I was on TV this week, reminding the nation NGOs don’t just do charity that responds to a world of hardships, but also work to change policy that creates those hardships. I was responding to the prime minister’s address on the economy, the $1.5 million Government Parliamentarians will donate to nonprofits over two years, and how NGOs are responding to the drying up of largesse in the energy sector.
As economic hard times affect us all, I said, what may matter more than handouts or charitable giving is how government and institutional systems give people lower down the ranks of fortune a sense that there is justice in the sacrifice they are being asked to make. That means evidence their concerns are genuinely listened to and included in decisionmaking. It can be small things that push back against the gatekeeping, thoughtless rules and dysfunctional traditions that make us fourth-to-last in world rankings for customer care—things that make our daily routines friendlier; make denial, when necessary, more humane; places we can lodge appeals or access redress when unfairness happens that don’t leave us with a deep sense of rage and defeat at our own indignity after five minutes in their halls, like the magistracy and so many institutions responsible for justice.
The routine violations of natural justice of the colonial era taught us a tolerance for breathtaking contradictions, to normalise violence and use it. Talk is popular nowadays about micro-aggressions—small, cumulative indignities of daily life that compound the sense of violation and injustice of people not in power or favour. Those are the fabric of Caribbean life. Citizens now, we’re still not expected to expect to be entitled to respect, information, accountability, to not have to justify when calling a state office “Where are you calling from?” (translation: Just who are you?)
Sometimes a simple thing as “getting through” makes all the difference.
A letter I wrote about parliamentary oversight of human rights made news. I thought to share it beforehand with some Parliamentarians, asked the very responsive Parliament staff for contacts for representatives, and was promptly emailed public lists for both houses, on which each senator, including the independents, listed a phone number and email address. I now know which six MPs are unmarried, but for none of the 41 was there an email.
A young man in the Speaker’s office who thought he was being very helpful made clear whatever I needed to bring to the Speaker’s attention, or any member of the House, just tell or send him, and he would facilitate. Was it an invitation I wanted to send?
It was hard to get across the logic that I just felt entitled, without having to explain, to have an email contact for any MP, just because. And that some aide paid by my taxes would be reading my correspondence and taking it seriously. There was chatter this week about increasing legislators’ compensation, and whether they should work full time. But we can’t want to be taken seriously as a world-class parliament, yet constituents can’t even email MPs—just how representative are they being? And what are they using their state-provided iPads for?
The new chair of the human rights oversight committee is Minister Gadsby-Dolly. To get an email for her, I called her ministry PBX, which offered no option for PS or minister, and no answer at 0 or any departments I tried. I looked down the Parliament list and called the Communications minister for help. I reached his secretary, and got the same numbers. Frustrated already, I pressed: “Do you have a number somebody will answer?”
“That’s what I have.”
I put on my Therese Baptiste-Cornelis “Is that okay with you?” cap. Isn’t it your job to find a solution to my problem? (This was the Communications ministry I was calling, after all.) She encouraged me to call Service Commission to find out what her job was, scolded me for being rude to her, and hung up.
I found her PS’s secretary and asked for the colleague’s name: she withheld it, but assured me this was her “people” so I should engage in introspection about what I might have done to cause her behaviour. I talk over people all the time, but I’d met my match: I couldn’t get her to listen for more than a sentence. She was determined to send me to the ministry communications unit, but couldn’t find anyone there; I pressed whether that was the right place to lodge a complaint; she wasn’t sure, the ministry was new. I promptly got a return call from a manager, but again it was as if judgment was being withheld as to my culpability, and I was explained that it is not the job of the minister’s secretary to provide information for other ministries.
Maybe that’s where we can improve efficiency most, Dr. Rowley. In simply getting through. All that wasted energy maybe adds up to 7% of the human resource bill. I just wanted someone who was accessible by e-mail, answered a phone, and treated me like I deserved service. It’s 2016, after all.