The human face of constitutional reform

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Sheilah Solomon in UNESCO 60 Women

Newly independent from an institutions-based journalism career of nearly two decades, and barefooted at the kitchen sink and pregnant with ideas for social reform while nestled in the bosom of the NGO movement (in other words, unemployed since NGO work, like many aspects of women’s work and the work of artists and writers and the like are invisible, unrecognised and unfactored in national accounts) I had heard Sheilah Solomon on morning TV talk show. TTCAN! She was trying to convince a sceptical TV show host whose birthday in journalism was the same as mine. Sheilah was clearly and sharply articulating the deficiencies in governmesaw her: a tinymite elderly woman, gracefully wrinkled, deeply over with concerns about political and institutional stagnation but brimming over with ways of addressing them. She drew me to the TV set, dish sponge in hand.
Long before Obama’s signal inaugural speech Yes, We Can, Sheilah had launched TTCAN (TT Citizens Agenda Network) – an organisational drive for constitutional reform that could bring more effective governance to the people of Trinidad and Tobago by addressing flaws and deficiencies in the system. But it was not the empty soundings of legalities and technicalities that accompany talks of such reform. Her ideas were linked to concise and precise actions for change. with targetted results.

Core to the change process, Sheilah believed, was empowerment and education of citizens about their roles, rights and responsbilities. Human rights was citizens’ rights, and the rights of individuals to actively participate in the political processess of their coun

try. It was people who make and who can change governments and governance, not the other way around. That seemed to be the most difficult lesson to convey. I learnt that in the build up to Trinidad and Tobago’s hosting of the Summit of the Americas of the Organisation of American States (OAS)
and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) in 2009 while trying to engage the public and expand understanding and awareness through the Commonwealth Foundation, the Active Democracy Network and the Network of NGOS of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women. I was also gathering data that would solidify and quantify what we now call the democratic deficit – the shortfall in governance and institutional defects in delivering goods and services to citizens. The deficit was reflected in corruption of the democractic processes that would ensure equal and equitable access of citizens to resources. They were contained in the gap in delivery on campaign mandates, manifesto mandate, policy mandates, and international mandates signed and subscribed to at various fora through sometimes tremendous costs to our coffers. Symbols of stasis, inaction, incompetence and ineffectiveness, many of those sat on some carefully dusted, or conversely forgotten and sagging shelves at the OAS and Commonwealth Secretariats and various ministries and organisations around the globe. At the Network, some were in piles of boxes, others in neatly labelled milk and biscuit boxes cutout to look like the more ornate files one can now purchase at IKEA and its distributors for substantial sums.            
In my research, from the documents in those boxes, dusty, decaying, dog-eared files and reports and compilations of statistics that came out of undervalued intellectual activities took on a human face. My focus, Freedom of Expression, Access to Information, Gender Equality and other mechanisms that allow for active participation of citizens in local and national governance processes shed the hollow resonances they bore when they fall from the lips of politicians. They were the bases of the rights of human beings to contribute to and share in the resources of the spaces they occupy.
Acutely aware of the institutional deficits from the editorial chair of one of the pillars of democracy and battleworn from struggling for what one would consider basic tools of the profession. Attempts to convey to the powers that be that human capital development was as/or even more significant than capital investments on impressive new machinery; or that the right of editorial staff to internet and email access so reporting could benefit from the information revolution became an act of revolution in itself and part of the behind-the-scenes struggle that preceded the current boast of online editions as print editions lose currency. 
But there was still so much to be done to promote acceptance and understanding that a commodity as abstract as information was a functional right, for instance, and a key to unlocking access to all the other inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as contained in the American Declaration; or in ours – where every creed and race can find an equal place. Rights information as a key to basic provisions of food, water and shelter, would only be recognised in blocking roadways and burning tires for attention in a country which GDP was rated among the highest in the developing world. The democratic deficit. It could only be addressed through citizen empowerment.
That was the movement at which Sheilah stood at the helm for almost half a century.
She was a founding member of the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO sharing the UNESCO vision for transformation and social change through transforming outlooks.
Last year, in its publication of its 60th anniversary recognising 60 women in the world who contributed to the 60 years of UNESCO, Sheilah wrote of the “tug of war” between the vision in UNESCO’s preamble and the ‘internal bureaucratic culture’ that impeded effective delivery of actions in the mandated areas of education, culture and science. (See link below)
UNESCO might have moved some distance from that internal bureaucractic culture in its last 60 years – and certainly partly through her efforts as she was charged by the then Director to help decentralise UNESCO – but it has not shed the trappings of it, I am now discovering as Chair of the National Commission of which she was the founding Secretary General. Institutional change can only result from citizen action and citizen empowerment. It was not much different from the tug of war between institutional vision on the one hand and necessary reform action on the other that I had encountered and was trying to confronting in the third pillar of democracy – the media, to the fourth pillar, civil society. Its resistance to change required change in direction: from attempting actions from the top, to driving change from the ground. Even across several generations, Sheilah’s formula and mine collided on common ground.
With TTCAN, Sheilah took that drive for decentralisation from this international bureaucracy to decentralisation of power into the hands of citizens and localised systems for more effective governance for Trinidad and Tobago. There’s how she envisioned more equitable distribution of resources to citizens. Informed by hers and the work of people like her, my report and public awareness drive for the Active Democracy Network and the Commonwealth Foundation for reform and decentralisation identified several steps towards this; steps that would also result in delivery of social goods and services to those with least means to access them , steps that will strengthen and secure human rights and citizens rights in fundamental reforms that would include but not need the plaster of law and the courts, but be engrained in governance practices at all levels facilitated by acknolwedge rights to express oneself freely and rights to information that would infrorm actions as a basic human right. The report still sits on a virtual shelf, along with the mandates and manifestos, policies and promises and Summit and Heads of Government commitments to reform.
The democratic deficit in our national and local government elections machinery and ideology disconnected from the now heightened citizens’ access to information and access to mechanisms to express themselves about their rights as humans and as citizens – is reflected in the turmoil in the current political climate, locally and internationally. It is in this tug of war on what seems to be the losing end with which the US Presidency; the West Minster system, the hardened dictatorships, CARICOM, the Commonwealth as are the illfitted democracies as ours in Trinidad and Tobago are now engaged; struggling to assert credibility, indeed fighting for their very survival as individuals tug at crumbling walls of inept and ill-equiped and ill conceived institutional frames. The tug of war to correct the still skewed democratic balance sheet is now on shifting ground, and the survival of governance systems now hinge on their shifting gears towards greater equity; and acknowledgement of their roles as mere facilitators of the access of citizens to basic human rights. 
Like Pat Bishop, and Peter Harris, Sheilah died yesterday still trying to realise that dream for effective decentralisation to citizens and to see the fruits of her life-efforts for effective reform of governance systems in the midst of a comical-at-best local government campaign that directly mirrors any page from Naipaul’s older-than-our-Independence-frm-colonial-rule hilariously satirical 1958 novel The Suffrage of Elvira (See PoliTTcians in LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago.    RIP Sheilah Solomon.
The Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO will open a condolence book and put on an exhibition of Sheilah Solomon’s work with UNESCO in her memory. Details to be announced.

See 60 Women Contributing to the 60 Years of UNESCO: 

@blogactionday The Human Face of Constititional Reform  #BAD2013 #humanrights
See 60 Women Contributing to the 60 Years of UNESCO:

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3 thoughts on “The human face of constitutional reform

  1. Anyone notice the PNM not really campaigning? Anyone wonder why? Just back and trying to catch up switching channels and seeing the two-parties comedy show. Votesplitting is a form of runaway democracy, so too is abstaining from voting, a hard-won right to those who know our history. Voters' choice should be conscious, not random and left to chance ….

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