by Irene Medina
News Editor, Express/TT
Planning and Development Minister Dr Keith Rowley is adamant that the issue of male under-achievement especially among Afro-Trinidadians is an issue of serious national concern requiring the attention and intervention of the government.
And he is standing by his defence of a Ministry of Finance document on social development policy which said that the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTAATT) should place greater focus on the recruitment of Afro-Trinidadian males.
Rowley said he was not concerned about being labelled a racist or afraid of facing any risk to his political career by defending the position because his public record spoke for itself.
The Diego Martin West MP maintained that government had a responsibility to deal with a situation in which, while young Afro-Trinidadian males were "under-achieving in the classrooms, they were over-achieving in the jails".
The controversial recruitment issue was raised in the Senate about two weeks ago by the Opposition, causing some confusion on the Government bench and leading, finally, to Junior Finance Minister Conrad Enill insisting that it was a "typographical error".
Prime Minister Patrick Manning at the post-Cabinet meeting last Thursday confirmed that an errata sheet would be issued to that effect.
But, in an exclusive interview with the Express on Monday, Rowley said he wanted to bring clarity to the "misguided and misinformed people" both in and out of the Parliament who felt that the government was pushing a racist agenda.
Noting that the document did not emanate from his ministry, Rowley insisted that he identified with its contents because the issue was "one of great interest to all of us".
Rowley said the policy objective as stated in the document was to "promote improved student recruitment, retention and graduation rate", which, he said, ties in with the objectives of Vision 2020 which seeks to get more people involved in tertiary education.
"Those who wrote the document would have had available to them where the shortcoming are and where the shortfalls are.
"All the document sought to do is to identify these areas of shortcoming and say in the context of the objectives, we will focus on the objectives by expanding that offering," he said.
He criticised the Opposition for alleging racial discrimination by suggesting that Afro males between the ages 17-24 would be given an unfair advantage against other groups:
"It is not giving a preference to Afro males. In fact it is the opposite-it is saying that it recognises that the shortfall we are seeking to treat with is the problem of poor recruitment or poor participation, firstly among males and secondly most acutely among Afro-Trinidadians males."
He defended the State’s policy to focus at times on sectoral or sectional programmes, pointing to the HIV/Aids programme in Tobago where the problem is more acute, the National School-Feeding programme where the needs of Muslim and Hindu children had to be given special consideration and the issue of public holidays, based on religious persuasion.
He also pointed to the state ownership of the 91.1FM which is geared towards Indian listenership, noting, as he did, "that this did not cause any negative reaction and there is no interpretation that that is the State carrying on any sectorial programme".
"If not through COSTAATT, then what," the combative minister asked, adding, by way of partial answer that if Afro males were not helped there would be "serious social consequence down the road".
Tomorrow: "I am not wedded to public office."
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