For much of last week the various arms of what has become known as the social media were hot with discussion about what appeared to be a plan by the Government to introduce some form of mandatory national youth service.
Those Barbadians who believe that our young people pay little or no attention to matters of politics and governance got a rude awakening, we suspect, by both the tone and content of the responses.
It was a time, we are reasonably sure, not many of his Cabinet colleagues would have wished to be in the shoes of Minister of Youth, Stephen Lashley, who is responsible for the National Youth Policy in which is contained the blueprint for the youth service.
After a torrent of criticism, the minister, who had been out of the island while much of the debate raged, explained that the issue related to the wording of the document — and that the intention was never to make the participation in the NYS mandatory.
“I take the view that where there is a need to clarify any language used in the policy, this should be done at the earliest possible time and I propose to clarify it further on the floor of the House of Assembly on Tuesday, October 16. Whatever amendment is necessary to make it clear that the National Youth Service is voluntary will be done,” he said.
We are aware that it has been suggested by some that the Government is simply retreating from its plan because of the extent of criticism on the eve of an election; however, we will take the minister at his word as no one has advanced any evidence to support this suggestion.
However, whether or not there was ever an intent to make the service mandatory, our society will sooner or later have to deal with the issue of changing values that must be addressed — and whether or not a growing sense of selfishness within our population is not at the root.
It may not be the only counter, but there is ample evidence to suggest that young people who get involved in community organisations are changed for life — that there is a appreciation of the God-given mandate to be our brother’s keeper that is never far from the surface regardless of the activity that occupies of attention.
And while we still have many young people involved in community groups, whether they are church, culture or sports based, the problems of lawlessness and uncaring attitudes we so often see can in large measure be attributed to fact that so many more never benefit from this involvement.
We would dare to suggest that many of those who will volunteer for community service under the NYS, will not be the ones the society needs to reach most. So how do we connect with them if so many frown on mandatory service when voluntary involvement will not be an option for many.
Even at the risk of attracting the wrath that was visited on Minister Lashley, we must note that the policy was not proposing mandatory military service. It spoke to community service.
When the “community”, by virtue of policy and practice, makes it clear that our young citizens will all have certain mandatory right/benefits, including education from kindergarten to tertiary level, that health services will be free at the point of delivery, that places of recreation must be available to all, that bus services will be free to all school children and virtually subsidised for all others, and so much more — what’s wrong with saying that “community” wants a few of your hours back.
It might not be politically expedient at this time to talk about “mandatory” anything unless it is another “freeness” — but perhaps the country would have been better served if the “mandatory service” debate had been allowed to run its course.
After all, it is possible to have a requirement of mandatory service to your fellowman, without mandating the type of service. On the other hand, it is also possible to tie community service to a profession so that candidates for a teaching programme at college or university, for example, could be required to offer a certain number of hours to a homework club; or students accepted into medical school could be required to give a specified number of ours in service at a district hospital or the QEH.
How would that hurt our youth? How would it get in the way of their goals? How does that lessen a man or woman in the eyes of his or her peers? Why must community service be immediately linked to picking of garbage from our streets? And in any event, what is wrong with that? Who puts it there anyway?