Three years ago there was a heart-warming story in the newspaper that Food for the Poor had constructed a small, not expensive or fancy, home for someone who was disabled. The home was constructed on land provided by the government.
It was and has not been the only time that Food for the Poor has come to the rescue of the poor. Thanks to Food for the Poor that woman now has a roof over her head. She is the master of her own home.
The vast majority of poor people do not ask for very much. The vast majority of the poor in Guyana really want a roof under which to live.
As I have said, so many times in these columns, no person should go hungry in Guyana. There is always somewhere that people can turn to get a meal. The real problem of poverty is homelessness.
This may be surprising, considering the vast number of house lots that the government has distributed. The bitter irony is that the homeless cannot afford to pay for these house lots much less to find money to put up even a shack. They are therefore left to find shelter on the streets.
I am not hitting the government’s housing programme. I think it was one of the outstanding achievements of Cheddi Jagan to have launched such a programme. Cheddi has allowed thousands of Guyanese to own their own home.
True, a few hundred have taken advantage and have used the policy to accumulate real estate, something that I feel the government has not taken seriously. I have said before in these columns that if the government wanted to know if house lot applicants had previously owned property all they had to do was to ask the applicants to get a tax compliance.
That person would know that the tax records would show whether they had ever done any transaction in relation to a property and if it was found that the Ministry of Housing was lied to, then stern action could have been taken.
To add to the misery of the poor, private housing developers are selling lands at astronomical prices and this has caused the prices of property in general to be pushed beyond the reach of the poor. The poor have little chance of being able to purchase private lands and property and so their only resort has to be to the government. However, even the government is now offering land at prices outside of the pockets of the poor.
I think we have reached the stage where we no longer need to increase the housing stock. What we should be doing is what Food for the Poor is doing.
The government should set up schemes for the desperately poor. All the available lands should now be given to the poor. The government should put in infrastructure and then identify the poorest amongst the poor and give them the land cheaply or free.
They should give priority to mothers with many children and then work with non-governmental organizations to build low cost homes for these persons.
In addition, the government should realize that in places such as Berbice there are hundreds of homes that are unoccupied because the owners have either gone abroad or have migrated to the city in search of jobs. The last census that was done in Guyana showed a very low population to building density in Berbice.
I believe that if jobs are created in that area, a great many of the young people who have been forced to leave their villages in search of jobs would return. With more jobs, people would go back home and the unoccupied buildings would be rented.
It is therefore important that the government try to encourage job-creation in rural Guyana. They can do this in two main ways. Firstly, they can encourage industry in those areas by establishing industrial sites.
Instead of GOINVEST sitting and waiting on investors to come forward, they should put together investment proposals and then try to find investors, be they local or foreign.
Secondly, I think that the poor people of Guyana need land. If someone has been leased a great deal of land from the State and is not utilizing that land, then it should be repossessed and given to someone else who may be willing to work the land.
There are many persons especially in the MMA scheme who have not paid their leases and these fees are a pittance when compared to the potential earnings that can accrue from the land.
I support the government reclaiming unutilized State land but giving it to persons with a demonstrated ability to find the capital and other resources to work the land.
Cheddi Jagan had a dream about every Guyanese family owning their own home. He also publicly indicated that he would like to see farmers owning up to 100 acres of land.
In these times that may be too much for a minimum land holding. I believe that for cash crop farmers ten-acre plots are good enough.
I believe that for rice, farmers need in excess of one hundred acres to be viable and for cattle rearing, 33 acres is a good minimum.
In Guyana we have a situation where some people have hundreds of acres and are not adequately utilizing it while some rice farmers are forced to subsist on as little as five acres. This is the sort of imbalance that must be corrected if we are going to help the poor.
If we give people the means to help themselves, many of them would not have to be running to Food for the Poor to build homes for them. They would be able with what they earn to build their own roofs over their heads.
Cheddi would have been deeply grieved by policies which try to pull people out of poverty without reaching down to the poorest of the poor.
He would have been disturbed that despite sharing out so many house lots, there are still families without a roof over their heads in Guyana.
It is a pity that his concern for the poor in Guyana is unmatched now that he has departed from this world.
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