the government continue to seek our help and abuse our goodwill while they flounder and fail to recognize the major problems in the country – both politically and economically.
Based on my own search and deliberations, I believe that at this stage in Guyana 's political life, the new Alliance For Change (the AFC) is the best thing that has happened to the political scene in the past 30 years, and I am asking you to consider this with an open mind. I am also asking you to consider helping; give this movement the strength and oxygen it needs to embark on what will be a marathon to change the country. It will not be easy, and victory is hard to predict, but every race begins with a single step; I ask you to consider taking that step with the thousands of others who have.
I don't think we have another 30 years to look for another such movement to be born. The last time there was a window of opportunity such as this, was with Walter Rodney, Rupert Roopnarine and the WPA; and we all know what happened. This time, it is Raphael Trotman, Khemraj Ramjattan, Sheila Holder and the AFC.
The early days of the AFC has shown great promise. I know from first hand experience as the Campaign Director for the August 2006 campaign, that the AFC made a significant difference to the political debate and landscape in the short 9 months that the party existed before the elections.
It helped set a different tone before, during and after the campaign and I believe the AFC's positions contributed in significant measure to the reduced racist rancor and violence that punctuated prior elections.
Overall, the young AFC accounted for itself very well. The momentum and energy was palpable. Everyone expected better results, but in the end, even though the party had hoped for more, the results were accepted and the AFC team is now serving like they should in the parliament, trying to work for the Guyanese people. They are trying to open up and lift the horizons that seem so low and narrow.
Emerging from the elections with 6 seats has put the AFC in a good place to prepare for the 2011 elections. Like any new organization, with a set of people coming together in a short time, to try to tackle problems as big as the ones the AFC tackled, there was bound to be mistakes; and there were.
There will continue to be growing pains, but the time is right and good things can happen when people of goodwill and good intentions get together to serve. Our cause is good; we are committed to it, and we are constantly amazed at where new energy comes from when needed, but maybe we should not be surprised.
To quote from the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho ‘If you want something badly enough, the whole universe conspires to help you get it.'
As in the WPA era, there are those in the country who feel threatened and want to see the AFC wiped out before the 2011 elections. They are worried that the Guyanese people at home and abroad might wake up and realize that this is the team for the future. They are afraid that people may realize that they don't HAVE to continue to take what the PPP and PNC dish out.
They are afraid that people may realize that they have options and that they have the power to exercise those options. They are afraid that the people will realize that the lies heaped on the AFC during the last election were just that - lies - that the AFC was not a front for either the PPP or PNC as they wanted the people to believe. They are afraid that people will realize that the AFC has shown and will continue to show that it is ‘the people's front'; no more and no less.
The AFC's agenda is to condemn and root out the scourge of race based politics of the past 40+ years; to stand firmly against endemic greed, corruption, incompetence and mismanagement that pervades the status quo, and to work to create the environment and implement policies and programs needed for the rebirth and remaking of Guyana .
The AFC's policy is to attract and embrace the Diaspora, so that they have ways to bring the power of their skills, expertise, goodwill, finances, and entrepreneurial spirit to bear in rebuilding our homeland in partnership with those at home. This is what the AFC is founded on, and this is what it will do. It needs your help between now and the 2011 elections to become the people's choice for Government and to be ready to govern.
CALL TO ACTION:
So I am asking you; having read these few pages; to consider joining with the AFC forces of change.Thousands of your fellow Guyanese are on the move. Join us! I am asking you to support this movement and its leaders. Get informed, get connected, ask for clarifications, contribute your perceptions, perspectives and ideas, help financially; and seek out others to do the same.
The teams in Guyana , Toronto , New York , New Jersey , Atlanta , London and the Caribbean will welcome you aboard. Join them, hear what they are doing, learn more and get involved. I look forward to hearing from you. Let me know which AFC chapter you would like to work with and I will make the connection, or email the chapters directly. They will be happy to connect with you.
Oma Sewhdat: firstname.lastname@example.org
Web site: http://www.afcguyana.com
Guyana : email@example.com
Canada : firstname.lastname@example.org
New York : email@example.com
Atlanta : firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
London : firstname.lastname@example.org
Caribbean : email@example.com
Barbados : firstname.lastname@example.org