Clean-up campaigns are not sustainable

Dear Editor,

I read recently where we were informed that another clean-up campaign has been organized in Guyana, the most recent one being the work by students at the University of Guyana. Not so long ago, staff of foreign embassies did a few clean-up projects around Georgetown; and there was of course the ‘pick it up campaign’, among others at various places of public ownership. While these are all commendable efforts with the right intent, they are not sustainable projects, largely because they are underfunded and they lack a systematic work programme that is year-round.

A clean-up campaign is a one-off event that is unsustainable and is observed in a three-part sequence. The first part is a once beautiful Georgetown being choked with the build-up of garbage; the smell of decaying bio-degradable material; and the blocking and silting of drains which is caused by discarded food containers and other waste materials. Next comes flooding as soon as it rains. This triggers the second part which consists of letters in the press complaining of the mess, the unresponsiveness of the city council and the central government. They in turn do nothing, the former due to insufficient funds, the latter to poor governance and the lack of national instincts.

The third part is the voluntary clean-up campaign by public spirited persons who take action and clean for a few days, but they stop abruptly, hoping that the city and the national government will step up and do the job.  Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking and misguided expectations, for clean-up campaigns are feel-good exercises that are not sustainable.  In fact, this public-spirited work is voluntary and uncompensated; and who would want to keep doing this type of work for free, given that the benefits of a clean environment cannot be denied to those who do not contribute their time, talent or financial resources? This in other words is the classic case of a public good that attracts ‘free-riders’ in which the willingness to pay is never fully observed, as the excludability from the benefits of a clean environment cannot be denied to non-payers when the environment is clean. For example, if a family in a community of one hundred families does not pay for mosquito control services, that family would still get protection, once the service is provided by the others.

Workers who cleaned the city a few decades ago were paid employees of the city council and taxpayer money was collected for that service.  With all the new buildings and businesses in Georgetown and the history of how this was done so successfully by a team of technical workers and astute management is not rocket science.  It is recommended that a team of competent persons read the city minutes of the 1970s and 1980s when these services were flawlessly provided and extract the key elements of how cleaning the city was managed and funded in a systematic and orderly manner.

I recall seeing the cleaning of the drains and the collection of garbage being done on specific days, with ‘Old-Smokey’ being fired up to deal with the waste. I remember the grass at the side of the road being cut; the firemen and workers from the water-works flushing out the water mains and drains; the trenches being dug to remove the grass and some soil. In the gutters were a variety of fish, the croaking of frogs, and in the trees, the whistling of birds to welcome the morning. I recall the roads being patched with tar and stone and the roads being rolled before the rainy season. I remember the vector control specialists from the Ministry of Health in their green uniforms visiting homes in Georgetown. In school, we were told of the environment and why it had to be cleaned, and if I am not mistaken, we heard some of this on the radio, along with road safety tips.  Only national instincts can save Guyana, politics cannot. Only best practices can remove the garbage, finger-pointing cannot. So when next you see a clean-up campaign, know that the intent is good, but recognize that the ‘boat already gone a falls’.

Yours faithfully,
C Kenrick Hunte

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