The spectacular possibilities that await Guyana were revealed at the recently concluded Oil & Gas conference. Government spokespersons, led by President Irfaan Ali, Prime Minister Mark Phillips and Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo, and other officials, revealed plans, set out priorities and declared objectives. The head of Exxon talked about the possibilities of the oil industry and its growing potential. Not only will production increase but discoveries will multiply. The official estimate of reserves is 10 billion barrels, the unofficial 13. Guyanese can begin to think realistically of a potential of 20 billion and hope for 30 billion.
This was a conference to encourage investment and investors were represented. But the Heads of Government who attended – from Barbados, Surinam and Ghana – spoke about the interests of the Guyanese people. Even though Guyanese leaders did so as well, it was clear that uppermost in the minds of conference participants was investment opportunities, and not wages and working conditions for the jobs that would be created. Maybe the Minister of Labour could have reminded potential investors of what would be expected of them and the existence of trade unions in Guyana and their protected roles. It is not known if the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was invited. His presence might have been a good time for Guyanese to recall, as they seem to have forgotten, that in the two decades of the 1970s and 1980s, and even longer, when Trinidadians shunned us because we were poor, it was Trinidad that supplied us with credit for the oil we purchased in that period and forgave us that debt of about US$400 million at the Paris Club talks. Despite the bad blood, we have a lot to thank Trinidad for, including their current investments.
The vast majority of Guyanese, if they actually paid any attention to the conference, were only spectators, even though they were supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries. Some may even have yawned because the goodies promised to them and highlighted by speeches now and in the past have not materialized and are not expected to any time soon. The Guyanese sugar worker, porknocker, taxi driver, bauxite worker, school teacher, will ultimately ask, what’s in all this for me, and when? Two weeks ago a taxi driver with a modest vehicle, who I hailed for a ‘short drop’ asked me the same question. How is the discovery of oil going to help him in his taxi business? Will it help him to hire a contractor or carpenters to build the small house he is now constructing himself in his spare time because he cannot afford carpenters? If the public notices the flash and splash of the conference, they might ignore it because they might think that it was a rich people event not meant for poor people with their daily needs or modest plans.
During last week the conservative journalist, Richard Brooks, published an article entitled “The Dark Century.” He recalled the positives of the liberal democratic order established in the US, including its many negatives during the last century. The darkness he mentioned relates to the tightening grip of the right wing in many parts of the world, including in the US. Guyana’s darkness started long before when enslaved people were forced to labour in the malaria infested forests of the coastlands. But in the modern era, it surely began in 1953 and continued until 1992, with the embers glowing until last year. Is this Guyana’s bright century? It can be. We recovered from the brink in 2020. Guyana’s growth seems assured. Civil society is alert. Legislation is being designed to protect the interests of Guyanese on local content and the protection of our income from oil. More needs to be done.
The USAID Report recently attracted public attention. It called for more protection against corruption, curbs on police behaviour and for shared governance. The government will say that it has done a great deal in relation to the first two. But we know that far more is needed. I recently had an engagement with the Police, which is continuing. And I can say, notwithstanding the reforms, that the behaviour and operating standards of the Police is as bad as ever and the training has not reached the top echelons. Charges of favouritism in procurement continue and the recent appointment of the Procurement Commission is unlikely to reduce the complaints.
For the first time, however, a US government agency has called for shared governance. I am not familiar with the workings of the US Government so that I cannot say whether this is now official US Government policy. But as far as I can recall, this is the second time a US agency has called for shared governance. The first was when Bryan Hunt, the then US Charge, did so in his farewell speech shortly after the 2015 general elections. It is not likely that the Government will take the US up on the suggestion but after many years of effort by myself and others in writing about this constitutional option, it is now growing wings. Hopefully it will fly in the not too distant future.