Since the recent by-election in Chaguanas West, politicians have been hitting the streets almost on a daily basis. The new mantra is “we are listening to the ground” and various plans are announced to “reconnect with the people”. MPs are suddenly pounding the pavement, some dressed in short pants and slippers, while the flashing blue lights and security details seem to have disappeared at least for now. Even so, the “‘meet the people” tours are always accompanied by a battery of cameras and reporters to ensure that the new people-friendly images are captured for public consumption. Whether it’s kissing babies or distributing schoolbags and hampers, the media is constantly in tow. It begs the question, is the splurge of goodies a genuine attempt to assist the needy or is it merely exploiting the disadvantaged for a brief photo opportunity? Let’s hope that this “reconnection with the people” lasts longer than the proverbial Red House fire.
Prior to the by-election many activists and commentators were boldly claiming “I know for sure that X is going to win because l am on the ground”. However, it is instructive that the most accurate predictions came not from energetic walkabouts in the constituency but from polling experts analysing cold, hard data in an objective and professional manner. Of course there are pollsters who will manipulate data for the right price and, in this regard, they are no better than the paid bloggers and some of the callers to the various talk-shows.
And on the issue of talk-shows, I digress for a moment. I was listening to a programme recently and the host was lambasting citizens for being “only full of talk”. “Everybody only talking, talking,” he complained with an air of self-righteousness. Then amazingly he announced, without considering the obvious contradiction, “the lines are now open so please call in and talk to us”.
Although they are legitimate sources of public expression, talk-shows, letters to the editor and even TV polls can be manipulated to create a false impression. Despite the misleading information, political spokespersons still use these as barometers for gauging public opinion. This careless approach to “listening to the ground” is a reflection of the extreme shallowness that makes it difficult to overcome some of our more complex social problems. A good example of this superficiality is the response to recent events in East Port of Spain.
Over the years there have been several comprehensive studies focusing on this part of the country. The East Port of Spain Development Company, for instance, has done a lot of solid research and the Inter-American Development Bank has also developed an excellent proposal as part of the Sustainable Cities Initiative. On top of that, there is the recent report by Dr Ryan, et al, entitled “No Time to Quit: Engaging Youth At Risk”, and there are many others. They all contain reviews, analyses and key recommendations, yet we are still trying to solve serious social problems via walkabouts and impromptu meetings.
A similar approach seems to have been adopted with the issue of gang violence. Here too, there have been numerous studies, both local and international, that link criminal gangs in Trinidad and Tobago to the international drug trade and associated money-laundering activities. It would seem obvious therefore that until white-collar crime is dealt with decisively, the occasional lockdowns are likely to be ineffective.
But it is not only the politician who needs to learn how to “listen to the ground”. The business sector spends millions annually on a variety of social programmes under the heading of Corporate Social Responsibility. The motivation behind many of the interventions is laudable, but the long-term success is often marginal with limited impact beyond the initial flurry of activity.
More recently, the concept of the “Social Licence” has gained popularity, especially in the extractive industries. Wikipedia describes the concept as “the local community’s acceptance or approval of a company’s project or presence in the area. It is recognised by various stakeholders and communities as a prerequisite to development”. Obtaining a Social License therefore depends, to a large extent, on the ability to “listen to the ground” in an objective and systematic manner. Failure to do so can lead to delay and disruption, as can be seen in the ongoing controversy with the highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin.
Some years ago, Pierre Lassonde, then president of Newmont Mining Corporation, made the following statement: “You don’t get your Social Licence by going to a government ministry and making an application or simply paying a fee. It requires far more than money to truly become part of the communities in which you operate.” It in fact requires a long-term partnership between company and community that promotes collaboration and focuses on sustainable development instead of charity and handouts.
In addition, many communities have their own valid aspirations and can often provide solutions to many of the problems affecting the residents. We simply need to build upon the abundant social capital that already exists.
In many respects, governments also need a Social Licence to implement their plans and programmes, and if these are truly in the interest of the people there is no need to surround them with PR gimmicks and publicity stunts.
Unfortunately, leaders often avoid listening to the ground with any level of objectivity for fear of hearing the truth about their leadership. So they ignore in-depth research and analysis, including polling data, and choose instead to rely on staged walkabouts surrounded by supporters dressed in the appropriate colour, waving the appropriate placard.
And after a multitude of promises have been made and the partisan rent-a-crowd has shouted its approval, the politicians boldly declare, without batting an eyelid, “We are listening to the ground!”
• Richard Braithwaite is a