A National Youth Service?

St Lucia is a very, very small community. Our problems, no matter how large they may loom, are also small in scale when compared to other societies; they can only become insurmountably large if we allow them to grow out of all proportion to our size. Crime has reached that critical point.
Politicians from either side merely resort to enumerating the measures they have taken, however ineffectively, or how well they dealt with crime, despite the statistical realities, when they were last in office. Crime is neither a political toy, nor its prevention a political ploy. This nonsense has to stop. The time has come for this Lilliputian nation to consider draconian measures to combat the cancerous rot that is eating away at the vital organs of our society.
There are already many organizations, well-meaning, but largely unsuccessful on a national scale, that target various segments of society, usually youth at risk, in order to give them a better life and allow the community at large a greater measure of security.
“That’s not cricket” was a phrase from my youth that was used to indicate that something was unfair or against the rules. The lack of good cricket in St Lucia is not only a result of the mountainous nature of the county’s topography, but is also due to the unevenness of society as a whole. There is no equality in law, in opportunity or in education. There are no even playing fields.
In St Lucia, an SLP lawyer can approach a UWP Minister and get his child’s Common Entrance Exam results reassessed, and the child will end up, not in the assigned school, but at the College or Convent, two institutions that are deemed to be more worthy than others. Such means of advancement are not available to one and all; those in power take care of their own.
In St Lucia, after a government employee has been sent home on suspicion of improper behaviour, his or her prime minister can have a word with the Public Service Commission and have him or her reinstated. Such means of relief are not available to one and all; those in power take care of their own.
The list of inequalities in our society is endless. The point is that a drop of poison in the ocean might possibly kill a few fish; the same amount of poison in a bowl of soup will kill all who drink from it. In our teacup country, we cannot afford even the tiniest drop of poison.
From first-hand personal experience I can relate incidences of a Minister who “forgot” to pay for a meal until chased by the restaurant owner, and, on a different occasion, the son of a minister, who, when asked to leave after behaving badly, threatened the restaurateur with “Do you know who my father is?” Regular people do not get away with such behaviour, but the privileged think they can.
My point is simple: this is a very sick society in need of a serious remedy. There is little to be done for those who have grown to adulthood in a society ruled by nepotism, favoritism, bribery, and political privilege. They are lost, terminally ill generations. Their time will soon be over; nature takes care of these things.
The future belongs to the youth of the country. The best we can do is to offer them a chance to serve their country and better themselves in the service of others.
I propose an obligatory National Youth Service of one year, preferably before the end of secondary school, with absolutely no exceptions or exemptions. Everyone can play a role in society irrespective of his or her status in life. Even the severely handicapped – and please excuse the expression – have a role to play; they must not begin their adult lives by being sidelined.
Almost the whole of the western world has embraced the concept of a GAP year in a person’s educational journey. Teenagers become restless, rebellious, bored. They need change, a break from school. A year of National Service would offer them the opportunity to work in a variety of areas for limited periods. Work experience is also an education.
In many countries Military Service of up to two years is the norm. St Lucia does not need a military force, but a year of national service could work wonders.
In fact, I would go so far as to make a National Service Certificate an essential requirement for all advancement in any workplace, academic or otherwise.
If every person in a given school grade were compelled to take part in National Service, the country would have to provide meaningful employment to approximately 2,500 young people per year – don’t let’s quibble about the exact numbers.
Leaders, facilitators, counselors and instructors would make up another 900 job opportunities.
The Service would be residential; people would live in wooden barracks situated in secure compounds.
There would be a number of such compounds, perhaps 10, situated in various parts of the country; each compound would house approximately 250 youths. One suggestion might be that the 12 months of service could be divided into 10 periods of 5 weeks with two weeks of initiation. There would be no vacations.
Residency in the compounds would rotate, so that the 10 periods of service would correspond to the 10 compounds. The youth would move every 5 weeks to a new workplace and a new home. The working day would start with group activities and exercises before breakfast and the ensuing work day.
Six days of the week would be devoted to work in the service of the neighboring communities or business places. The young people would be housed and fed from their earning, leaving a small allowance for personal needs.
Passes would be issued for day leave on a limited basis, as in the military; overnight passes would not be allowed. Meaningful, useful, benevolent discipline would be maintained to demonstrate the benefits of a regulated life that respects the lives of others
The facilitators, leaders, counselors and instructors would be well-trained role models. There would be no room for bullies. Countries all over the world, from Israel to China, have adopted similar programs in the service of their societies to the benefit of their youth.
St Lucia has to understand that young people from all segments of society are at risk. Does anyone seriously believe that you have to be poor and uneducated to become a criminal? Do only the disadvantaged rob, steal, beat, murder and rape?
The National Youth Service cannot be under the control of any government ministry. It must be a statutory body with a board to oversee the organization. The NYS must hire and fire its own staff; it cannot inherit the undesirables from various government agencies, as at least one other notable institution has had to do.
And what would be the cost of all this? Well, first the intangibles: If we can reduce crime we will have gained immense riches too numerous to count.
People who have never worked can never understand the satisfaction of having a job. How can you put a price on that?
If we can bring together our young people so that they break down social barriers, learn to trust each other, work together, form teams, form bonds, and live in a secure, crime free environment in their formative years, then we will have made an investment that will bear interest for generations to come.
The business community and service organizations would have to support the project. It cannot be a political decision alone, no matter how united the various parties may be.
Start-up expenses would be significant but a loan to the NYS on generous terms granted by all banks operating on the island and donations from far and near would solve this problem.
The design of the facilities would be standard to guarantee equality. The buildings would be erected by the NYS workforce under the guidance of skilled professionals. Housing during the first year might be a problem, but problems are simply opportunities waiting for solutions.
The NYS would have an annual workforce of 2,500 that would be hired out to government service. Of this workforce, perhaps 10 percent, 250 people, could be hired out to the private sector, which means that 25 workers from each compound would work in businesses in that specific area; each worker would spend one period – 10% of the year – in the private sector.
It is essential that politicians grasp the concept of a workforce that has value, and not a workforce that is a burden.
Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that each worker receives a nominal monthly wage of 1,200 dollars. From this salary, 300 would be deducted for lodging, 300 for food, 100 for uniform, 300 for administration and leadership wages, NIS, etc. leaving a small sum to remain at the disposal of the worker via a bank account.
In this way, those born to riches would understand the cost of everyday living; those from less privileged backgrounds might see the value of education as a means to advancement away from the lowest income bracket.
In any case, instead of entering the world of work without the faintest idea of the cost of living, everyone would understand the necessity of budgeting and that everything has a price, whatever your income.
The NYS would charge the employer, government or otherwise, a fee commensurate with the cost of the workforce provided, the cost of running the facilities and the cost of servicing the initial loans.
The private sector and government would be obligated to employ NYS workers; this could be done by legislating a number based on the total number of employees; other funds could be raised y the imposition of an NYS tax of 2 percent of the total payroll, for example.
These thoughts were gathered during an hour of ambling with my dogs; they may be naïve; they may just be a wild dream; but they may contain the germs of an idea that could transform our society. I do not claim them to be well thought out, but something has to be done, something drastic, nothing piecemeal will hack it.
We elect our leaders from a pool of people who seldom come from a successful leadership role in society. Most have never run a legitimate business successfully; many come from the sheltered world of academia; others from political dynasties; there are even those who have failed at everything and all that is left is a political role. And yet we give them the power to control millions upon millions of dollars and regulate our lives.
And when they leave office, voluntarily or otherwise, because have voted them out due to their inability to perform to our satisfaction, what happens to them? Nepotism and the old boy network step in and they end up with lucrative consultancies, posts as special representatives, non-performing ambassadors, jobs in the OECS Secretariat and various worthless UN sinecures.
If government ministers can do that for failed politicians, surely they can put a bit of effort into securing the future for our youth, and the security of our country.
Whether you agree with me or not, don’t be silent. Let’s talk about the guaranteeing the future of our country.

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