November 1, 2014

Supervision of schoolchildren

Weeks ago when a video surfaced with high school students engaging in sexual activity the public’s response varied from shock to disdain to anger. Among the many observations made was the point that the teens, decked in their uniforms, seemed not only to consent to the acts but were also pleased that these acts were being recorded.

How the video was leaked and who leaked it remain a mystery, but the outrage its release caused still lingers in the memories of concerned parents and other authorities. Such an event is not unique to Guyana or the Caribbean, but this and similar occurrences pose the same bevy of questions, including what influences the youth involved are exposed to and whether or not young people are given adequate alternatives to deter them from these acts.

Sex aside, it seems as though the issues affecting our youth are steadily growing, in both severity and frequency. Inappropriate sexual activities, alcoholism and violence – issues that are already rampant among adults – have seemingly become common occurrences in schools over the years.

These incidents are not only worrisome but also extremely sensitive as they involve the welfare of children. Dealing with children who are participants in these activities then becomes a task that sometimes even the highest authorities find difficult to handle. The above incident “shocked” the Government and evoked promises to carry out thorough investigations and give the participants counselling. But the question remains: what could have prompted them to not only do it, but allow it to be recorded? In this digital age where sharing information is as powerful as the unforgiving public who engages in the sharing, could these teenagers have been so bored, bold and carefree?

Troubling behaviour among schoolchildren can also be seen at the ever-famous annual School Sports – which apparently is seen as a chance for students to “let loose”. In a recent letter to the press, the writer made some disturbing observations on school sports at a particular ground near where he lives. From the questionable dress code, to the obscene music blasting at the event, to the dancing and ‘party type’ behaviour of the schoolchildren, the writer had cause to pose the question of why the teachers would allow such an atmosphere. Indeed, school sports have over the years transformed into more of a fancy affair encouraging lewd behaviour from the teenaged attendees. Such events serve as gateways for sexual activities and violence among students the likes of which have repeatedly been seen in the past.

Musings of what our youth are thinking also arise in cases of violence in schools. There have been countless incidents reported of students getting into fights with teachers and peers resulting in serious injury and even death. Only days ago, a young boy was stabbed by a classmate with a screwdriver following a fight. When these events occur, authorities are naturally concerned. Meetings are held to discuss the way forward, counselling is offered to the children and statements and pledges for action are made, yet these occurrences continue. The point is, even with these efforts; even with the prompt reactions of authorities, teachers, parents and welfare officers, have we ever thought about the fact that even with the actions taken after the fact, guidance is needed before?

We have to pay attention to the influences that are at our children’s disposal. As our world gravitates more towards technology, we must acknowledge that everything is changing. The way we learn, the things we do, our preferences, our influences – are all affected by the Internet. Easy access to information has given us more power than we know how to use it, so small countries like Guyana have to know how to keep up, while being wary of the negative influences such access can have on young minds. What this means is that our children will grow up knowing nothing but technology and the worldwide access to information that comes with it. We must be able to teach them that with the power to share and the power to know also comes the responsibility of knowing what to do with the information – be it through acting out what they see, sharing what they read or recording what they do. Moreover, our children need healthy alternatives to things that would otherwise lead them toward such troubling behaviour. Perhaps it is time to revert to more family time and outdoor activities with our youth. This way, a balance can be made with their time spent absorbing the vast amounts of information that the World Wide Web has to offer – the good and the bad.

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Success stories

This newspaper has always maintained its support for the high levels of investment being made in transforming education delivery in Guyana. Education is certainly one of the main solutions to many problems countries face. It is one sure way of lifting families out of poverty and placing them in a situation where they could lead comfortable lives.

If persons are educated or have a good skill, they are in a better position to contribute to the development of themselves, their families, and their community as a whole. It is no surprise that in a recent United Nations survey, education was ranked top of the list among major priorities that citizens of the world believe would make their lives better.

Over the past decade or so, the Education Ministry has taken a number of crucial steps geared towards improving the quality of education our nation’s children receive. Some of these initiatives are already bearing fruit, while others are still in their implementation stages.

The nation is currently reaping the benefits of those investments. We are seeing better results at all levels of the school system, including at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level. More students are attending school; more teachers are being trained and are attending university. There is more involvement of parents and the community as a whole in the management and delivery of education.

The excellent results our students are getting at various levels have proven many times that Guyanese students are among the best in the region. This year, Guyana has gained four regional awards for outstanding performance at CSEC. It should be mentioned that last year Guyana won five of the eight awards offered.

The students who will be awarded for their outstanding performance this year are Elisa Hamilton of Queen’s College (Overall Outstanding Achievement); Aliyyah Abdul Kadir, also of Queen’s College (Most Outstanding in Humanities); her colleague, Ryhan Chand (Most Outstanding in Business Studies); and Kishan Crichlow of New Amsterdam Multilateral School (Most Outstanding in Technical Vocational).

Every Guyanese should be proud of the achievements of these students. In spite of all the negativities that are being peddled by some sections of the media, these students have shown that there are also many positive and uplifting things that are taking place here and these stories need to be told.

This feat did not come easily. In addition to the extremely hard work and dedication shown by parents, teachers and the students themselves, these achievements were possible because of effective policy implementation along with the huge investments being made into the sector by the Government.

There is huge potential for any student, in spite of social or economic status, who aspires to become successful in any career path, as the necessary support systems are present. The Government is in the process of providing more financial assistance to parents in order to ensure that no one is left behind.

There is countrywide distribution of the $10,000 cash grant being offered to each student attending public school with the aim of easing the financial burden parents often complain about. This is perhaps the only country in the Region and one of few in the world that offer such support to its citizens. This grant is in addition to the many other initiatives being instituted to aid parents’ efforts to ensure their children receive a good education.

We have noted that more attention is being placed on integrating ICTs in the teaching and learning process than ever before. This is certainly a step in the right direction as the integration of technology and education could be viewed as a global approach to learning and communicating, and the computer in this context serves as a vital resource for students and teachers to boost education delivery.

This move is critical in the drive to equip our students with the knowledge and skills they need to become successful citizens. These are all success stories that are worth telling.

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Illegally intercepting communications

With Internet Communications Technology (ICT) transforming the world as we know it, it is not surprising that the technology would be abused for purposes for which it is not intended. There will always be those who will seek to subvert mechanisms for their own gain and nefarious purposes. In the instance of intercepting communications, so as to gain an advantage in what economists call the information asymmetry, it probably began with eavesdropping at keyholes.

As the technology of communication moved from the oral to the written form, “steaming open” letters became common for the curious – even as various “seals” attempted to prevent this intrusion on privacy.

The telephone speeded up the communication cycle but also brought in the “wiretap”, in which a device “intercepted” the electrical pulse carrying the message and recorded it for later listening. In light of what had preceded it, the invention of wireless communication almost inevitably brought into being new ways of capturing the message unbeknownst to the sender.

In the United States, these interceptions received early legal censure as the US Supreme Court, from the “penumbra” of the US Constitutional Bill of Rights, created rights to “privacy” of individuals that were violated. These were severely punishable. In Guyana, as argued by Anil Nandlall, then a lawyer in private practice, Guyana did not have such laws of privacy on the books.

The comments were occasioned by calls from the People’s National Congress Opposition, because of an intercepted conversation between then Commissioner of Police (and now PNC MP) Winston Felix and PNC MP Basil Williams (now the PNC Chairman) in which the former was captured revealing very sensitive information to the latter, on a massacre in Agricola.

The subsequent debate on persons’ right of security in their communication and the Government’s need to intercept such communications for national security purposes was taken seriously by the Government when it passed the “Interception of Communications Act 2008”. The Act spelt out under which conditions the latter might be effectuated and violations of the former might be prohibited in Section 3.

Section 3(1) warns that “a person who intentionally intercepts a communication in the course of its transmission by means of a telecommunication system commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five million dollars and to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years.”

This Monday, the owner of the Kaieteur News, Glenn Lall, submitted a recording of a telephone conversation between the Attorney General and one of his senior reporters. In another section of the press, Lall is quoted as admitting, “Most of the reporters have equipment that has the capability of taping all incoming and outgoing calls.”

Since the reporter was acting as an agent of Lall, with equipment provided by Lall, Lall is unquestionably responsible for breaking the present law by “intentionally intercepting” a communication from another person.

In his newspaper, however, Lall claims that the “Interception of Communications Act 2008” has “no relevance since the communication (on his tape) was not intercepted.” This assertion, however, is clearly rebutted by Section 3(4): “For the purpose of subsection (1), a communication shall be taken to be in the course of transmission by means of a telecommunications system at any time when the system by means of which the communication is being or has been transmitted is used for storing the communication in a manner that enables the intended recipient to collect it or otherwise have access to it.”

Since Lall’s instrument was definitely part of a “telecommunications system” that was “transmitting” a communication” and also used for “storing the communication in a manner that enables the intended recipient to collect it or otherwise have access to it”, there is absolutely no ambiguity as far as the law of the land is concerned, that the owner of the Kaieteur News illegally intercepted a communication. And he should face the consequences.

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Unregulated sale of pesticides

In spite of the significant number of persons committing suicide by consuming poisonous substances, little or no attention seems to be placed on regulating the sale of these dangerous chemicals.

As it stands now, anyone can walk into a shop and purchase pesticides, with practically no enquiry made of the reason for the purchase.

Of course, if someone is buying the chemical to commit suicide, the real intent of the purchase will not be disclosed, but this is not a dead end to addressing the problem of suicide.

In fact, the scourge can be addressed in a pointed manner by Government moving to enact laws to control the sale of harmful substances, and monitoring the use of them.

While some measures, such as the use of pesticide cabinets and suicide awareness programmes, have been tried to deter persons from committing the act, the scourge has not been halted.

Coupled with this, only recently Health Minister, Dr Bheri Ramsaran has reported that the suicide hotline that was set up a few years ago to tackle the problem has been a “miserable” failure.

But even before the Minister’s pronouncement, there seemed to be a penchant to preach about the factors causing suicide, rather than taking a diagnostic approach to address it.

It is a travesty that in all these years of persons committing suicide, the vast majority of them by drinking poison, the talk has still not shifted much from depression and lack of education.

It is no surprise that while the gaff and flowery academic presentations on the cause of suicide continue, the number of persons committing the illegal act has not abated.

Today, Guyana has been labelled by the World Health Organisation (WHO) the suicide capital of the world, and even though the tag was disputed by Cabinet Secretary, Dr Roger Luncheon, it does not in any way take away attention from the seriousness of the problem.

By now, policymakers and advocates should know that public awareness is not enough to address the scourge, which is more or less an institutionalised way for some persons to escape their miseries.

Given the large number of persons who have been ending their lives by downing doses of poisonous substances, it would be wise for greater attention to be placed on the sale of harmful substances, especially to small farmers.

It is wrong for small farmers to willy-nilly purchase small amounts of pesticides when a large number of them have been using the chemicals to terminate themselves.

It is wrong when persons can purchase pesticides at unlicensed shops in their villages in the manner they purchase groceries for their homes.

It is highly unacceptable when even minors can make these purchases, without any protestation by the shop owners.

It is no wonder that only recently, a 16-year-old from a West Coast Demerara private school, who felt deeply hurt by several issues stemming from his expulsion from school, had no difficulty in obtaining the substance needed to end his life.

This incident was the latest reminder of the need for laws to be enacted governing the sale of pesticides and other harmful substances, and the need for strong advocacy for it not only to come into fruition, but be rigorously implemented.

While not excluding the Government, the political Opposition, the numerous Non-Governmental Organisations and experts who have been talking and tackling the problem have thus far failed to address it in a meaningful way.

They can make some headway by making the sale of harmful substances by unlicensed vendors a criminal offence with heavy fines.

And instead of selling small portions to farmers and allowing them to administer such, the purchase should cover the cost for the administering of the chemicals by the vendor, who should be competent enough to do so.

These simple solutions might not take some people to heaven, but might be good enough to save some from hell.

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Continuity in Brazil

The Metropolitan press almost uniformly referred to the re-election of the “leftist” Dilma Rousseff as the President of our giant neighbour to the South, Brazil. And in a sense, the stress on ideology was a gesture that the election was a referendum over the philosophy that would inform the policies of the administration for the next four years.

The party of Rousseff, Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT (Workers Party), has already been in power for eight years, since it is predicted that Rousseff’s charismatic and still hugely popular predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will be running again in 2018, it does appear that Brazil will be signalling “leftward ho!” for quite a few years into the future.

While the life-and-death struggle between “capitalism and communism” – through their arch representatives the US and USSR – is supposedly a relic from the past, the ideological divide is obviously still of consequence for it to attract such widespread comment.

But maybe it is not so surprising. Brazil, after all, was one of the earliest testing grounds for the neo-liberal ideology that was soon dubbed “the Washington Consensus”, which was imposed on so many countries in debt to the IMF, after the fall of the USSR.

Under Fernando Cardoso, who had been a world-famous academic writer on developmental issues, a massive privatisation programme was instituted – as in Guyana, another guinea pig case. While hyperinflation was brought under control, the economy floundered and the massive inequalities that characterised Brazil at the time, deepened.

Cardoso was widely criticised for abandoning his positions he had adopted while an academic. He had twice defeated the leftist Lula, in 1994 and 1998, who was prepared to buck the “privatisation, stabilisation and liberalisation” prescriptions of Washington.

There were many red flags raised by the election of Lula in 2003, but he not only proved to be a “moderate” compared to the “radicalism” of Hugo Chavez in neighbouring Brazil, as far as the US was concerned, but also in his economic policies.

He displayed abiding concern for the travails of the poor and the powerless in Brazil and was able to significantly improve the standard of living for at least 40 million of Brazil’s poorest citizens.

Rousseff owes her re-election primarily to this bloc of voters as well as to the strong support she received from Lula during the hustings. Her opponent Aecio Neves was from the party of Cardoso, and represented the old neo-liberal policies that were premised on a resurgent business class being able to create a tide that would “make all ships rise”.

The razor-thin win by Rousseff indicates that the recent downturn in the economy – amounting to a recession in the last two quarters – has caused deep worry in the significant percentage of Brazilians that benefited from the remarkable growth of the Brazilian economy during the Lula years.

Accusations of corruption, in several public corporations, such as the petroleum company Petrobras, and also during the construction of the Football World Cup stadiums and other infrastructure, also brought down Rousseff’s ratings. While her own anti-corruption credentials remain comparatively unscathed, she will have to move decisively and quickly to address this widespread concern.

From a Guyanese standpoint, the re-election of Rousseff and the PT can only redound to our benefit. The plans for the road between Lethem and New Amsterdam/Georgetown, the Deep Water Harbour and the mega Hydro Electric Projects in the Mazaruni-Cuyuni-Potaro basin have already been drafted and placed on Rousseff’s desk.

The People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Administration, which also shares the moderate “leftist” philosophy of Lula, Rousseff and PT should seek to strike quickly while the iron is hot.

While Neves did well in the more wealthy and developed South, Rousseff’s success came from the North, which abuts Guyana. This is the area that would most benefit from the Guyana projects on Rousseff’s desk. She should be reminded.

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Death of an intellectual

Ali Al’Amin Mazrui passed away on October 12, in Binghamton, New York and in accordance with his wishes, his body was returned to his native Kenya and interred in the family cemetery.

It is unfortunate that the death of this world-famous intellectual, Islamic scholar and Pan Africanist could have been so unremarked here. Especially when a Commission of Inquiry is investigating the murder of Walter Rodney, with whom Mazrui is always remembered.

Born in 1933 in a prominent Muslim family in Mombassa, Mazrui was a full decade older than Rodney, but also subjected to the pressures of a British colonial environment. Like the father of Barack Obama, Mazrui was of that generation that was identified and assisted with their education in the expectation that they would be fifth columnists for colonial interests when they returned to their native land.

Mazrui was sent off to the University of Manchester in England for his Bachelor’s (1960); Columbia University in New York, for a Master’s (1961); and Oxford University for a PhD (1966).

Rodney completed his PhD the same year, from the School of African and Oriental Studies, but there is no indication that their paths crossed in England. Part of the reason was that at this time they not only held completely different ideological beliefs, but their perspectives were as a consequence completely disparate on the nature of the anti-colonial struggle.

Returning to Africa to teach at Uganda’s Makerere University in 1966, Mazrui articulated the classic liberal perspective on the “progressive” role of capitalism and capital for development in addition to an emphasis of individual political rights, etc. He criticised leaders such as Nkrumah and Nyerere. Mazrui was famously articulate and regarded as the best debater in East Africa.

In 1970, Walter Rodney, who was teaching in Tanzania, challenged the Liberal from a Marxist perspective. As told by John Otim, the Editor of Nile Journal:

“Those who followed his (Mazrui’s) career and knew him well remember that the only occasion he ever lost his cool was at a debate with Walter Rodney, the famous author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

“On that occasion, Rodney refused to swallow Mazrui’s customary bait, which was to lure his interlocutor into a frontal engagement with him before an audience he had already softened through the magic of his oratory. That time, however, Rodney side-stepped the bait. In the process, he skilfully implied that, concerning the colonial issue which was the topic of their debate, Mazrui was at best a daydreamer and at worst, a collaborator.

“There was no commonality of interests between the coloniser and the colonised, Rodney said. Mazrui who prided himself on his African and nationalist credentials was suddenly stung. Worst of all, it was before his home audience at Makerere University.”

But it is a mark of the intellectual integrity of Mazrui that when he was forced to leave Uganda in 1973 after he criticised Idi Amin for his dictatorial policies that drove out Asians, he wrote against the Burnhamite dictatorship in Guyana denying Rodney a job in 1974.

By that time Mazrui was teaching at the University of Michigan, where he remained until 1989, before moving on to the University of Binghamton, where he died. In the US, he staunchly defended the need for Pan Africanism and offended many when he also defended the cause of the Palestinians. On the other hand, he defended a greater role for women in Islam.

He condemned the murder of Rodney in 1980, and when he was invited to Guyana on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 1988, he publicly asked Hoyte for Rodney’s seminal role to be acknowledged.

In 1998, he was appointed by Dr Jagan to the First Walter Rodney Chair of History at UG. In 2005, he travelled to Guyana to participate in the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Walter Rodney.

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Opposition blackmail fails

Of recent, with the Opposition in relentless “attack mode” against the Government and its programme of development, good news from the political front has been few and far between. But on Friday there was a most welcome respite from this doleful trend: the Secretary to the Cabinet announced that Guyana has been spared immediate sanctions because of non-passage of enabling legislation to comply with internationally mandated mechanisms to combat the financing of terrorism and money laundering.

It appears that we now have until September 2015 to pass the Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism Bill (AML/CFT) along with six other measures.

Once again, Guyana – not just the Government – has dodged a bullet to its financial heart, fired by the joint Opposition PNC/APNU and AFC. While of recent the populace has been transfixed by the Opposition’s “no-confidence motion” and Local Government Election demands, it may be forgotten that the latter gambits were simply the latest in a prolonged war of attrition waged by that Opposition to remove the democratically elected Government, by any means necessary.

The G-20 sponsored Financial Action Task Force (FATF), to which most of the economic powerhouses belong, had established a desideratum of measures for banks and other financial institutions to institute. While Guyana already had measures in place, these would have to be tightened – with the enabling legislation as a necessary prerequisite. Failure to comply would result in sanctions being imposed that would make Guyana into an international financial pariah.

At no time did the Opposition indicate that they disagreed with the details of the AML/CFT Bill, which was introduced by the Government in Parliament. But they adamantly blocked the passage of the Bill using their one-seat majority because each wanted to extract a quid pro quo, from the Government. While by the looser ethical canons of politics, horse trading is not a totally alien practice, to hold the country hostage to external financial sanctions was completely unprecedented.

The Opposition refused to budge even though the local Caribbean Financial Action Task Force spelled out the likely dire consequences for the country very graphically. At a minimum, all financial transactions with overseas banks and financial institutions would be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny that would significantly slow down their processing.

In the present globalised financial architecture where financial transactions are expected to be instantaneous and any delay costs money, it was projected that many of the larger international financial players might just choose to bypass business with Guyana because of its insignificant size.

This would have proven fatal to the development aspirations of all Guyanese but the Opposition insisted on their pounds of flesh.

The representatives of the ABC countries, the International Financial Institutions, along with Caricom all implored the Opposition not to derail the progress of Guyana. They pointed out that the Opposition themselves agreed with the premises of the legislation: in fact they had been accusing the Government of harbouring money launderers in the country. But their pleas fell on deaf ears.

The Government in its latest effort to fend off sanctions had presented a personal commitment by the Head of State, President Donald Ramotar to the FATF International Cooperation Review Group to address the loopholes in the present AML/CFT regime. But it is obvious that this would still require the passage of the AML/CTF Bill as a threshold issue.

It is our conviction, however, that conditions may have changed enough to break the Gordian knot. The APNU appears to have realised that in its quest to increase its votes, the AFC is willing to pander to the gallery with its “no-confidence” motion, while ignoring more pressing national issues for Parliament to address.

We are suggesting that the Government utilise the ongoing talks with APNU to secure its support to remove the financial Sword of Damocles from over our heads.

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Sustainable development

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark recently addressed students at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Uzbekistan. She spoke at length on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the challenges faced by countries in meeting key targets, and the current global debate on what should succeed the MDGs at the end of 2015.

Important achievements have been made against the MDGs which Clark alluded to, for example, the proportion of the world’s people living in extreme poverty was reduced by half by 2010 – five years ahead of the 2015 target date. The target of halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water has also been met.

On average, gender parity in primary education has been achieved, and most children now enrol in primary schools, although completion rates and the quality of education are not high across all countries.

The lives of slum dwellers in urban areas have improved, and levels of infant and child mortality have decreased significantly. There is a downward trend of TB and global malaria deaths.

Guyana has made tremendous gains in achieving key MDGs. This country has advanced in its efforts to reduce hunger, increase access to social services and benefits, improve enrolment in and completion of primary education, increase empowerment of women and achieve environmental sustainability.

Guyana is also well on its way to achieving universal secondary education. However, there is still much work to be done in relation to meeting the other MDGs.

On the global level, there are still many challenges to be confronted. Around one billion people continue to live in extreme poverty. Lack of sanitation leaves many people vulnerable to the rapid spread of disease – particularly in the aftermath of the increasingly frequent and severe climate-related disasters the world is experiencing.

A number of the world’s ecosystems are under serious stress, which threatens the ongoing supply of basic services on which we depend – like water.

The future of all countries is closely linked to global trends, be they economic, environmental, or peace and security. Clark explained that globalisation and interconnectedness bring benefits, but they can also increase vulnerabilities. To seize the benefits and build resilience to global risks is in itself a development journey.

According to Clark, inclusive and sustainable growth and developing institutions with strong policy and delivery capacity, transparent and responsive governance, and civil society – able to advocate for citizens – are all part of that development journey. In her view, to achieve all these objectives, “societies need to develop a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities before them”.

Now that the deadline for achieving the MDGs is coming to a close, discussions around the “Post-2015 Development Agenda” are picking up pace. In 2012, the UN development system began facilitating global consultations to enable people from all walks of life to share their priorities for the Post-2015 Agenda.

At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012, UN Member States agreed to establish an Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which would be “coherent and integrated into the UN development agenda beyond 2015”.

And in January last year, by decision of the UN General Assembly, the Open Working Group (OWG) was established and tasked with the preparation of a proposal on the SDGs. This past July, the OWG proposed a set of 17 goals and 169 targets, covering all issues related to sustainable development, and placing poverty eradication as a core objective.

The report builds on the unfinished business of the MDGs with proposed goals on poverty and hunger eradication, health, education, gender equality, and the environment. It also broadens the scope with proposed goals on reducing inequalities, and a focus on infrastructure, energy, peaceful and inclusive societies, and other new areas.

The agenda would be applicable to all countries, and aim to shift the world towards sustainable consumption and production.

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The “light vs dark” conundrum

With the official Diwali celebrations behind us, but with sweetmeats still circulating, it may be time to mull over some of the issues raised by the ancient festival. Incidentally, the word “sweetmeats” for the vegetarian delicacies shared to friends and neighbours sometimes raises eyebrows.

There is a sneaking suspicion that the sweets are possibly used as apologies for meat. Actually the English word “meat” originally signified generic “food” – including vegetables and flesh.

Most Guyanese know that Diwali is associated with “the triumph of light over darkness” – with “light” representing “the good” and “darkness”, “the bad”. This symbolism is very common in many civilisations, but, unfortunately, the West transferred the negative connotations of “darkness” to people who were dark-skinned during the period they enslaved millions of dark-skinned persons from Africa.

This value judgement on a physical characteristic was transmuted into a universal category of thought because of the West’s conquest and domination of most of the world.

In India, for instance, the two major incarnations of God/Vishnu as “Sustainer of the Universe” – Rama and Krishna – are described “as dark as a monsoon’s rain clouds”, and the word “krishna” literally means “black”.

There were no negative connotations to their physical skin’s colour, since their wives were described as “very fair” and the “match” as “perfect”. Yet after a century and a half of British rule, the latter’s equation of dark skin colour and negative qualities have been imbibed into modern Indian thinking.

In Guyana, therefore, there should be a conscious effort made within the education system and in the media to disjuncture the symbolic usage of light vs darkness from the physical colour of persons.

Diwali is a great time to do this, since the source of the symbolism is being acknowledged. As the period of darkness increased with the approach of winter – which was synonymous with hardships – humans in ancient civilisations interceded with their own attempt to “bring back the light”. It has nothing to do with the colour of people’s skins.

But the origin of the dichotomy in value judgements on the actions of man as “good” and “bad” also signals that the latter should not be allowed to continue without human intercession. To “light a light” in our own lives, we must take into cognisance both our own areas of darkness and those in the society.

It would be very foolish and short-sighted to work only on correcting one’s failures to be better persons while ignoring the structural conditions into which all are imbricated and which play most significant roles in shaping our destinies.

Take for instance our political system and the politics that are being played out right now. The political system is a combination of the written rules encapsulated in documents such as the Constitution, decisions of our Judicial System on pertinent questions, Standing Orders and just as important, the traditions of the various institutions.

The rules of the system must not be used expediently to subvert the goal towards the fulfilment of which they were formulated. This would be an instance of the darkness that we are supposed to counter.

The “no-confidence” motion is a powerful device intended to bring down a sitting government that would have been ushered into office by the rules of the Constitution. The tiny AFC, however, did not see fit to even engage with its major partner in the Opposition, as to whether the latter felt that there were more pressing issues to address before bringing down the government.

In terms of what is “light” and what is “darkness” in the political realm, the former has to be whatever furthers the greater good of the society in the eyes of the majority of the people.

The AFC’s No-Confidence Motion fails this test and must be categorised as “darkness” that must be removed with the light of the people’s intervention.

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The ancient festival Diwali has several stories behind it, but all grounded in the messages of the “celebration of light over darkness” and “the triumph of good over evil”. In Guyana, on this auspicious occasion, these messages are preached with great fervour, at temples, schools and other functions.

The occasion, though a Hindu event, because of the celebrations of hope over despair, victory, love, peace and prosperity, is universal in appeal. It is for this reason the ancient festival is a bit more than just a Hindu celebration, as it is also a powerful unifying event.

And here in Guyana, it can be deemed a “celebration of togetherness over ingrained differences” even though the celebrations in most cases are temporary.

This positive trait is an indication that irrespective of differences, Guyanese at all levels can work together for the betterment of themselves, their families, communities and country, if they allow the light of knowledge to prevail over the darkness of ignorance.

What is noticeable is the lack of awakening of the inner light, which is akin to fog or mist in the mind, the resultant effect of which is an impediment to clear vision of elevated thinking and exalted action.

Hindus and non-Hindus alike must guard against these deterrents to progress, and Hindus, in particular, must seek refuge in the wisdom of their scriptures in overcoming these vices.

This is imperative in addressing the spiritual decline of their religion, and the maintenance of their culture.

More than 170 years ago, when their foreparents came to these shores from India, they were deemed “illiterate” and placed on the fringes of society, but yet they maintained their religion and culture against great odds.

It was an integral part of their lives, and they sought comfort to their distress and mistreatment in their spiritual system of beliefs, the virtues of which they imbibed mainly through oral traditions.

The highlight of the celebrations today is marked by a somewhat secular yet spectacular procession, which was instituted years ago.

This effort, which was in keeping with the spirit of the Hindu ancestors to sustain their religion, though commendable, faces the pressures of commercialisation.

So while it has gotten Hindus to better appreciate and to maintain their identity, efforts must be redoubled to transmit the spiritual values of Hinduism.

The latter is one of the cornerstones of the religion, really the oxygen for its survival and should be foremost among the work of all Hindu leaders.

The Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha is worthy of high praise for its invaluable work in keeping the Indian culture alive, and it would be fair to say that Hindus should take it upon themselves to better understand and practise the virtues of their religion.

In this way, the Divine Light within will always be awakened, happiness will abound, arrogance and a sense of false importance will disappear and tranquillity of the mind will prevail.

The stories of Diwali encapsulate these teachings and also emphasise spiritual wealth over material wealth in the worship of Mother Lakshmi, the Divine Mother and bestower of wisdom and happiness.

Oftentimes, the Divine Mother is worshipped for material wealth, but in Hinduism, material wealth without spiritual discipline is the road to an arrogant and self-destructive life.

This is captured in the story of the Demon King Bali, who ignorantly mocked Lord Vishnu, who appeared before him as a dwarf, and was vanquished for his superciliousness.

So as we celebrate another Diwali, Hindus must take it upon themselves to be firm on their religion, but make every effort to shun arrogance and seek elevated knowledge.

And since the message of Diwali is universal in appeal, all Guyanese should seek to do the latter. In this way, we can truly celebrate the “Triumph of darkness over ignorance”.

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