Leaders should ensure what they say is evidence based

Dear Editor,

In recent times the social sciences have been making a deliberate attempt at encouraging the use of an evidence based approach in responding to social problems.  Indeed, in support of this approach the Kaieteur News of 17th May 2017, reported on a study done by the IDB which concluded that the “high crime rates in the Caribbean require new evidence-based policy approaches.” This approach, the experts believe, is more meaningful than embracing an approach to problem-solving that does not stand the evidence test, but which we embrace simply because it seems right to us.

In my letter appearing in Stabroek News in 2007, I recalled President Jagdeo’s attempt to justify his Youth Choice Initiative, which saw the construction of a number of buildings in various villages. He said his government undertook that project based upon his perception that young people needed a place to meet. Mr Jagdeo offered no evidence growing out of any careful investigation to support his contention. In the end these buildings suffered from lack of use. Indeed, I was once given a list of several of these buildings that were either not being used or rarely used, and asked to encourage a group of young people I worked with to make use of them.

One would have thought that the experiences of the PPP government would lead subsequent governments to take note, and to act based upon established facts. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Early in his presidency, President Granger made it known that he was determined to pardon female criminals serving time for committing non-violent crimes. He argued that they were needed in the home and posited among other concerns that their absence contributed to our elevated level of youth crime. Like President Jagdeo, President Granger offered no proof of this being so.

Editor, in at least three letters I have pointed to reliable studies showing that this is not true. That it is the absence of competent, caring fathers in the home that seems to be the main contributing factor. That the young criminals we have had in recent times all had one thing in common – all came from female-headed homes. Further, in my letter published in Stabroek News on 9th March 2008, I mentioned an investigation I did among the young people held at the New Opportunity Corps in 2007. I shared that I interviewed 92 students (really inmates), of these and only 13 said they came from homes at which mothers and fathers were present. The other 79 came from female-headed homes – whether biological or substitute mothers. So, the question becomes why do our leaders embrace unsubstantiated information?

Leaders know that humans are inclined to accommodate appeals to their emotions. In a culture in which mothers and females generally play so many important roles in our lives, it is easy to believe that their presence in the home will contain crime. Similarly, when we see our sons ‘liming’ at the street corners, or involved in delinquent behaviours, it is easy for us to be convinced that were there in the villages and communities, facilities provided by the state, ‘liming’ at street corners would cease. Leaders know that when they target and engage our emotions they simultaneously disengage our brains, and our support is assured. But in all this lurk serious dangers for a nation.

The first danger comes from the fact that it is a rare thing for political leaders to correct themselves and admit they are wrong. Further, doing so becomes many times more difficult when politicians hold an opinion that is not true and act on it. Since the act has been done and cannot be undone, politicians tend to rearrange their views or stated belief so as to find justification for the action. Witness that the PPP, in response to criticism of waste of resources as the buildings constructed as part of its Youth Choice Initiative fell into disuse, said the buildings were not a waste of resources, since the villages will find alternative uses for them.

Similarly, President Granger will likely continue to spread the misinformation about the relationship between absent mothers and crime. He will likely argue that while it might be true that there is no proven association between the presence of mothers and a reduction in crime, nevertheless, we all know that the family functions best when mothers are present. In both cases, these two presidents, saddled with an act they cannot undo (even if they wanted to) settle for reworking their earlier justification for the action.

The second and perhaps most dangerous consequence for the nation when leaders embrace unsubstantiated information is that the information will usually be used by senior government officials and government organs to justify their behaviour. Recently Minister Scott caused an uproar in the business community when he suggested female security guards should not work nights. They, he posited, needed to be home with the children. This he suggested, would reduce the number of young people becoming involved in crime. More recently Guyana Times of 4th November 2017 tells us that in its report the CoI into the Camp Street Prison break-out and fire suggested that the imprisonment of females should be a last resort. Immediately let me say this: I would think that the imprisoning of any human being should be a ‘last resort.’

No doubt Minister Scott felt comfortable tying the absence of mothers to crime since the President had already suggested this was so. Also, likely the CoI when making its recommendation was encouraged by the President’s utterances on mothers’ presence as a deterrence to crime.

Editor, if I am correct, what we are witnessing is leaders’ evidence-free utterances being accepted as facts by a minister and a serious commission and used in an attempt to justify suggested social change. This is dangerous stuff and illustrates how important it is for leaders to ensure what they say is evidence based.

Your faithfully,

Claudius Prince

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