One public official is reported to have said, recently, that public investment in Berbice over the past five years has contributed to the vast growth in population and economic activity.
The reality on the ground tells another story. There is little evidence that the population in Berbice has grown vastly. More persons are looking to leave Berbice than those eager to settle there. Berbice remains a place of limited opportunities and general hopelessness.
Admittedly, economic activity has increased in recent years. Public expenditure within the region has been significant. The impact of this spending has been felt in the social sectors, which have witnessed tremendous improvements.
More families are now enjoying a stable supply of water; health services are improved and schools are being rehabilitated and more materials supplied for students. But these expenditures have not provided sustained economic opportunities for the people of the area with the consequence that internal and external migration remains high.
Despite the flagship investments in the Berbice River Bridge and the Skeldon Sugar Factory, Berbice today is no better off, telling a tale that large investments must be assessed not just in dollar terms or in regards to the jobs they initially create, but also to the extent to which they bring about substantial and sustained changes in the quality of life of citizens.
The people of Berbice were expecting better from the investments made within their region. A bridge was built across the Berbice River. The road infrastructure within the region is in relatively good condition. The Skeldon Factory is premised on increased cane cultivation and processing within the region. A bridge linking Guyana and Suriname is under serious discussion and should materialize within three years.
These, along with the private investments taking place, should have encouraged greater confidence within the region.
Why then is Berbice being systematically depopulated? And why is there a pervasive sense of hopelessness within the region? Why is it that despite the massive investments within the region, labourers and construction workers still have to seek jobs outside of the region?
This is an important question that policy planners need to consider, and it is suggested that it is the failure to seriously consider these questions that has led to the present problems in the county. Projects are important but job- creation is much desirable end.
Jobs are very important to the people of Berbice. Jobs are needed not just for the survival of families but more importantly for the survival of the sugar industry. Unless there are more sugar workers, the sugar corporation is never going to achieve anywhere near 300,000 tons of sugar, much less the 500,000 which it is boasted it can produce.
Since most of this production is going to be concentrated in Berbice, it means attention has to be paid to ensure that there are sufficient workers to keep the industry rolling within the region.
To have sufficient additional jobs requires a critical mass. The critical mass is not present in Berbice because job opportunities are better elsewhere, including in Suriname, thereby sustaining the exodus of the workforce from outside of the region.
An investigation into labour practices in Berbice would also reveal another source of concern; underpayment of workers. Many workers are not paid what they deserve because jobs are scarce and certain contractors believe they can afford to pay workers a pittance.
What is needed particularly when it comes to rural areas is for Government expenditure to be directed in such a way that workers get a fairer deal.
There are many acceptable ways to achieve this. Firstly, government can stipulate in the award of contracts, the minimum wages to be paid for specific jobs, and can establish mechanisms to monitor that that these amounts are being paid. Thus if someone working on a road project should be paid $2,000 per day, then a check can be made to ensure that the person is receiving this sum, rather than the contractor raking in the profits while paying workers next- to- nothing wages.
A second but more controversial prescription is for contracts for certain areas to specify the amount of labour that must be sourced from within that area. So for example if someone is offered a contract within Berbice, then at least fifty per cent of the labour force should be drawn from that region. This will avoid a situation in which persons not living in an area are brought to work in an area even though there are persons within that area who can do the job.
Contractors often complain about such stipulations since most of them already have permanent staff whose skills and work ethic they are familiar with and whose reliability they can count on. The 50 per cent limit provides a flexibility of meeting a social need of public investment creating local jobs while allowing contractors some liberty in satisfying their own requirements to employ staff of their own choosing.
But apart from these things what Berbice really needs is to begin preparing for the day when the bridge link across the Corentyne River will be opened. Guyana must be ready for that day because the business experience of Guyanese can give the country a decisive advantage in cross- border trade something that become a new source of wealth within the region which can filter down to the small man. But that too requires the repopulation of Berbice.
Without hope, however, this repopulation is not going to take place. There is not much to make Berbicans hedge their bets against greener pastures outside of Guyana rather than wait for the promised future at home, a future that never arrives.
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