When private sector fills the gap left by government

The police vehicle impound lot in Cumuto: the last stop for unserviceable police vehicles that have been damaged or fallen into disrepair.  - FILE PHOTO/ROGER JACOB
The police vehicle impound lot in Cumuto: the last stop for unserviceable police vehicles that have been damaged or fallen into disrepair. - FILE PHOTO/ROGER JACOB

Since the CSO (Central Statistical Office) does not supply population and employment statistics on a regular basis anymore, it may have escaped the notice of many of us outside of academia the extent to which Dr Eric Williams’s brand of state socialism as a philosophy of governance has been gradually not eroded but replaced over the years by private sector entrepreneurs who could not get the satisfaction from state corporations they were led to expect.

There was nothing malicious about the failures. It was like trying to apply the management systems of an Oxford University to a primary school in Penal. One size really never does, and never can, fit all.

Back in the 1900s, state enterprises in the metropole were set up to provide people with medical care, security, policing, education, sanitation and support for the dispossessed, the disabled and the elderly working in parallel with traditional family and faith-based systems that evolved over generations.

They were meant to replace the systems made inadequate by industrialisation. For efficacy they seem to have been overtaken step by step by private sector capitalism which resulted in the binary system under which we now operate.

Business entrepreneurs have encouraged and have profited hugely from the change and the most successful are now providing a quasi-paternalistic benevolent support in keeping the new system going where government run enterprises are seen to either never have managed, became corrupt or, by being staffed by political supporters whose qualifications for managerial authority lay solely in their political support, not their education, managerial standards, ethics and abilities, have simply failed.

I do not have to list them…they are in the press every day.

This is not any huge secret. I came across a paper written back in 1973 which commented on the observable beginnings of the trend, predicting what was going to happen and, as it turned out in fact, has happened.

It wasn’t just here. There was an international debate going on at the time about the lack of efficiency, and productivity, observed worldwide in state enterprises.

Orwell’s famous book Animal Farm was a metaphor for what happened when the animals took over the farm. It illustrated the terms: “workers’ participation in management”, “taking over the commanding heights of the economy”, “nationalization of resources” and “workers ownership of business”.

Servol, of which I was an enthusiastic member, was proud of the bakery its workers set up. The National Union of Foods, Hotels, Beverages and Allied Workers set up their own grocery business to show how workers could provide food better and cheaper than the one per cent could.

Neither had managerial training or experience, just a belief they could do it better. Neither had the political skills to get favourable treatment to cut out competition. They went at it honestly. Neither lasted more than a year.

The intention was honourable: to replace the misery suffered by human beings under the centuries-old systems throughout the world of slavery, indentureship and feudalism. While it is fashionable these days to claim that one’s own ethnic or racial forebears were the victims of all that oppression, current research shows it has existed as long as has civilisation in any part of the world. Apparently the exploitation of the weak by the strong is built into human DNA.

Socialism was the philosophy that would assuage that misery by providing “to each according to his need from each according to his ability”. I believed in it. It was both honourable and admirable. But it didn’t work. As in Animal Farm, it became a case of “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.

While state service commissions still exist, staffed by some very skilled and knowledgeable people of high moral and ethical standards, not enough of them rose to positions of leadership. Socialism is based on high standards, but it only works in a culture that supports and promotes those standards, otherwise it seems to slide into dependency and a belief in entitlement.

Capitalism doesn’t require for its core functions founding members with those moral and ethical qualifications. Capitalism is founded on greed, determination, tight discipline, hard work and sacrifice, often not only of oneself, but of families and employees as well.

It is not pretty, but it often leads to material success. As a result, many functions in unproductive state enterprises have been contracted out to private enterprise. Security firms have taken over functions where police standards declined.

As food, linens, cutlery and medical equipment disappeared out the back way from state-run hospitals and clinics, private nursing homes and hospitals were built and have flourished. No one even questions why they are more expensive because they have the resources missing from state facilities, the continuously qualified staff that show up on time, the focused and often strict management, close supervision and security for all stakeholders. Anybody who wants that can get it, but someone has to pay for it.

Police vehicles collapse and lie in junk yards in their thousands while our roads are crammed with second- and third-hand private taxis that are easily maintained. Different strokes for different folks.

As teachers with questionable literacy standards themselves, who just wanted a job, not yearning to teach children, were accepted to staff government schools, the educational standards that produced the likes of Sir Trevor McDonald from Belmont who went to the UK to teach the English how to speak properly, and CLR James from Woodbrook whose immense intellect influenced people the world over were replaced by a narrow politically directed parochialism.

So religious organisations with high professional ethics, eagerly sought and welcomed into what are now called their denominational schools teachers with proven qualifications, track records, high standards unremitting monitoring and strict management. The results spoke for themselves, harshly criticised as being discriminatory by those who don’t “get it”.

Care for the elderly, the infirm, those born differently-abled, animal welfare, environmental concern, all at the very core of socialist doctrines were devalued by successive governments, frightened that socialism might turn into communism.

Squatting on private and state lands takes place with alacrity, boasted about and unpunished. Illegal quarrying and deforestation go on and government inspectors shrug. They are the ones on the farm “more equal than others”.

Lately, however, there is observed a push back. Banks are providing social support that government is not. Food vouchers and hampers promised by politicians but “not yet” delivered (public servants are on rotation, you understand) have been donated, collated and distributed by NGOs.

Republic Bank has helped to re-establish the shelter for battered, neglected and abused women and children in Port of Spain. Scotiabank is sanitising and refurbishing classrooms all over the country.

Large private corporations such as Ansa McAl have quietly year after year even before the pandemic, given grants that keep a myriad of small, citizen-run community-based organisations going and saves hundreds of lives.

Digicel and L’OrĂ©al of international fame are funding the Coalition Against Domestic Violence as well as other NGOs, shouldering the support promised by government. They are mainly managed by unpaid professionals, doing work that government employees, demanding pay increases, won’t, and actually can’t do.

Is it possible that a new binary system is rising through private enterprise from below, outside the rhetoric and false promises of our sad politics? Are there good people everywhere changing civilisation while others sit back and watch?


"When private sector fills the gap left by government"

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