Born in controversy in 1974, the Guyana National Service was dismantled in controversy in 2000. Today, the debate seems never to have gone away.

National Service pioneers on the march
National Service pioneers on the march

On the one hand, speaking at a community meeting at Den Amstel in August 2005, President Bharrat Jagdeo said that questions continue to be asked about why the national service was dissolved. He answered “I think we need to get more of our young people into business, not only to get them into a military-type training organisation. We need to give them entrepreneurial skills. Let them become the businessmen of the future…If you put them back into the national service, the focus tends to be more marching and walking etc. I want them to learn to read a balance sheet or how to manage money or learn some skill.” 

On the other hand, speaking on the theme “Reflecting on the Guyana National Service: Burnham’s Vision 35 years after,” at the commemoration ceremony for the death anniversary of late President Forbes Burnham in August 2008, Major General (ret’d) Joseph Singh − the longest-serving Director General of the Guyana National Service − hailed the national service as a vehicle to promote the concept of the new Guyana man and woman who understood their role in nation-building. Major General Singh said that Forbes Burnham’s vision is still valid today.

National Service pioneers bringing in the cotton harvest
National Service pioneers bringing in the cotton harvest

Explaining the administration’s rationale for abolishing the service, then Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Ms Gail Teixeira said that it had “lost its importance since the 1980s” and had discontinued serious technical-vocational training. It was during her tenure as Minister, and General Singh’s tenure as Chief of Staff, that the decision was taken in March 1999 to restructure the service and, in May 2000, to dismantle it.
Few would disagree that training in entrepreneurial skills is superior to training in marching, but was marching all there was to national service? But was it not possible for the curriculum to be changed to include commercial studies and other subjects? Should parts of the old service, the National Cadet Corps, for example, be reactivated?

National Service, of course, was much more than marching and walking.  General Singh recalled touring the service’s extensive cotton, black-eye and peanut cultivation during President Burnham’s visit to Kimbia, saying, “The evidence was before us − land that was scrub and savannah 12 years before was supporting a thriving centre populated by hundreds of staff and pioneers, a major agricultural production base with processing facilities for cotton and peanuts, a primary school, day-care centre, medical centre, housing and other facilities for staff and manifesting the profile of an evolving township.”
Why then did all these things disappear? How could a large government department on which millions were expended for over a quarter century be brought to a halt? What happened to the Service’s ample assets?

The national service had its origins in an attempt to solve the problem of youth unemployment in the mid-1960s. Robert F Landor, a UN consultant, whose main concern was with the problem of poverty and vocational training among young people, presented a study to the administration entitled “Problems of Unemployed Youth: Youth Corps,” on 7 February 1966.  Accepting and adopting Landor’s basic premises, the administration formally established the Guyana Youth Corps on 1stJanuary 1968 as a means of solving the youth unemployment problem.

The Corps was made up mainly of out-of-school boys, and later girls, between the ages of 15 and 20 years. After three months of military training by Guyana Defence Force instructors, the first batch of 68 young men was sent to a training centre at Tumatumari. There, they were taught various skills such as agriculture, carpentry and mechanical maintenance. Females were enlisted from 1970.

The training programme lasted two years and was always aimed at settling groups in the hinterland. The first attempt to do so was to take place in 1972 under the Ministry of Agriculture by providing each of the trained corpsmen with a small farm and a house. Hinterland settlement, however was unsuccessful and the project was abandoned. In its seven-year existence, over 1,200 youths passed through the Corps which was to be completely absorbed by the National Service on 1st January 1975.

It was only in 1973, after seven years of experimenting with measures to solve the problem of youth unemployment, that work started on the establishment of a more ambitious scheme to take the place of both the Youth Corps. The first inkling that the establishment of a form of national service was being considered had been given by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham during Youth Week observances on 21st May 1972.  In October 1973 Prime Minister Forbes Burnham announced his administration’s intention to introduce the Service. He also made it clear that the completion of a period of national service would be a requirement for the award of a university degree.

The Prime Minister introduced a State Paper on National Service in the National Assembly on 20th December 1973. In short, the Service’s principal objectives were to ensure that all Guyanese within the formal training system were made aware of the new values of an independent society; to provide additional training, especially in the development of skills relevant to our development programme; to put emphasis on the practical approach in training and provide for the opportunity for on-the-job learning; and to accelerate the process of additional training, through National Service itself and also through existing institutions and new centres. Clearly, the initial focus was on training and education. How well was that focus maintained?

The Service was placed under the Office of the Prime Minister and transferred to the Office of the President when the executive presidency was inaugurated in October 1980. Eventually, it was placed under the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. It was intended that there should be a National Service Board under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister with responsibility for formulating policy but there is no evidence that this was ever established. Promises were made repeatedly to introduce legislation, in the form of a National Service Act to put the Service on a legal footing but these never materialised.
The Service attempted to embrace a wide age group in its six units − the Young Brigade for primary school children (8-14 years); National Cadet Corps for secondary school children (12-18 years); New Opportunity Corps for juveniles committed to reform schools (up to 16 years); Pioneer Corps for persons who had already left the school system (18-25 years); and the Special Service and National Reserve Corps for skilled adults.

From the outset, the Service was criticised ceaselessly by certain civic groups and political parties on the grounds of its compulsory character, its ideological orientation, its military regime and the training it offered. As early as October 1973, Mr Marcellus Fielden Singh of the United Force party deemed the Service an “indoctrination course.” In April 1974, even before the Service was formally inaugurated, Dr Cheddi Jagan of the People’s Progressive Party, Dr Gunraj Kumar of the Liberator Party and Mr Llewellyn John of the People’s Democratic Movement referred to the Service as being “repugnant to the constitution.”

Controversy also erupted on the university campus over the inclusion of a clause on students’ registration papers requiring them to do “national service or work in the interest of national development” and the decision not to confer degrees on students who failed to fulfil this obligation. Some University of Guyana and other students who were required to do a stint of ‘national service’ under the conditions of their contracts did not accept the Service’s objectives and approached the programme with hesitation or even hostility.

Mrs Janet Jagan, a former PPP general secretary, articulated her party’s opposition by publishing two tracts − National Service: An Act of Coercion (1974) and, An Examination of National Service (1977). In these, the Service was deemed “…a PNC para-military force to back up the coercive apparatus of the State in maintaining a minority party in power.”

Hinterland settlement was regarded as a “fundamental feature” of pioneer training programmes meant to be geared towards utilising both human and national resources by developing skills, fostering co-operation and increasing production to provide basic requirements. Within its first decennium, therefore, the Service constructed several training centres. Within its second, however, it demolished or
abandoned nearly all of them: 

1974, the Kimbia Centre, on the Berbice River, was opened.

1975, Tumatumari Centre on the Potaro River was taken over from the Youth Corps . 

1975, the Papaya Centre in the Barima-Waini Region was opened.

1976, the Jaguar Centre on the New River and the  Konawaruk Centre on the Potaro River, were opened. 

1977, the Itabu Quarry was taken over and the agriculture complex at Tiger Creek was established.

1979, the Boys’ School at Onderneeming, the Agricultural Institute at Arakaka and the Community School at Port Kaituma were taken over.

1981, the Koriri Centre on the Canje River, was constructed. 

1982, Camp Cocos at Hope Estate on the East Coast of Demerara and the Sophia Centre in Georgetown were opened.

In addition, the Young Brigade and National Cadet Corps and other coastland-based units continued to spread throughout primary and secondary schools. The Service plunged into an ambitious agricultural programme, attempting to cultivate 1,012 hectares (2,500 acres) of cotton, and various other crops such as corn, legumes, sorghum and peanuts. It also started breeding poultry, swine and other livestock at its various centres and farms. The Service moved into gold-mining and stone-quarrying, taking over the Itabu and Teperu quarries, and into sawmilling and woodworking at Konawaruk. It bought the ocean-going vessel MV Jaimito, the converted trawler Waitipu and the MV Papaya. A petrol station at Providence and a publishing centre at Ruimveldt were acquired and, in 1977, the settlement scheme at Kurubuku was opened.

The first seven years were the period of rapid expansion. But, to what extent did the Service become an effective accessory to the education system? Did trainees experience the attitudinal change and acquire the skills necessary to become patriotic and productive citizens?

It had already become apparent, even in the 1970s, that there was a significant thrust towards agricultural, commercial and manufacturing enterprise. Whether or not this was done at the expense of training, it became evident that continued expansion was unsustainable and a programme of consolidation and rationalisation was necessary.  By the late 1970s, however, Guyana was in the grip of grave economic depression. Colonel Desmond Roberts, the second director-general, in reviewing the Service in September 1980, remarked on the need “to come to terms with the mundane but difficult exercise of integrating the several agencies of the organisation into a well-knit team.”

Following the death of President Forbes Burnham in 1985, however, the scope of the Service’s activities were contracted deliberately. This was ostensibly to conform to President Desmond Hoyte’s economic recovery programme.

First, the main hinterland settlements − Konawaruk, Koriri, Papaya and Tumatumari − were closed and abandoned. Even production at Kimbia − the mother of all centres − declined, and the schools at Arakaka and Kaituma were handed back to the Government.  As a result, important platforms for youth education, hinterland development and settlement were removed.  The school-based Young Brigade and National Cadet Corps were also dismantled and the previously large numbers of young people recruited into the Pioneer Corps were reduced.

Second, all forms of production were curtailed.  Gold-mining; stone-quarrying, farming − corn, cotton, legumes and sorghum − the printery and factories closed down and, with them, any thought that the Service could make even a token contribution to its own economic subsistence, much less state revenue.

Third, and perhaps worst of all, training of out-of-school, rural and urban youths in the Pioneer Corps was reduced. Tertiary and university students’ training was scaled down with ‘service’ being transmuted into `placement’ of internees at government schools and offices.  

With the change in administration in October 1992, the Service’s activities were reviewed further. By this time, anyway, the Service was in terminal decline. The fifth director general, Colonel Cecil Austin, who was appointed in 1992, attributed the decline to the Service’s inability to sustain the agriculture programme, its abandonment of its role as a training institution and its withdrawal from hinterland development by the closure of its training centres in the 1980s. As evidence of that decline, the record showed that between 1974 and 1985, the Service graduated nearly 14,000 or 70 per cent of all trainees. During the years, 1993-1999, by comparison, fewer than 2,000 or 10 per cent, graduated, indicating the decline in the administration’s interest and support.

It was no great surprise, therefore, for Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports Ms Teixeira to announce the administration’s plan to rename and re-structure the Service, divest it of its para-military character and convert it totally into a civilian entity.  The public was told that this was being done to sharpen its focus on technical and vocational skills training, camping and adventure-type activities for youths.

How then did this organisation decline and how did this idea die? From the start, the promised National Service Act was never passed. It is possible that the absence of the act deprived the Service of the legal and regulatory framework it needed to survive and thrive beyond the exuberance of its establishment. Moreover, the conflict between education, on the one hand, and production on the other, seems never to have been resolved satisfactorily.

The new administration directed in 1994 that the training of pioneers and other activities at Kimbia, the Service’s one-time premier centre, be removed to Kuru-Kuru on the Soesdyke-Linden Highway.  In addition, it was directed that, because of its role in providing special education, the Service should be incorporated within the Ministry of Education. This did not happen but it was transferred to the new Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports instead. 

During its 25-year history, there was much for members of the national service to be proud about. It was a rare, but well-deserved achievement, for the Service to be presented with the Medal of Service, a national award, for its contribution to development in 1979. This was followed by the presentation of its ‘colour’ and the grant of the ‘Freedom of the City’, a traditional gesture extended by the Mayor and City Council of Georgetown to certain military units. Both of these marked its maturity as a military organisation.

During its existence, the Service trained over 20,000 young citizens, nearly 37 per cent of whom were students of educational institutions − University of Guyana; Guyana School of Agriculture; Georgetown Hospital Nursing School − and Public Service Ministry’s scholarship winners. In the midst of all the controversy, a fact that is frequently overlooked is that the majority of persons who entered the Service − about 52 per cent − were ‘basic’ pioneers − ordinary young men and women for whom training in vocational and technical skills, along with other values, provided a foundation for employment and self-esteem.

From the time of Robert Landor’s pioneering 1967 study, it has always been felt that there was a need for some scheme to educate youths to fit them for employment. Those were the Service’s initial objectives. Its disestablishment at the dawn of the new millennium might have extinguished any expectation that the disadvantaged young people for whom the Guyana National Service was established could escape from the predicament of unemployment in which they find themselves today.

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