Is that okay with you?

I’ve taken up a new habit. Ranting about nationbuilding in serviceplaces and government offices. It doesn’t feel as cathartic as cussing. But post-Dana Seetahal’s assassination, it’s a sign I still have hope.

For such a prosperous and large economy, it’s amazing how deeply underdeveloped we are when it comes to how we do business and how our institutions function. In a World Economic Forum report on tourism, we ranked sixth-to-last of 140 economies for “degree of customer orientation”.

Some of this is about weak systems that haven’t grown to manage modernity or complexity. Sometimes people hold fast to ineffective, bureaucratic, colonial routines for doing things because it gives them importance or control; they also guarantee full employment and sloth because one task involves seven people.

But most of it is simply attitude. We’re simply not invested in making things work for others, or in anything larger than ourselves or our own. We don’t care about finding solutions. When you find someone who does, like a certain Ms Merritt at bMobile in West Mall, it’s rare. We accept frustration, inefficiency and indignity as the way things are, and once we escape the worst of these, we good. Indeed, we fear that including too many others in solutions means jeopardising our “een”.

Returning nationals who expect things here to run by predictable, equitable rules often experience profound stress. So much of life runs instead on relationships. Informal access that gets things done works well as an equaliser in small places; everyone in Tobago knows someone, no matter their station. But hop over to Trinidad and as things get just a bit bigger, having to know someone fosters unequal access. When systems don’t work, corruption flourishes as a way to circumvent that. Places where things work only for those with power and influence become unequal societies, and the more unequal the less stable.

Our implementation of computerised customs systems gets praise in the World Bank’s 2013 Ease of Doing Business rankings. But my adventure on the port Wednesday speaks to how broken our systems are, and how much people are at the core of that.

Clearing a barrel is often a two-day process. You arrive early, sit on half-broken chairs outside, take a number when they open and get assaulted inside a waiting area by Apocalypto, the most egregiously violent film I’ve ever seen. I texted a complaint to a customer service number on the wall and got “You must have the wrong number” back.

An hour wait.

Some buzz about scanners not working, but the only announcement is the port blaming customs for the delay. My customs officer isn’t rude but as clear as Judge Judy who’s in charge. There’s no transparency about the duty I’m assessed.

To pay, you go to another grungy area of the shed, wait to be called. A sign prominently posts the wrong hours for the cashier. The entire port shuts down at a different time, 11 to noon.

You’re just supposed to know. You’re also supposed to know you can only pay with cash. In an environment where fees aren’t predetermined, it would make sense to take Linx like other government cashiers. After an hour’s wait, I figure this out, dare grumble to my officer, who lectures me it’s for my own protection against smartmen.

I can’t imagine collecting thousands in cash offers the Treasury much protection from smartmen. An ATM on the port would be a smart business venture. But this isn’t about smart.

A redksin lady next to me is marking her difference from the rest of us by doing her best outrage on her phone in her clipped accent, how she will write the papers to say just how she was treated. I laugh how her offence ignores this is a daily indignity for those without her privilege. I decide I will write instead.

As it turns out, my barrel isn’t in the new computerised customs system anyway. My shipper calls to tell me this just after I leave to get cash, says they’ve sent the information over, and asks if I got through yet. I’m totally impressed.

I return to the port to pay cash, pick up the barrel. Here’s where a good Trini starts to laugh in anticipation. My customs officer informs me she’s done the great favour of entering my information, which has crashed the system. Then those three words: “Come back tomorrow.” Early.

Can I call first? “Come back tomorrow.”

I’m asking for things that infuriate her because I have no right to. “Come back tomorrow.”

I begin to lecture loudly about nationbuidling and changing systems and problem solving. She is lecturing about the shipper I paid all this money, how long I left the barrel on the port, go back to the shipper if I want my problem solved. I realize the barrel is open. Is it secure overnight?

What happens if it’s not?

Come back here.

Can’t I get information about the procedure now? As a customer.

Look at the stupid question he asking, he says to a colleague. I insist.

We’ll make a report.

And then?

He has no answer, so it is my fault for asking.

I continue the nationbuilding lecture at another window. We know exactly what happens here and what needs to fix, says a man with a gun, but nothing will change because Customs is under the Minister of Finance.

I’m a big fan of the much-lampooned Therese Baptiste Cornelis. On a snap tour of a hospital as health minister, I heard a young nurse had told her a piece of equipment had been out of service for weeks. “Is that okay with you?” she asked.

Those have become my watchwords for public sector transformation. It shouldn’t be okay that things don’t work, or that people are treated with indignity. It’s not okay for Ms Merritt in West Mall.

Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith


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