By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Dec. 8, 2023)
It is painful for large sections of the population to live in SVG. For an even larger section, listening to conversations about our reality is mind-numbing. For me, the official version of anything local is jarring to the ear. I have to read it. I can’t listen any more.
It is as if we live in an Orwellian world where reality stands on its head: Underdevelopment means progress. Stagnation is celebrated as development, mediocrity is hoisted as excellence, revolution is reduced to a word, and leadership becomes a smiling photo op.
For our little nation of 110,000 to be ranked as the deadliest nation on earth as regards homicides is not a pretty or pleasing sight. SVG clocks killings at more than one per week (53 with three more weeks in 2023). Yet officialdom carries on as though it’s business as usual. Rather than face up to our deadly and depressing situation, we are reminded that our neighbours have recorded more homicides than us without conceding that our neighbours have far more citizens than we do.
Rather than telling the police high command that it has to mend its relationship with communities, it swore to protect and serve, we engage in public relations gimmicks of anti-violence marches and rallies. High-sounding, get-tough speeches are thundered from rostrums while the people go about their business offering contempt and disdain for the charade.
Clearly, those in the corridors of power lack the imagination to see that the minister of security needs to go. The police need to lead by example. Officers have to understand that illegal activities have consequences. You cannot brutalise citizens, steal cocaine from the evidence room, beat young men into a pulp, shoot and kill and build confidence. People have to be convinced that the law is for everyone. Justice cannot be two-faced.
SVG needs a shake-up. The people need to wake up
We cannot have entire classes of students unable to read at grade level and gangs of young boys roaming the streets begging and doing what else, and the minister of education goes to Parliament and says that the school dropout rate has fallen dramatically. The reality on the streets belies the official narrative.
Tell no lies, claim no easy victories
The World Bank says more than 40% of Vincentian youths are unemployed. The government estimates that youths comprise more than 60% of the population. Observers conclude that upwards of 30% of our citizens are unemployed. The government says no way. The number of unemployed is 20%. One wonders if the power elite travel across this country. Do they pay attention to the mushrooming hustle on the roadways along the windward and leeward highways and in the village? Do they walk the blocks and witness the teeming bevy of idle hands and empty minds hopelessly awaiting the devil’s command?
Underemployment is another absurdity that is made normal. The government’s Youth Employment Service (YES) is a job attachment programme that provides employment and job-related training to young persons. Many young people have been YES workers for years. For some, it’s now a full-time job that pays a few hundred dollars monthly. The pay is not enough to help these young people meet basic needs, but they, too, are counted as employed. They work for starvation wages and live in poverty. They have joined the growing ranks of the working poor.
But the government tells us the unemployment situation cannot be bad because when Sandals held its job fair, only 1,500 persons attended. For good measure, we are assured that many of those were already employed. Therefore, claims of high unemployment are anti-government propaganda.
When a regional research company broke the news that SVG had some of the lowest salaries in the region, we were told that wages don’t tell the whole story. Look at the cost of living. We looked. It’s high here as well. Think of the Human Development Index, which measures life chances. SVG has a better social safety net than some of our neighbours. Pray tell, which neighbour? Last week, those receiving poor relief support got a $5 increase. The poor are supported with a whopping $8.33 per day. They need assistance carting that amount to the shops and stores for Christmas.
Talk about absurdity
In their narrative of the absurd, they hold the future of our nation in contempt and fail to acknowledge that they are the cause of the blanket of hopelessness and helplessness that pervades the land.
They no longer speak of poverty, which is close to 40%. However, there was a time when poverty alleviation was a hot-button issue that rolled off the tongue of officialdom. The Kiara consultants’ reports were frequently cited. Poverty rates were reportedly falling, and incidents of indigents tumbled from 28 to under 3%. But when the 2018 poverty assessment report found that poverty wreaked havoc among 4 of every 10 Vincentians, the power elite lost their tongue. When the report was leaked, they cursed the messenger and dismissed the message.
We have come to accept that our roads are deplorable. We pay the licensing and insurance fees with the knowledge that money has to be found to buy brakes, shocks, suspension, and tyres. We pay for repairs caused either after falling into craters or colliding with other road users in a vain attempt to avoid craters.
But do not worry; government officials reaffirm that everyone knows our roads are bad. In 2015, $86 million was borrowed from the Kuwaiti Fund for the mother of all road repair programmes. That baby remains stillborn. Earlier this year, the works minister announced a $120 million road repair. That’s $200 million in less than a decade. Yet there is no marked improvement in our roads. Once tourists can travel safely along the windward and leeward highways in relative comfort, to hell with the people.
We must refuse to settle for the absurd.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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