The major concern for most Guyanese for the New Year is likely to be their economic wellbeing and the progress being made towards improvement of conditions for them and their families. 2015 resonated with excitement for supporters of APNU+AFC with the election of a new government after a decade and a half of corruption, arrogance and vindictiveness. Now that the dust is settling, eyes are being turned towards the promise of the ‘good life,’ which has not yet materialized. As one of my firm’s APNU supporting staff members told me a week ago without being prompted, reflecting a growing sentiment: “But, senior, I’m no better off. Things still bad.” And this is not for want of a far higher than average city salary.
Guyana’s economy should take centre stage early in the new year and this is not time for half measures. In what would be our fiftieth year of independence in a few days, the economy is structurally the same as it was when we attained independence. We are still a commodity producer with the same products dominating our economic landscape. In broad perspective, the only differences are that gold has replaced bauxite as one of the three pillars, along with rice and sugar, the export of logs has increased and the construction industry has grown.
Cheddi Jagan’s lifetime advocacy was that creative economic policies and instruments with government’s input would liberate Guyana from market vagaries, reduce exploitative relations, encourage the ingenuity of the Guyanese business class and attract serious foreign investors. But these ideas gave way during the post Cheddi Jagan era of PPP/C dominance to the elevation of ‘stable macro-economic’ fundamentals as the holy grail of economic policy. The theory behind this IMF prescribed policy was that investment will flow, the economy will grow and everybody will prosper. Not much happened. The only significant investment was generated by the State, namely the Skeldon Sugar Factory, which has proved so far to be a disaster.
When commodity prices are depressed, Guyana’s economy stalls. But this is not the only problem. In our main industries of sugar and rice, the cost of production is higher than the world price for these commodities. And the Government’s decision that the affairs of the rice industry are a private matter has allowed an unofficial millers’ cartel by some millers free reign to dictate low prices for padi in order to maximize their own profits. They will of course reap the negative rewards of this short-sighted policy of cutting their noses to spite their faces, because production will decline and so will the millers’ ability to sustain their markets. As one rice farmer asked me, “with the government’s hands off policy, to whom do we go to discuss these matters?” Farmers need help not only for duty free inputs as in the mining industry, but also to exercise influence to protect them. But the government is missing in action.
Past governments have shown no interest in applying the necessary economic mechanisms and stimuli to encourage reduced production costs and value added products, to open up new industries, including the great potential of service industries, relying instead only on increased volumes of production to drive economic development. As we have seen, this has not worked. Hopefully the budget early in the new year will address the serious economic circumstances Guyana is facing and steps will be taken to stimulate the economy, to charter a course for reduced cost of production across the economy, to encourage, and where necessary enforce, value added production and to stimulate new forms of economic activity.
Following closely behind the economy is the crime situation about which Guyanese people are terrified. People figure that if the former Crime Chief’s house can be attacked by armed intruders, no one is safe and in fact, few people do feel safe in their own homes, no matter how extensive their security measures, because criminals simply break down their doors.
Crime does not respect race, class, gender or age and it is getting worse with each passing day. I am sure that the Police and its leadership are doing everything in their power to contain the spiraling surge in criminal activities. But for years the Police have been subjected to commandist pressures and struggles over turf designed to sustain political control. Reforms have been half-hearted, tentative and unfocused. Ineffectual measures at pretended reform were publicized in order to give the impression of reform, especially after the negative publicity engendered over the rejection of the British offer some years ago.
Higher salaries, more recruitment, more training, more equipment are some of the basic requirements for more effective policing. I am sure the authorities and the Police leadership is aware of all of this and that much of this is going on but there is a time lag. In the meantime, however, the crime situation has Guyana bleeding, its citizens fearful, its overseas friends reluctant to visit, while the criminals, temporarily halted by the military’s help to the police, become bolder. Effective interim measures must be found to reduce crime. I have lived in one place in Greater Georgetown for more than thirty years. I have never seen a police patrol, by car, on foot or on horseback.