Mr. Chairman, Fellow Guyanese, Friends of Guyana, Ladies and Gentlemen ...
I wish to thank the organizers of this forum for inviting me to be here with all of you, and for allowing me to say a few words which I hope may invoke a little interest in the course of the discussions planned for this evening and for tomorrow.
But before I go further I have to congratulate the Committee for the Improvement of Buxton (CIMBUX) and the Organization for Guyanese Unity (OGU) for having the courage to plan and execute this most meaningful activity to discuss Guyanese issues.
Of late, some Guyanese community organizations in the United States have been organizing discussion forums of this nature and I do hope that such activities among Guyanese nationals will become contagious. By having an activity like this one, the organizers are loudly expressing the fact that many Guyanese, despite having migrated from their homeland many years ago, are still closely bound to the land where their navel strings are buried, and, indeed, they want to play a positive and practical role its economic, social and political development.
Over the past week, the countries of the Caribbean participated in a series of meetings at the World Bank to assess their economic development and growth. All the multilateral financial institutions and the bilateral donors were high in praise of Guyana's economic progress, particularly with its impressive growth rate of over 6 percent in the past four-year period. Nevertheless, we have to admit that some problems persist - in particular the heavy debt burden which prevents development from moving at a quicker pace. But the Government of Guyana has been working diligently for debt relief. Despite the arguments in some quarters that the donors were not interested in discussing debt relief, we were able to win a 67 percent debt write-off from the Paris Club which is a grouping of our bilateral donors. Trinidad and Tobago, to which we owe the largest sum, also agreed to write off 67 percent of our debt. The total debt relief amounts to over $US500 million. So far we have not been able to shift the multilateral financial institutions to do likewise.
As the theme of this forum indicates, we have now completed 30 years as an independent nation. We have had our ups and downs during that period; we may debate among ourselves if we have had more downs than ups, or more ups than downs. But what we have to always keep in mind is the all important question: where do we go from here? Should we keep on discussing the past, or should we put all of that behind us and work to improve our future? I will leave this question to be debated by the participants of this most meaningful forum.
I note that you will discuss issues relating to race, the development of rural communities, and education, among other topics on the agenda. For Guyanese, these are important issues, since there are specific problems associated with all of them.
On the issue of race, we have to agree that it has colored - some would say discolored - our political history, and even though in Guyana we are learning to live with each other despite our various ethnic backgrounds, there still remain many of us, especially Indo and Afro Guyanese at all levels in the society, who maintain mutual distrust of each other. Sometimes, in the interest of what some may call "good manners" we decide in many public forums not to discuss the race question, but I think that we must stop being hypocritical and face this issue head on. We must debate whether or not we have seen an improvement of race relations over the past 30 years; we must frankly work out ideas as to how we can solve some of the problems associated with race and, at the same time, generate some views as to how to speed up whatever is positively developing in the country. May I say that by putting this item up for discussion here, you are all contributing to the improvement of race relations in Guyana. Truly, I am delighted that you have shed all "good manners" by placing it on the table for discussion.
With regard to rural development, we have to always bear in mind that the history of our people has a firm base on the development of agriculture, especially in the cultivation of sugar, rice and ground provisions. Of course, our Amerindian population has traditionally been totally rural. The village movement after the abolition of slavery, and later at the end of indentureship, saw Guyanese exhibiting a profound sense of thrift and economic intelligence and, most of all, a firm cooperative spirit. These qualities still abound among our rural people, who still form the bulk of our population. There has been the demographic shift to the urban areas over the years, but over the past four years, with the resuscitation of agriculture there has been a slow-down in this movement. To keep our people in the rural areas, we need to have systems in place to encourage them to remain; infrastructure must be of reasonably good quality, and education and health facilities must be comparable to what are available in the urban areas. Of great importance is the need to develop industries, which make use of the agricultural output, to provide guaranteed employment for the people.
Then there is the question of education. I need not tell you that Guyana has had a long tradition of providing good education for our young people. We have gone through a rut, but we are now climbing out of it; however, it will take a little while to catch up with the levels we had in the immediate post-independence period. But while we are now building new schools and racing to rehabilitate the old ones, we have to put programs in place to do some fast catching up. We suffer from a severe shortage of trained teachers since many have migrated or have left to join other professions. As such, we have to develop programs - even short-term programs to hasten the in-service training of teachers. In the United States, there are many Guyanese who are professionals in the area of teacher-training. We call for their assistance and urge them to work in conjunction with the Ministry of Education to help train teachers, and to upgrade the skills of those who were trained many years ago.
At the same time, we must make a determination to institute some changes in the traditional type of education offered to our people. Today, we operate in a global economy, and so we must think globally. Guyana is located in a region where Spanish is a dominant language. Over the years, we have developed close ties with the Spanish-speaking countries of the hemisphere, and we have signed horizontal cooperation agreements with a number of them. Some of these countries offer training courses for our people, but on many occasions we cannot access these opportunities because our people have no proficiency in the Spanish language. Because of this, we lose out on many chances which offer themselves to us. The time is ripe for us in Guyana to train our people to speak a second language. What I am saying is not a new idea, but I want to seize this occasion to say that we must look ahead and have a vision of what we want our young people in particular to achieve by the time they graduate from high school. My vision is that by the year 2010, all Guyanese children, by the time they are 16 years of age, must have a proficiency in the Spanish language. To do this, we have to begin teaching Spanish to kindergarten children beginning from the next school year, and continuing to teach these same children the language as they progress through primary and secondary schools. A good start is to have one pilot kindergarten school in each of the ten regions beginn such a program, and involve other schools with each additional year. By the third year, primary schools will join the program. With all the technological resources available, I do not see this as an impossible task.
All that I have mentioned so far are challenges we face. Some may say that Guyana does not have the human resources to handle these demands. But some of these human resources do exist outside of Guyana, and those persons with the relevant skills in areas of education, health, engineering, accountancy and management who are desirous to do a stint in Guyana will be warmly embraced. Unfortunately, remuneration remains a sore problem because the public service cannot afford to pay the salaries that are enjoyed here in the United States.
As some of you may be aware, over 250 persons representing state entities, the private sector and non-governmental organizations have just completed work on a national development plan for Guyana. Their proposals which are contained in six volumes will soon be discussed by the general public whose suggestions will help to refine it. It is hoped that this plan will be brought to the attention of Guyanese nationals outside of Guyana to get their inputs as well.
I do look forward to the discussions which will emanate in this forum. The findings which I understand will be documented will surely be welcomed by the government and other interested parties in Guyana. I encourage the participants to be frank as possible, and to present constructive ideas which will form a valuable guide to our policy makers as they chart the further development of the Guyanese society.