When the contestants for the presidency mount the platform in the city, Black Bush Polder or Waramadong they are likely to utter many of the platitudes that proliferate at times like this. They will likely speak in abstract terms about topics like poverty. The poverty of the type that has beset 62-year-old Mrs Lilowtie Deephia who has been left to take care of nine of the children of her son who has just been imprisoned for 15 years for killing his wife. Many tragedies have intersected in this Mahaica family. The most challenging at the moment is that this aging grandma with health issues now has to dedicate every living day to the welfare of her grandchildren. She is getting public assistance for two of the younger children but there isn’t much else and her husband is sickly. The reality of her son being sentenced and therefore being unable to contribute to his children’s welfare and the family coffers for the next 15 years is beginning to set in following his sentencing last week.
One would hope that non-governmental groups and the residents of the community that Mrs Deephia dwells in would rise to the challenge and assist her to upkeep her grandchildren and to steer them into productive jobs and a future. After all, it must not only be the responsibility of the government to take better care of its most vulnerable citizens; civil society and citizens must also contribute.
But what of the government’s role in all of this? It only recently issued a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for 2011-15. That 107-page paper amounts to very little if in its programming it has not reached families like Mrs Deephia’s in a comprehensive way. One does not expect that the government would be aware of every family in a severe plight given the geographical vastness of the country. It is clear however that the government has no systematic, sustained and sensible way of reaching out to these families. There has been no specific poverty mapping, the derelict local government system has not referred the plight of these families to the authorities who can help and government services have been generally unavailable to this family and others like it across the country.
Even though large sums of money had been obtained from the Inter-American Development Bank in the 1990s for amelioration of the impact of sweeping economic reforms it has not resulted in any lasting programme to track families like Mrs Seephia’s.
The 2011-15 paper speaks blithely of the level of extreme poverty. Based on 2006 income estimates, 19 per cent of the populace existed in extreme poverty. What that estimate is today is anyone’s guess but it is clear that Mrs Deephia is one of that number and is not being reached in any organized way. In its one-page reference to social safety nets, the 2011-15 strategy paper casually refers to cash payments and other support to the elderly, children and people with disabilities. These seem to be one-off interventions that would hardly rescue families in deep distress. The section ends with the following paragraph of bureaucratese which if it could be properly translated and verified might bring even more tears from the eyes of those in desperate need. “Finally, the Government completed several interventions that included safety net legislation, needs assessment, labour market assessment; social safety net risk and vulnerability assessment; and programme targeting studies. Arising out of these studies, the Government prepared a Prioritized Social Safety Net Action Plan which will form the basis of its medium-term social safety net strategy. A Project Implementation Unit has already been established to carry out this medium-term agenda”. How exactly are these initiatives helping and who will assist Mrs Deephia to get the two birth certificates for her grandchildren so that they can go to school?
Several cases like Mrs Deephia’s have been reported in this newspaper in recent years. Last year we reported on the plight of Mrs Rajmonie of Plegt Anker who was also left to take care of her grands after her son killed his wife. She, too, was living under difficult circumstance and had not gotten much from the state authorities. This year a woman living in a shack lost two of her sons in a fire after she left for a nearby house to iron clothes.
Each of these families and others like them across the country deserve greater assistance from the state. No one is asking the government to provide a welfare system to rival Scandinavia. However it must surely be within the ability of a government which burns millions on hyped-up events of dubious import like Feminition and the building expo to spend money on these families. Feminition will not do anything for Mrs Deephia and clearly all of the other programmes that have been place since 1992 have failed to lift her existence and those of the young ones she is now caring for.
President Jagdeo and the Human Services Minister should be called upon to explain what specific measures have been taken since 2006 to identify and address the dire needs of families like Mrs Deephia’s. The President himself should explain why this supposed working-class government finds it more important to dump millions into feel-good concerts and other extravagances while families continue to languish in desperate poverty.
The root of the inaction by the government and others could be attributed to the absence of adequate data on where exactly the poorest reside. This is exactly what the government should be aiming to address in its poverty reduction strategy paper. How to identify where these people are living and which are the best agencies to channel help to them. It is left to be seen what will be done with this 2011-15 strategy and whether the government can provide greater clarity on it.
When he ascends the platform to address his audience, the PPP’s presidential candidate Mr Donald Ramotar would be hard-pressed to explain why after 19 consecutive years of PPP/C governance there are families like Mrs Deephia’s marooned from a real programme of assistance. Do his rivals have viable ideas on how this problem is to be addressed?