Wednesday, April 17, 2024

ONLY HUMAN: Tell us the real story, Mr Lashley

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The National Summer Camp programme is a good idea that has, unfortunately, been constantly associated with controversy.
Essentially, no one can fault the concept of an organized summer camp programme that seeks to impart age-related skills, knowledge and fun activities within a protective environment. Given the number of activities catered to, it provides an opportunity for children to pursue specific interests with their peers, and affords parents peace of mind knowing their offspring would be well looked after, including being fed at no extra cost, for the day.
As Minister of Youth Stephen Lashley explained: “The camp programme is not just creating fun for our kids. It is a developmental environment that we create, where we bring our children from all over Barbados and actually put them into productive activities right in their communities.”
Lashley is therefore adamant that the $4.1 million allocated for this year’s National Summer Camp “is money very well spent.
“If we were not to have the camp programme, I believe we would probably be spending much more money trying to deal with all the other issues that will result with our children being left unattended and all the other negatives that would result . . . .
“Without the National Summer Camp programme the question is, what would these children be doing during this very long summer period?”
Why then has such a good idea been caught up with so much controversy?
As partisan politics gave birth to the programme, any aspect of it that can be questioned would be. Some may not consider this fair, but such is the nature of adversarial party politics.
That said, some aspects of the programme have encouraged controversy, the two most contentious being the catering and the camp assistants.
In terms of catering, the sums often quoted and the people who get the contracts have created the most outrage.
Opponents often suggest that the amounts paid were too large for the menus provided and the numbers served. Also, those contracted for these services are allegedly linked to the ruling Democratic Labour Party or a member of that party.  
As for the camp assistants, the perennial complaint has been late payment. It’s an embarrassing problem that continues to be an unpleasant feature of the programme and the authorities seem incapable of effectively tackling it.
This year, however, another dimension has been introduced. Lashley has been quoted as saying that the use of incorrect names – aliases, in particular – is one of the reasons for some camp assistants not being paid on time.
“This year quite a bit of the information inputted or given to the camp secretariat was erroneous in terms of persons’ names . . . . [Some people] gave aliases,” he said last Thursday.
As a result, Lashley said the national registration numbers did not match, and this meant officials had to re-input some of the information. He said such misinformation caused problems with the Smart Stream accounting system.
The minister was responding to concerns raised by disgruntled camp assistants who said that after working five weeks they were yet to be paid, even though they were told they would be paid every two weeks.
I don’t know if the minister was advised or misspoke, but his statement that “aliases” were the root of the late payment problem suggests that the protective environment parents take for granted in this programme is a myth.
That people could work in this programme using incorrect names means that the appropriate background checks on those hired were non-existent or lax.
That means children could have been exposed to people who could have negatively influenced them.
Lashley’s statement seems to give credence to charges of the programme’s opponents that many people are hired based on their political affiliation and not their ability to teach children.
Taken in conjunction with his statement last Thursday that “the caterers, each of the camp assistants and the directors are also paid . . . . I think people should rejoice at the fact that persons are employed in productive and meaningful activity” – raises the question of whether these camps are aimed at providing temporary employment for people.
Lashley owes the parents of the 10 200 campers attending the 69 camps of the programme an explanation on this matter. He needs to tell parents why this problem of incorrect names could have occurred and how pervasive it was and also assure them that their children would never again be exposed to such a potentially dangerous situation.
If the minister does not do this, he would condemn the worthy National Summer Camp programme to further ridicule and greater controversy.
• Sanka Price is the SATURDAY SUN Editor.

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