Out of the cane fields of Tacarigua
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 17, 2022
On May 8, 1982, I delivered a lecture, "The Village Council as an Organ of Popular Democracy", at the Tacarigua Village Council on the eve of its 350-year anniversary, the village having entered its name into the island's vocabulary in 1634 when it was identified as one of the four encomiendas at the foothills of the Northern Range.
Most of the Amerindians in the village came from around Lake Tacarigua in Venezuela, which explains the origin of the village name. Years earlier, I had visited Lake Tacarigua in search of origins even though I spoke little Spanish.
I made the following remarks in my lecture: "Trinidad and Tobago has reached a new stage of social and political development, and at the centre of this development must be the village or the village council, the most important and popular institution of governance in our society. In Trinidad and Tobago the village form of government is the oldest social and political organisation and Tacarigua is one of the oldest examples of community governance... In any form of social reconstruction, the people of these communities must stand as the veritable nucleus around which social development must proceed" (Cudjoe, Movement of the People).
That recommendation, it seems, met with approval of the prime minister who, in his response to the budget debate in 2014 (he was then the leader of the opposition), declared: "I would be the first to agree that in our moving from colonialism to independence we did not empower our communities and build on all of the social and cultural capital they had accumulated over the centuries."
He reminded his audience that Dr Eric Williams started his "Better Village Programme" to encourage the village councils to mobilise the various talents in their communities. Dr Keith Rowley said: "Today, we must go farther to involve citizens in their own development through the creation of structures to undergird such development, which is why we, in the PNM, offer our new thrust: the governance of our society from the bottom up.
"Those structures, the village council or community councils, shall have the right to select their own village officials... and a guiding council to run and administer these villages. These councils would establish their budgets, decide their priorities, and determine how best to meet the needs of their communities. They would elect their representatives periodically, whose function it would be to determine the plans, policies, and activities of these entities" (T&T Guardian, September 12, 2014).
In September 2015, many of us supported the PNM with an understanding that empowering the village and community councils was central to deepening our democracy. In 2016, the ministry began to have its consultation about how to incorporate these bodies into our system of governance. Its major recommendation was to create management committees to run and control these centres.
The Trinidad and Tobago Association of Village and Community Councils (TTAVCC), the main instrument and networking agency for all community groups, objected to this approach to community development. On September 3, 2016, the association spelled out its disagreement with the MS&CD. It complained they were not consulted nor included in the running of this new framework of governance.
On November 2, 2017, the MS&CD informed TTAVCC that it had decided to set up boards of management to run the centres. In June 2021, the MS&CD advertised the opening of positions of Community facility coordinator and business operations assistant "in order to establish these positions in 36 community facilities in Trinidad and Tobago" without consulting the TTAVCC or the heads of village and community councils.
On September 8, 2021, Genevieve Bernard, the president of the TTAVCC, informed Angela Edwards, permanent secretary of MS&CD, that her organisation "continues to be flabbergasted at the blatant show of disrespect that the MS&CD has been openly displaying to the association over the four months, with regards to our concerns regarding the ministry's activities to unilaterally place persons in positions of Community Facility... in the thirty-six community facilities in T&T as advertised in social media".
Ms Bernard also castigated the permanent secretary for not even responding to the organisation's requests to meet with her to discuss their legitimate concerns. They wrote: "We are still trying to understand why it is so difficult for our organisation to have a direct meeting with the person who is heading the Ministry under whose Schedule our organisation has been placed."
She rued: "It would appear that the Ministry's community development strategies, if not goals (whatever they may be) have been conceived on the basis of the exclusion of the Village Council Association Movement." On October 5, the permanent secretary responded by asking Bernard "to state her concerns in writing so that a productive conversation could be ensured".
No more discussions have been scheduled between the TTAVCC and the ministry. As far as Ms Bernard is concerned, it seems that the ministry has no intention of including them in the process of community development in any meaningful way. The ministry is content to bureaucratise the process by organising from the top, and to hell with the people below them.
This approach to community organising contradicts everything the PNM advocated in 2014. It is also contrary to how enlightened organisations such as the United Nations approach community development, which the UN described as "a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems".
The TTAVCC objects to how the MS&CD is conducting itself in this matter. It also violates of the accepted principles of community development, which is one reason why it will fail the communities it is supposed to empower. It is also an insult to the grassroots members of the PNM.
Prof. Cudjoe's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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