…as national dialogue gets underway
The national dialogue on social togetherness has begun. Yesterday, scores of Guyanese from all walks of life came from the different corners of the country, eager to put forth their visions for nation building, unity and equality.
The Social Cohesion Roundtable (SCR) got underway early yesterday morning. The event saw the Arthur Chung Convention Centre packed with representatives of at least 50 stakeholder groups.
Among them were dignitaries like former Commonwealth Secretary General, Sir Shridath Ramphal; the Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Dr. Josephine Ojiambo; United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Coordinator Khadija Musa; and British High Commissioner James Gregory Quinn who shared their various perspectives and experiences on social cohesion.
United States Charge d’Affaires, Bryan Hunt, representatives of the Carter Centre, other members of the diplomatic corps and Ministers of Government were also there. Notably absent were members of the Opposition, the People’s Progressive Party.
On the heels of an introduction which explained Guyana to be the first country in the Region and the Commonwealth to establish the Ministry of Social Cohesion, made possible through his visions, President David Granger spoke at length to the need for disunity to be a concept of the past.
“Our strategy is to foster greater integration among the groups of our country. Integration is intended to create a sense of belonging; it is intended to give recognition to groups and to allow them to freely practice their culture. Integration expands the space for diversity; it does not reduce diversity.
“We are therefore asking people not to abandon their cultural practices and adopt another culture but to bring their practices with them into the Guyanese beat.”
The government’s intention, he said, is to bring greater recognition to every ethnic group and to encourage the promotion of their practices and culture so that they could feel more accepted. This will improve a greater sense of belonging and they will then be more willing to identify with the society in which they live, Granger said.
The gathering heard that social ties within communities will be strengthened. “We will dismantle the artificial walls of distrust and division,” he said, adding that the government will encourage greater tolerance and understanding between groups.
“We are a multi-religious, we are a multi-ethnic, we are a multi-cultural country. Our diversity is an asset, not a liability,” the President intimated. But he also warned against attempts at disunity. “We will enforce the existing laws against racism more vigorously and vigilantly guard against bad elements who foment social and racial strife.”
Granger recalled that Guyana attained its independence in 1966 under a State of Emergency. This was in the wake of the “Disturbances” during which 176 were killed, over 1000 injured, 15,000 made homeless or became internal refugees and 1500 homes and properties were burnt or destroyed.
The President reflected that the electoral system of proportional representation was introduced in 1964 to respond to the need to prevent further political conflict and, hopefully, to promote social cohesion.
It was under that system that election was held in 1964 which resulted into the entry into office of a coalition administration, President Granger told the gathering. “Guyana still needs, however, to inhibit the sort of social cohesion that degenerated into social and civil violence. We still need to exhibit the spirit of social cohesion which can ensure effective representation and inclusion.”
The President said that the constitutional ideal of inclusionary democracy can best be achieved by strengthening social cohesion. That concept focuses combating exclusion and creating a sense of belonging and promoting mobility.
Granger commented that Guyana, a country with land space greater than England and Northern Ireland, with bountiful natural resources and beautiful people, need not be poor or divided.
“We can improve cooperate relationships at all levels of society: among our religious and ethnic groups, among our political parties and among our communities. The score arising out of ethnic, economic, political, religious and other differences as we have discovered during the disturbances of 1964 and more recently during the troubles of 2002 to 2008 has been seen to have the potential to spun extremism and conflict,” Granger said.
“Society has been scarred by violence which left a lingering legacy of distrust with the potential for fresh disorder,” the President said referencing “The Troubles” (2002-2008) – a period known for scores of extrajudicial killings and the rise in the death toll of police ranks.
It is imperative for that damage to be repaired and for the trust to be renewed. The time, Granger said, had come for the basis for a moral community to be built.
The President proposed five areas of public policy to the roundtable discussion, tackling extreme poverty, equal access to education, inequality, fair employment and youth employment.
“We must do more to get rid of extreme poverty. Far too many Guyanese are classified even now as extremely poor which means that they do not have enough to buy basic food on a daily basis. There can be no social cohesion between people that are characterized by huge gaps and wide income disparities,” the President said.
Extreme poverty can be reduced and eventually eliminated, said Granger. He warned against the far-reaching effects of poverty on the family as well as society. “We cannot give our people the good life they deserve if they are constantly preoccupied with finding enough to eat and somewhere to sleep,” remarked Granger.
He pointed out that the worst forms of inequality must be eradicated, including gender and geographical inequality.
“We speak of one nation but in economic terms we are two countries: one from the coastland and the other in the huge hinterland west of Fort Island,” he said. The disparities in development between the coastland and the hinterland must be removed, Granger added.
The gender gap must be closed by ensuring that boys and girls are given equal opportunities to be educated and employed. Cohesiveness cannot be nurtured in an unequal environment, the President added.
“Guyana has been burdened by historical legacy of segregated communities, Granger, a historian himself, remarked. “This segregation fosters ethnic tensions and creates a sense of separateness. Social cohesion cannot exist where there are gross disparities of income and development between the rich and poor, hinterland and coastland,” he said.
The Head of State said that the gap can be bridged by forcing equal rights for all and equal access to education, health and other public services. “A more equal society will become a more cohesive society,” he said.
The President underscored the need for greater political inclusion, starting at the party level and should facilitate general, regional and regular municipal and local government elections so as to create a system of inclusionary democracy.
“We believe that the creation of an inclusive political system is the foundation of national unity,” said Granger. He reiterated recent statements that he intends to be the President of all people, regardless of their political choice in the recent polls.
Political inclusivity, he said, allows the combined efforts to accelerate the process of national development and possibly avoid violent conflict. Granger recently met with Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, and discussed the process of national unity.
Fourth on the President’s agenda is to work to implement fair employment laws for working people and safety for miners in the interior. Providing jobs for young people is matter of national priority, the 69-year-old President highlighted as he said the crisis of youth unemployment must be addressed.
“It is not our intention to deprive the rich from being rich to provide for the poor. We must, however, provide opportunities for the thousands of young people who leave school and university every year but are unable to find jobs,” said Granger.
He reminded that every year when thousands write the exams, jobs must be found for them since without jobs they will not be able to escape the cycle of poverty. Granger emphasised that equal access to education is imperative because schooling has the potential to be an equalizer that provides equal opportunity for upward mobility.
“Thousands of children are estimated to fall short of their development potential owing to absence of breakfast or sometimes transport to get to school,” he said. He said providing equal access to education for boys and girls will break “hereditary poverty.”
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