TO DISSENT IS TO BE REASONABLE.

Without dissent, many of us would still be slaves and indentured servantsPromoting a view and a policy that doesn’t allow citizens to protest the actions of their elected representatives is to take on the philosophy of all of the despots and dictators who kept their citizens silenced and afraid of retribution.

The entomology of dissent has its origins in the early 15 century Latin word dissentire meaningto differ in sentiments, disagree, be at odds, contradict.” In the 15th century, Galileo Galilei challenged the Church with his dissenting view by stating that the Earth and other planets revolve round the Sun. He died under house arrest.  Had President John F. Kennedy not listened to dissenting voices, the unimaginable catastrophe of nuclear war with the former Soviet Union could have occurred in 1962 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

WHY GUYANA NEEDS DISSENT

Cass Sunstein, in his book Why Societies Need Dissent shows that nations are far more likely to prosper if they welcome dissent and promote openness.  He shows that dissent is the leaven which propels societies to be productive, innovative, creative and attractive to human beings from diverse cultural backgrounds. But dissent is a principle frequently more recognized in theory than in practice by elected officials in democratic societies.

While Guyana is experiencing its first mass dissenting exercise since the post 2015 general elections with protest against the roll out and implementation of a parking meter system by the Mayor and City Council of Georgetown, the political establishment has largely allowed and even encouraged space for this fundamental process of dissent.

Prior to 2015, dissidents would be intimidated by the presence of a water tank, armed police presence sometimes resulting in the shooting of protestors, threats to livelihoods,  various acts of harassment to experiencing the deadly cost of being a dissidentGuyanese would hope that these public expression of disagreement with majority-held views, would be the new essential component of open democratic politics in keeping with the constitutional articles 146 which enshrinesfreedom of expression as a core value” and 147  which enshrinesfreedom of association to protect the collective pursuit of common goals” of Guyana. The constitution of Guyana gives every citizen legitimacy to be a dissident.

SAYING NO TO PARKING METERS.

The Mayor and City Council of Georgetown’s posture for lock-step conformity to the parking meter system from citizens are wrong and comes from uninformed thinking. They must understand that the influence of the dissenters is for the better. A council cordoning themselves off from the people—listening to the Mayor only and reading scripts that parrot rather than test their assumptions—spells trouble.

To be reasonable, when the Mayor and City Council of Georgetown is manipulative and misleading its citizens, is to dissent. To be reasonable, when the city council is allowing a foreign entity to claim the right to the city over citizens right to own and also claim their city, is to dissent. To be reasonable, when the city council refuses to be transparent, is to dissent. As Julien Benda argued in La Trahison des Clercs, democracy and civilisation depend on intellectuals resisting conformity and power.

LIVING ON THE EDGE OF POVERTY

For as long as I can remember, I have been trying to understand poverty. I have studied it as an academic discipline, observed it through the lives of others, made a career out of it and even lived it.  Yes, I grew up poor and I still don’t fully understand it. We often look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why.  We see situations in our societies; situations of gender violence, delinquency, crime and violence, and ask ourselves, why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?  We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but we almost never ask a poor person to explain it on their own behalf, through their own eyes and thought process.  I thought I could at least explain some of what I have seen from those around me and how those I know, react to the pressures of living on the edge of poverty. 

ABIKI’S STRUGGLE WITH POVERTY

Abiki (not her real name) is a twenty-two year old mother of four children, the youngest being age 8 months old and the eldest 4 years old.  Abiki says rest, relaxation and entertainment is a luxury for the poor.  She gets up at 4am everyday thinking about how her children will eat on that day. She has no education nor skills and her husband refuses to let her look for a job – out of fear that other men will be attracted to her and she will leave him.  Her husband works odd jobs occasionally when he can, but refuses to become a security guard because he feels night mek fuh sleep.  He too has no education or skills.  Abiki says she depends mostly on neighbors for basics such as food and clothes for the children. She feels a loss of dignity if she has to approach a neighbor for assistance but her husband often forces the children to go and solicit the neighbors for food. If she objects, he threatens her with violence or even beats her. Such is living on the edge of poverty.

The nurses at the community health center says her 8 month old baby is mal-nourished and supplied her with “sprinkles” from an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funded basic nutrition project to help with his nutrition. But Abiki instead dumps the sprinkles because “it will open my children’s appetite for food, and when they hungry, I have no food to give them”.  The children’s basic diet is made up of biscuits and flavored cool aid without sugar for school.  Meals are mostly plan rice with whatever vegetables or gravy she can make at the time.  Abiki says someone reported the condition of the children to the Ministry of Social Protection and Social Workers turned up at her home to inspect it.  Luckily, they placed her on a register for regular cash voucher support for her children.  But this too has its own problems, since her husband often confiscates the already little money for his own use and leaves the rest of the family to live on the edge of poverty.   

Abiki says some persons have offered to take her for free contraception from a local organisation so that she will not become pregnant with a 5th child. When her husband found out, he beat her claiming it will get her too fat. Abiki says life is a daily struggle for survival, and things like planning a future, styling her hair, wearing fragrance creams or even owning decent underwear is a luxury.  She says the last time she purchased four panties for herself; her husband accused her of “looking for a man”.  

I asked my wife about Abiki a few days ago only to learn that a “big man” gentleman saw her condition and bought her some new clothes and encouraged her to style her hair. Mr. Gentleman has also been encouraging Abiki to take better care of her children and was making regular food & clothing donations to her. Mr. Big Man gentleman recently invited Abiki to a nice restaurant at Georgetown’s seawall for drinks and she was excited since she has never gone to a cozy restaurant. I learnt the Abiki has since moved out from her husband to live with her mother. She has left her 3 sons with their father but took her 8 month old baby with her.  She says, “le he feel how it hard fu tek care a children”.  For her 3 young sons, the vicious cycle of living on the edge of poverty continues. 

ABIKI’S STORY IN PERSPECTIVE

Poverty forces peoples to live in a permanent now. Worrying about tomorrow can be a luxury if you don’t know how you’ll survive today. People who grow up in poverty quickly learn that it doesn’t pay off to save for an uncertain future if the reward they are waiting for sometimes isn’t there after the wait. It would be foolish to spend precious mental resources thinking about solving a problem that won’t occur for a month when you can’t afford dinner tonight, so it’s hard to think when conditions around you aren’t good. Working out of poverty is an uphill struggle for many. Poverty has powerful harmful effects on people, and helps explain why it’s so hard to escape. Their choices are much more a product of their situation, rather than a lack of self-control. We social scientist tend to think that focusing on long-term goals is always a good way out of poverty and satisfying short-term needs is always a poverty trap and cycle. This definition works well only for people who have the luxury of time and money to meet their basic needs and have resources left over to plan for the future.   I have come to learn that you cannot ever use the word poverty without the word inequality being far behind.

The Misunderstanding of Religion and Faith

I have maintained a reluctant position of not engaging in debates about religion as I find it is almost always ridiculed and criticized as inherently the source of intractable ethnic and global conflict without understanding the difference between religion and faith.  At an elementary level, most people who discredit religion are unaware that the current system of international relations among states and the principle of sovereignty have their foundations in religion – The Treaty of  Westphalia – and represented a new diplomatic arrangement  for states that ended a 30 year war (1618-1648) in the holy roman empire, an 80 years war between the Spanish and the Dutch (1568-1648) and allowed rulers of imperial states to independently decide their own religious worship and each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state.

Religion

To adequately address and generate the hypothesis of this discussion, a starting point is to enquire how religion and faith is defined in the current international system.  This definition remains largely misunderstood by many.  Religion has three distinctive features; (i) belief, (ii) identity and (iii) values. Religion as belief pertains to the convictions that people hold regarding such matters as God, truth, or doctrines of faith.  Belief religion may emphasize, for example, adherence to doctrines.

While religion as belief emphasizes doctrines, religion as identity emphasizes affiliation with a group. In this sense, identity religion is experienced as something akin to family, ethnicity, race, or nationality. Identity religion is something into which people believe they are born rather than something to which they convert after a process of study, prayer, or reflection.  Identity religion is less likely to emphasize shared theological beliefs and more likely to emphasize shared histories, cultures, ethnicity, and traditions.

People may consider themselves Muslims or Hindus on the basis of ethnicity, even though they have not been inside a mosque or temple for twenty years and even though they know little about the Qur’an or Bagwan Kieta. Ziad Abu-Amr, author of Critical Issues in Arab Islamic Fundamentalism, in Religion, Ethnicity, and Self-Identity: Nations in Turmoil says “Arabs, regardless of whether they observe the outward manifestations of religion or not, insist that they were born and remain Muslims.” This affiliation extends even to those who may be self-consciously non-religious.

A fourth facet of religion, which is distinct from the previous two but is likely to be tied to one of them in the mind of the religious person, is religion as a way of life. In this facet, religion is associated with actions, rituals, customs, and traditions that may distinguish the believer from adherents of other religions. For example, religion as a way of life may motivate people to live in monasteries or religious communities, or to observe many rituals, including praying five times a day, eschewing the eating of pork, or circumcising males.   But for other people, religion is the salient aspect of their lives. It may demand prayers five times a day, constant efforts to propagate the religion, refusal to eat meat, the wearing of certain types of clothes, the requirement that beards be grown or that heads be shaved. In this facet, “religion is perhaps the most comprehensive of all human activities.”

But Monica Toft in her paper “Getting Religion? The puzzling case of religion in civil war” probably has the most useful definition of religion.  She defines religion as a system of practices and beliefs that includes most of the following elements: belief in a supernatural being, prayers, transcendent realities such as heaven and hell, a distinction between the sacred and the profane, a view of the world and humanity’s relation to it, a code of conduct, and “a temporal community bound by its adherence to these elements.” Each faith has its own beliefs and prescribed practices; they tend to be uncompromising and each holy book serves as a guide of conduct approved or mandated by a supreme being.  Religion tends to be uncompromising and limit the conduct of followers in important ways. For example, the Ten Commandments found in the bible’s book of Exodus Chapter 20 give ten uncompromising commands to the people of Israel.  Thus a secular actor (or state) can be coerced or deterred by threats; where as a zealot (or theocracy) may be impossible to coerce or deter in the same way and may instead choose to sacrifice tangible benefits for intangible benefits.

Faith and not religion is the substance.

(Pistis, fides). But the basis of any religion is faith. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew means essentially steadfastness, cf Exodus 17:12, where it is used to describe the strengthening of Moses’ hands; hence it comes to mean faithfulness, whether of God towards man (Deuteronomy 32:4) or of man towards God (Psalm 118:30). As signifying man’s attitude towards God means trustfulness or fiducia. It would, however, be illogical to conclude that the word cannot, and does not, mean belief or faith for it is clear that we cannot put trust in a person’s promises without previously assenting to or believing in that person’s claim to such confidence.

To conceptualize the notions of faith and religion, we must understand that individuals of faith worship a being that is not only greater than themselves but also greater than their governments.  The question then is, how can governments dependably believe in their citizens when their citizens believe in something higher than their governments?

 

Help! Stakeholder on the Warpath.

On the Warpath

A traditional Guyanese proverb says “slow fiah bile hard cow heel” which in plan english translates to mean that a consistent effort will eventually provide the desired results. So, as the largest development partner with an annual financial footprint of US$35 Million in Guyana, what do you do when a lone stakeholder is on the war path? 

The problem was that this particular stakeholder and some; were on the war path, and had been gunning for the Bank for at least one year. Each new week brought apprehension about the next critical letter to appear in the local media complaining  about the Inter-American Development Bank , questioning the institution’s commitment to indigenous peoples and the handling of development projects intended to benefit indigenous peoples.

To the institution’s credit, it understood that the only way to get good at handling difficult stakeholders, was to practice handling difficult stakeholders. The IDB took the principled approach of not responding publicly to the antagonism of the stakeholder – who many believed was writing under several fictitious names – but to bringing all of Guyana’s indigenous stakeholders into a conversation and a long term engagement to participate in its work and to lead their own dialogue on projects intended to benefit indigenous peoples. 

Living in the Matrix

In The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) discovers that what he thought was real was nothing more than a computer generated simulation intended to give human begins the illusion of freedom.  Too often, making assumptions about stakeholders keeps institutions boxed into a matrix of predictable and predetermined reactions toward them that are congruent with the matrix of conversations they have about what they think is going on. The matrix robs institutions of their ability to freely draw on creative solutions.  An example of this “matrix” of predictable and predetermined reaction is the current full blown conflict between the Georgetown Mayor and City Council and citizens over the parking meter project.

Traditional development approaches tell us that engagement and dialogue should aim for “quick wins” but these fail for a lack organizational investment, insufficient leadership commitment and few dedicated resources – not of money, but of time and effort. The IDB Guyana Office had long known that indigenous audience engagement was not a “natural act” as the political history of patronage removed the potential for partnership between some agencies and indigenous communities and that communities did not have significant experience in the skills required for substantive engagement.

How to Neutralize a Warmonger

Christopher Hitchens said that nonintervention does not mean that nothing happens. It means that something else happens. So what did the IDB do to stay clear of this war path.

  • The institution invested time and effort building an open and transparent relationship with the indigenous community as a key commodity to partnership.
  • The institution opened itself to listen generously. The major way community stakeholders negotiate is through complaining. When the institution listened to indigenous stakeholders generously, it communicated that they are worth listening to and what they are communicating is worth listening to.
  • It understood that relationship was only an entry point. Development requires a culture of coordination and inclusion and relationship is the only way to genuinely partner with indigenous communities. 

The lesson is that communities and their stakeholders should not be treated like objects. Some institutions shy away from exploring the fears behind “complaining stakeholders” because they assume they will have to pay a hefty price for addressing those complaints. When we think that the merits of a complaining stakeholder is worthless and hopeless that is the moment we need to be generous listeners.  It is said that complaining is “the thoughtful discipline of negotiation“. We are always negotiating the future together, regardless of circumstances and an institution with a vision of alternative possibilities will not be held hostage by circumstances but will invest time and effort in exploring those alternative possibilities.

 

 

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