Speech by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael at the University of Guyana Guild of Graduates Dinner, Toronto, Canada, September 18, 1999

Posted September 20th. 1999

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Caribbean Diplomatic Corps, Pro-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Ladies and Gentlemen . . .

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be at this activity this evening, and I want to thank the Ontario Chapter of the University of Guyana Guild of Graduates for inviting me. I am delighted to see so many graduates of the University of Guyana gathered here, and when we consider that all of you have over the years moved up in the academic progression, we can well appreciate that there is an astounding amount of brain power gathered in this room. I congratulate all of you for your achievements and wish you well as you continue to pursue your dreams.

Think for a moment of the combined and compound value of the knowledge acquired by the Guyanese gathered here and you will get an understanding of the wealth, in terms of money, that developed countries have drained from Guyana only by pulling you to their shores. How much greater it is when we compute the wealth generated for these countries by the tens of thousands of trained Guyanese - whose initial education and whose training were financed by the state of Guyana - whose talents now help in developing the economies of these developed countries

Like you who are graduates of the University of Guyana, I also benefitted tremendously from that institution. I recall that before the University was established in 1963, Guyanese who wanted to pursue higher education had to go to England and the United States. The University of the West Indies in Jamaica also offered limited amounts of places annually for Guyanese. The fact is that generally only Guyanese who were well-off could afford to send their children to these foreign lands to study. This is not to detract from the fact that some persons without the resources did by dint of sacrifice and hard work manage to obtain higher education outside of Guyana, but they formed a small minority of those who studies abroad.

The University of Guyana therefore threw open the doors of higher education to hundreds of Guyanese who wanted to study but did not have the back-up resources to maintain themselves for a few years in foreign lands. The University gave hope to people like me who came from a poor rural background; it was a hope that I grasped at, and it was this hope that I clung to; and it was a hope I think I fulfilled when I myself graduated through its doors.

In succeeding years, thousands of Guyanese have benefitted from the learning obtained at the University of Guyana. Unfortunately, I get the impression that many either have forgotten about the origins and the objectives of the University in its earlier years, or actually know nothing of the history of the University itself.

An Institution of higher learning may be large or small, well known or little known, but that institution develops an aura of respect if its foundation is rooted in the struggles of the people it serves. The University of Guyana's origins have those qualitative roots and I think efforts must be made by all in Guyana - not only the University authorities - to make the Guyanese people, in particular, understand the real original objectives of the University so that they can rally behind the institution and give it the support that it needs all the time.

Let me reflect a little on those original objectives. The University was established and incorporated by an Ordinance enacted in the House of Assembly in April 1963. The policy of the Government of that period in setting up this institution was aimed at creating an intellectual nucleus in Guyana, partly as a centre around which some systematic definition of the national goals could take place, and partly as a defence against the persistent battering from external colonialist and reactionary ideas, against which colonial and developing societies were so helpless. The policy was also aimed at training middle-range technical cadres in large numbers; to train an adequate number of high level professionals to exercise intellectual leadership in Guyana and to man positions of high responsibilities; and to undertake active research.

With the commencement of classes in October 1993, it was hoped that the university would produce teachers, highly qualified personnel for the public service, and the scientists, technologists and technicians needed for the national programme of agricultural and industrial development. In addition, it was expected that it would provide a focus for the intellectual life of the community and a place where the merits of particular solutions to Guyana's problems might be tested by arguments and experience.

Has the University over the years been fulfilling these objectives? I say, yes. But while we have been producing these qualified graduates, we have been losing many of them to the developed countries, and even to some countries which are even poorer than Guyana. When the University was first established I do not believe the policymakers foresaw the problem of the brain drain and its resulting eroding effect on the social and economic development of the country. This problem of stemming the brain drain cannot be solved by politicians alone; they need the assistance of the institutions that help to produce the brain power to suggest measures that can be implemented to retain it for the benefit of our society.

When we consider the existence of this singular problem, and being aware that many others stemming from the utilisation or even misuse of trained human resources now exist, it is clear that the University of Guyana must re-examine its original objectives, to extend them and develop strategies on how to solve existing societal problems.

This brings me to the question as to whether or not the University of Guyana has developed into a place where the merits of particular solutions to Guyana's problems might be tested by arguments and experience. I am very happy that we have the distinguished scholar, Dr. Joshua Ramsammy, as the Pro-Chancellor of the University. I say this because he is one of the best persons to answer this question. He has given most of his life to the University, and many of you will remember that he was among the original policy thinkers at the institution. As a matter of fact, because he was one among the first who began testing national policy issues by arguments and also by his activism, he almost became the University's first martyr.

We need serious discussions to emanate from our scholars at the University of Guyana. Mind you, I am not saying this does not occur, but by far there is too much of an individualistic approach on the generating of ideas. The time is ripe for think-tanks of groups of scholars (both professors and students) at the institution, and even among the Guild of Graduates, to examine national policies and produce critical studies on them, and also to promote ideas on development which they feel are necessary at this time in our history.

In this respect, it is also opportune for the University of Guyana to establish a Race Relations Institute, a proposal which the Ontario chapter of University of Guyana Guild of Graduates has already proposed. This idea needs to be implemented since I feel it will seriously examine the ethnic question in Guyana and help the country find a long term solution to the problem.

It is important that those who benefitted from studies at the University should render tangible assistance to it today. The programme at the University has moved forward over the years with reasonable success, but, as you are aware, it is pressured by greater demands of modernisation to enable it to keep abreast with changing education trends in the world today. While many of you who attended the University years ago can boast about the quality of teaching you received without the need of all the technologies you see today in education institutions in North America, we all have to understand that if standards are to be improved and maintained, resources have to be made available to the University on a systematic basis.

While the Government is doing its share, expenditure is constrained by several factors, not least of which is the heavy debt burden with which the country is saddled. Fortunately, in the past six years we have been able to reduce that burden of more than two billion US dollars by a third, and under the World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative for which Guyana has qualified, more debt write-offs are in the works. But what must be understood is that we have an even greater obligation to make repayments on the current debt-stock, for if we lapse in those payments, we will lose our credit worthiness and our donors may halt any future debt forgiveness which we are currently negotiating. We are currently paying out about 40 percent of export earnings for debt servicing, so resources for all aspects of national development are still limited. We need to have that figure lowered to below 20 percent and we have voiced this concern to the international donor community. But we are also urging bilateral donors and multilateral financial institutions to agree that there should be a ceiling placed on debt servicing at a level of not more than 10 percent of export earnings, especially for the heavily indebted poor countries.

As you will understand, the benefits from the debt relief we have received so far have to be spread to all sectors of the society and it will take some time before resources for the University and education as a whole will be greatly increased, even though we have seen substantial increases in the past six years. There is also a mistaken belief that with the recent granting of debt relief of about $US280 million under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, Guyana has all of this money now freed up for distribution to various sectors. In reality, this debt relief is spread over a 20-year period, and it works out to about $US19 million a year if we include the interest on the initial total. Obviously, this annual amount cannot be spread out with any great thickness to the various sectors of the economy. More resources obtained through greater production will therefore be necessary.

Guyana certainly is not the only developing country experiencing problems associated with debt. Let me state that with the recurring problems of debt, ethnic conflicts, unemployment, hunger, homelessness, urban disorder, environmental degradation, crime, disease and narcotics facing so many societies across the globe, it is clear that the entire world needs a New Global Human Order, as proposed by the late Dr. Cheddi Jagan. Under this Order, the United Nations system, with the support of international organizations, has to play a more central role in global economic management and should have access to larger financial resources to carry out its development tasks.

The New Global Human Order also proposes that there should be more assistance at the international level. In this respect, some policy makers in various countries ask us how would the international community will be able to muster funds to render such assistance. We must be reminded that urgent action is needed by countries involved in the arms race to use the gains at the end of the Cold War by further reducing military expenditure. By doing so, there will be a "peace dividend" which will give the wealthy countries a chance to direct more resources to a social agenda and to help poor countries through debt relief. At the same time, a Human Development Fund, managed by the United Nations, and financed by demilitarization funds and global taxes on energy, pollution and global speculative foreign exchange movements, can be used for human development world wide.

People in developed societies must be made aware that many developing countries like Guyana, which are also cash poor, have been making sterling efforts to carry out environmental controls, including the protection of forests, and are spending much of their valuable financial resources in eradicating or controlling communicable diseases and for fighting the narcotics trade. By carrying out these actions, these countries are directly providing assistance to the developed societies which are spared the predicament, to a certain extent, of having these problems migrating to their shores. As such, it is in the interest of the developed countries to provide payments for these services provided by poor countries. Compensation should also be paid for the brain drain, which has benefitted mainly the developed countries at the expense of the poor countries. Poor countries should also be recompensed for the trade restrictions placed by developed countries on their goods; generally there are almost no restrictions on goods from developed countries entering poor countries. All such payments will assist to ensure global human security.

It can easily be argued that the way forward for development is to ensure that we have a highly educated population who must be given the incentives to remain and work in Guyana.

But education in Guyana must also adapt to changing times and situation. The changing times and situation demand that Guyanese become versed in Spanish as a second language. Guyana must break away from traditionalism and introduce a countrywide program to teach students to speak Spanish. In this respect, the roles of radio, television and newspapers can be pivotal in supplementing the work of the schools.

Why must there be an emphasis on Spanish? Probably of greatest importance is that it is necessary for us to make preparations for the expanded trade opportunities which will present themselves when the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is established within the next six years. Even taking into consideration that countries with smaller economies like Guyana may opt for a phasing-in period of a further ten years, we will still have to begin our preparations now to enable our people to communicate easily with the large Spanish-speaking population of this continent. This will eventually enable our business community to be able to negotiate trade and business deals easily with their Spanish counterparts. In international business and trade negotiations, trust is established when all parties can communicate in the same language.

An argument can also be made to show that by understanding and speaking a foreign language, people develop a better understanding and appreciation of the culture associated with that language. This itself is very important in conducting bilateral relations. At the same time, our people will be better able to grasp very quickly how Latin Americans think about various issues. Remember, people think and develop ideas in the language they speak, and since we would eventually be speaking Spanish also, our thought processes will be linked closer to those of our Spanish-speaking neighbors who will be both our allies and economic competitors. We also learn from the heritage of other cultures, and language is possibly the most important vehicle for the transmission of such knowledge.

All of this leads to better understanding between nations. Obviously, this brings about greater trust and respect between peoples and ultimately between governments. Negotiations become less onerous, and these can lead to closer political, economic and cultural alliances.

These are some of my thoughts over which I hope you will cogitate, and after you have agreed with them, I look forward to your assistance in spreading them to others.

I congratulate the Ontario Chapter of the University of Guyana Guild of Graduates for its determination and drive and urge the Guyanese community in Canada to provide it with increasing support.

Thank you very much.

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