With the largesse from the Alba Petro Caribe Program and the taxes/royalties from crude petroleum exports, Belize should have embarked on a project through which every unskilled young Belizean could have learned a trade. Unfortunately, during the Barrow years, no ideas were entertained that didn’t originate from the clique at the head of the UDP; the projects on which the Alba Petro Caribe funds were spent were never debated in the House of Representatives, which was not only wrong, but, in some instances, possibly illegal.
We know the story. The loan funds derived from the Petro Caribe program and royalties/taxes from crude petroleum exports were invested in infrastructural works, some of them grandiose. Some marginalized youth got short-term job opportunities, but little or none of the money was spent on helping them develop the skills that would serve them for the rest of their lives.
Political leaders across the globe determine what areas have the best potential for their economies, and their education systems are designed to equip the people of the state to carry out the tasks the country’s leaders have deemed essential.
Agriculture became the number one industry in the country after our forests were depleted, and looking at the latter, it is such a great shame that our leaders have never made much of an effort to replant where we harvested. Our leaders, for the most part, folded their arms while the forest stands that remained when we got self-government were harvested, and now Belize is an importer of wood. Our anthem declares that we would no longer be “hewers of wood”, but the intent there clearly was that we should complement the industry, not abandon it.
Our government set up a single tertiary institution to train young people who are inclined to be farmers or agricultural technicians, and there are a few secondary schools that have agriculture as one of the subjects in their curriculum; however, on the whole there isn’t much emphasis on training young minds in this field. Indeed, the training of children and youth in the science of growing plants and raising livestock has been as half-hearted as the efforts to develop the talents of young Belizeans in sports disciplines such as basketball, football and softball.
In 1984 Belize’s leaders decided that Belize had a competitive edge in tourism, and since then a large percentage of our young people have been steered into becoming tour guides, waiters, and cooks. Outside of tourism, our post-independence political leaders have a scattered vision of the skills they want our young people to develop. A few families steer their children into areas where they know money can be made, particularly law and money management, and all the groups that are at the top of the financial pyramid know what fields they want their offspring to pursue.
The Mennonite groups school their children outside of the government system, and their children are brought up to serve in the industries in which their communities are involved. Children in the largest Mennonite community are taught the basic subjects — reading, writing and arithmetic — and youth are taught machine skills such as welding and engine repair, construction and agriculture, sewing and making preserves. As the needs of the group expand, so does its focus.
With no clear vision outside of tourism, the disadvantaged youth of our country are at the mercy of the world. Those who complete high school are very limited in opportunities when they reach adulthood, and disadvantaged youth who don’t complete high school have no future at all.
The PUP Plan Belize manifesto states that “as early as 2013 the IDB warned that more youth were outside than inside our education system.” The Plan Belize manifesto also contains a pledge that the new government will expand educational opportunities for at-risk youths; and aside from increasing the sports budget to $10 million per year, which it most likely will be unable to do for some time because of the toll the pandemic is taking on our economy, it can, if it is serious about delivering for our youth, proceed with expanding the sports curriculum in schools, reorganizing and revitalizing school sports competitions, and other initiatives.
Our political leaders have to be more responsive to the needs of our children/youth, particularly the disadvantaged ones. The children/youth of the well-off have the support systems in place to buffer them if they don’t immediately find their way, and focused students will take advantage of the opportunities to advance in the fields they choose. It is the children/youth of the disadvantaged that the system mostly must be concerned about.
It would seem that our governments have taken the approach that it is too late to save youth who don’t make it through the system. With all those Petro Caribe funds rolling about in our national treasury, we should have had trade schools in all our cities, towns and large villages. Our youth who weren’t aiming to become doctors, lawyers, bankers/accountants, and engineers, or to follow other academic pursuits should have had every opportunity to learn a trade, from machine repair and computer science to caregiving. The present administration must make a massive, positive difference; our leaders must find a way to right what we’ve been doing wrong.
Physical education has been/is an afterthought in the education system in Belize. In fact, all the disciplines in the art field – sports, drawing, music, crafts – are afterthoughts in our schools. In the field of music, we are indebted to the former Governor General, Sir Colville Young, and the managements at a few high schools under private leadership, for investing in the musical talents of our children and youth.
When the schools reopen, the physical trainers must be in place so that every school has a sports program, and there must also be emphasis on the other arts. Athletes, musicians, visual artists, craft-makers of good character who are outside the system must be trained; their skills must be refined; they must be taught about the objectives of the school programs; they must study leadership, and then they must get jobs, be deployed in our schools to teach these disciplines to our children.
We can no longer have sports competitions for our children and youth that are haphazard, as they have been. Sports competitions must be designed as true entertainment events, and to properly showcase the talents of our young people.
We must put the power brake on the practice of ignoring and giving up on our young people, particularly the disadvantaged ones. We’ve been sliding for too long.