Saturday 31st May, 2008

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Defining development

DEVELOPMENT. A tricky word to play with.

The Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott) “is a construction company. This confirms the growing impression among the citizenry that for the current government, ‘development’ means the erecting of large, showy (some might say ‘coskel’) buildings,” quipped Women Working for Social Progress in a press release on the Udecott crisis three weeks ago.

The buildings’ aesthetic merits aside, the point made is a strong one. If we equate tall buildings with development, what is the core of our perception of the meaning of development?

The name “Urban Development Corporation” to me brings to mind increased or improved green spaces in our cities, an improved transportation network, improved safety, better and cheaper facilities for childcare and literacy improvement for children, improvement of public spaces. Better sidewalks, for goodness’ sake, and not merely tall buildings.

Even if one were to limit the scope of understanding to just economic development, that, according to an article in Wikipedia, “typically refers to improvements in a variety of indicators such as literacy rates, life expectancy, and poverty rates.”

Sustainable development, another Wikipedia article says, quoting the United Nations’ 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, is built on the “‘interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars’ of...economic development, social development, and environmental protection.”

Udecott, our development company, engages in none of them.

In travelling around Mabaruma and Hosororo in Region One, Guyana, the question of development occurred to me time and again. Was it development, I asked myself, to build enormous schools that produced students who lacked education? Or was it development to have small but working schools with fewer students and a higher teacher-student ratio?

Was it development to build more and more offices for a bloated and inefficient public service? Or to strengthen the powers and efficacy of local governments? (Something which, I hope, might happen in my lifetime.)

Of the UN Millennium Development Goals, not one has to do with tall buildings. This is a document on which we have signed off as a nation, and also one on which we have based our Vision 2020 goals. They include things like the universal achievement of primary school education, eradication of extreme poverty, reduction of infant mortality rates. Want to know what tall buildings have to do with that?

Over in Guyana, I was privileged enough to be taken to an Amerindian village named Tobago, where I saw the consequences of inappropriate development at work. A village of 200, with a hundred children, living on cassava alone because they had moved out of their home environment into a new one for which they were ill prepared.

Instead of being riverside fisherfolk and gatherers as they had been for generations, they were now in a new area about which they knew nothing and poised to be farmers—without enough farmland to keep body and soul together. Not to mention that they knew nothing of farming except planting cassava.

There were good things about Tobago: there was access there to pipe-borne water, for example. But by and large the move from the previous location of the village to its current landlocked perch on a hillside outside Hosororo is one its inhabitants now regret. However, for various reasons, they have decided to remain there.

The question is now, how to make the best of the situation? Lemons aplenty, how to make lemonade?

Annette Arjoon, secretary of the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society (GMTCS), had been doing other work in Region One when the situation of the Tobago village came to her attention. Though at its foundation a turtle conservation group, the society also does economic development work with Amerindians and Amerindian villages in the region. Tobago is now one of the projects in the GMTCS ambit.

After my visit to Tobago with her in March, she said in a recent e-mail to me, “we have since arranged for a doctor from the UK to visit the community to do an evaluation of their health needs, we have also given them 100 avocado plants and GY$46,000 worth of seeds which they have planted and are now using some of the vegetables, have arranged with the regional chairman that once the school is constructed they will provide a teacher.”

Much of which, one would realise, will cost money to complete. Annette, who is one of the joint laureates of the 2008 Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, has asked for my help in bringing the Tobago story to a T&T audience. (I am the communications manager of the awards.)

It is her intention to begin raising funds to realise those intentions to bring sustainable development to Tobago. She has pledged the funds from her award will go towards mechanising production of some of the goods produced by Amerindian communities under the GMTCS’ brand North West Organics. Tobago needs a patron.

The question might arise: why give money to an obscure village in Guyana when there are hundreds of thousands of children in poverty right here in T&T? I am not saying to give only to Guyana, far from it. We must certainly begin our charity at home, but we must not forget to extend that charity to our neighbours. Region One is closer to Trinidad than to Georgetown, Guyana’s capital.

If you feel moved to contribute financially to the sustainable redevelopment of Tobago, that little Amerindian village in Region One, Guyana, you can send your funds to the GMTCS via its bank account: No 38718, Bank of Nova Scotia, Carmichael Street, Georgetown, Guyana. To contact Annette Arjoon or the GMTCS directly to find out how to help, write the Guyana Marine Turtle Conservation Society via e-mail at: [email protected]

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