Constitutional reform forum grapples with lack of youth interest

A section of the audience at last evening’s symposium on the constitutional reform process at the University of Guyana’s Turkeyen Campus. The turnout at the event was poor, despite its wide publicity. (Photo by Keno George)

Panelists at a highly anticipated public symposium on Guyana’s constitutional reform process were faced last evening with questions over the lack of engagement by young people with the subject.

The symposium, hosted by the Carter Center and supported by the UK High Commission in Guyana, was held at the University of Guyana’s Turkeyen Campus, where there was a paltry turn out, despite wide publicity.

“I see a lot of veterans in the room… which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think it would have been very lifting if we had a lot more students here to ask the kind of searching questions…,” Gino Persaud, one of the panelists, told those gathered.

Persaud is an attorney and a founding member and past president of the Transparency Institute of Guyana as well as a member of the Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR) which was established by government in August, 2015, as the issue was one of its campaign manifesto priorities.

Aside from Persaud, none of the other panelists took issue with the lack of youth participation, including the paucity of university students.

The other panelists were social media researcher and Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Guyana Dr Paloma Mohamed, Elections Commissioner Vincent Alexander, former Chair of the constitution reform process Ralph Ramkarran SC and peacebuilding and governance practitioner Lawrence Lachmansingh. Also on the panel were international constitution reform experts Dr Jacqueline Hanoman, Geoffrey Weichselbaum, and Michele Brandt, who took part in the discussion via skype.

It was University of Guyana (UG) Communications major Nikita Blair, 22, who noted the maturity of those who spoke and questioned what was the role of young people in the constitution reform process.

Noting that she has heard many “matured perspectives” during the course of the evening, Blair said that as a young person, she has realised that missing from the discussion is “how can you appeal to us, the youth of the country.”

While agreeing with earlier comments affirming that education is paramount to moving the process forward, Blair said that what she has realised from her “very narrow experiences” is that there is a problem with educational equity in Guyana. She noted that democracy is only as strong as its people are educated, especially the youth. “The young people are the people who are going to drive the reform that is going to happen in this country and so they need to be educated about everything we have spoken about tonight and more,” she said.

She said what she wanted to know was how young people can be educated about constitutional reform. Pointing out that she had learnt a lot from the night’s discussions, Blair said that she has realised that people her age have been conditioned to “hate this country without knowing why they hate this country.” She said that young people complain among themselves and don’t how to move forward.

“…There are many mature faces here. Many mature perspectives. Many professional perspectives,” she said before asking, “How do we as young people help to bridge the gap within our own communities? Within our own educational system? Does this constitutional reform help with this inequity as well?”

Later, Persaud responded, saying that he found it “regrettable” that more students were not in the room. He pointed out that the constitution is not working because young people have very little say in it. One example is that there is no direct say about who their representatives in Parliament are.

Dr. Mohamed stated that reaching young people and elderly persons is a fundamental problem and efforts are being made to deal with it.

Besides Dr. Mohamed, only a handful of UG lecturers turned up. One of the lecturers, Andrew Hicks, made a meaningful contribution to the discussion and he suggested some aspects of the constitution which need changing.

Dr. Mohamed, in her comments on education and targeting young people, pointed out that social media is an ideal forum for reaching young people because most of them utilise it. “This (social media) provides a wonderful space for education, for discussion, for learning, for debate and for modelling behaviours,” she said before expressing the view that the discussion can also take place in bottom houses, in churches, and other forums. She noted that process will take time and therefore patience is needed.

Severin Wilson, the head of the Carter Center’s constitutional reform project, told Stabroek News during an interview on Thursday that the staging of symposium was driven by popular demand.

“It is a Guyanese-driven initiative, the sole purpose of which is to have a forum for public discourse of how the reform process is going. There is no motive and no expected outcome beyond the hope to stimulate conversation and engagement,” Wilson had explained.

He noted that while the political parties have been invited, it is not a political event and stressed that it is not intended to deal with substantive matters of the law.

Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, who received the SCCR’s final report in April, 2016, was not present last evening nor was any member of the government.

Stabroek News saw several opposition PPP/C officials, including three MPs Gail Teixeira, Anil Nandlall and Juan Edghill.

Also present were UK High Commissioner to Guyana Greg Quinn, trade unionists and members of the business community.

The symposium was live streamed via the university’s Facebook page.

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