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OPINION: Clashing Guyanese and American priorities

By GHK Lall

The US Ambassador could not have been clearer in where, from the perspective of her responsibilities and country, the priority of interests focuses. Though couched in the careful and studied language favored by diplomats, there could – and should – be no mistaking the position of strength from which she spoke, and the thrusts embedded in those. A bit of a local firestorm resulted.

As widely reported in the media, Ambassador Sarah-Ann Lynch was guardedly candid without being confrontational. Her message was part warning, part appeal, and many other parts that are best read between the lines, and not so much from the words themselves, but the rippling echoes that they create. A couple of quotes should assist in clearing up any uncertainty.

First, from Demerara Waves (September 1) came this preemptive note: “some recent suggestions about local content policy in Guyana may send a signal that some investors as well as the employment and know-how benefits they bring may not be welcome here.” From a Guyanese standpoint, the challenge is this: how to read that and walk away comforted? In plainer, more direct language, I interpret this in several ways relative to the now nettlesome local content policy: a) this is not the ideal way to do business; b) rethink quickly and significantly those emphases, which envision the premiership of domestic businesses, in any local-foreign matrix; and c) get with the program that is being delivered in very nuanced phraseology and tone.

I am sure I heard more than veiled warnings in Her Excellency’s carefully scripted presentation. The bottom-line message is: don’t go about this the wrong way or Guyana is going to lose out. To the local businesspeople, it was: understand your role better; know your limitations; and act accordingly. In sum: get real. And get clean.

I found it unacceptable that firms from Caricom neighbors, pinpointing oil-savvy Trinidad and Tobago, are currently among the leading beneficiaries of foreign contract largesse. This must be particularly galling for Guyanese commercial leaders, who have seen business and political interests in that country, object against our own puny products struggling to get some toehold of reception over there. The well-grounded thinking of the local private sector is that its members is losing in both directions. That is, when local exports are sent to Trinidad, there is always some built-in resistance, which essentially results in the bar of de facto embargo, and now that the oil riches are pending within Guyanese shores, the same brethren from the region are first in the reckoning to capitalize. And with this, once again, Guyanese people come out holding the short end of the stick. Nothing going; nothing coming. On this, I stand with chamber people (not the most well-regarded bunch) in the cry for something resembling parity, and not the crumbs of charity.

Aside from the public speeches, political leaders across the spectrum should insist that there be more than promises and bland, generalized statements that translate to the same story on the ground here. Next to nothing for locals. There must be specifics about set asides for Guyanese, and more substantial and acceptable roles for Guyanese businesses and Guyanese workers, and more embedded detail regarding local presences and involvement with those who say they come as partners. Foreign investors will not give away anything: must be bargained for in return for access to oilfields and all the other business opportunities that accrue.

These are tough nuts to crack, in view of the known weaknesses in local content at many levels. There are the skills shortages, the barebones work ethic, the great corruption cultures in both bureaucracies and trenches. What has been warned against insistently and correspondingly dismissed just as consistently, now comes back to hurt badly in the challenges linked to that oil. The very things that were never a priority and that were/are so much part of Guyanese life have been thrown right back on the table of discussion and in the face of locals.

On this Ambassador Lynch’s was most forthright, as I read it, and as this extract also from Demerara Waves confirms: “the emphasis should be on whether the firms – be they local, be they international – are following international best practices on critical matters such as financial transparency, environmental protection and otherwise acting in a manner that contributes directly to Guyana’s overall sustainable prosperity.” In the shortest possible phrase: clean business. This is what matters. My position is clear: get business practices firmly on that footing and then so many shots could be called, if not pressed for more powerfully.

Additionally, I can say what the Ambassador did avoid. Guyanese commercial captains venturing forth for a bigger (rightful) share of the oil pie, would be better off getting their houses in order and ensuring that those on whose behalf they advocate are in compliance to the fullest, and are not masquerading as well-monied fronts for others with nebulous origins and sinister records. Being the trained diplomat that she surely is, Ambassador Lynch did incorporate the soothing throwaway line of all operating “as partners in growing the economy and not as adversaries.” That has to be hard to fathom at the local level, where almost all businesspeople of any stature see themselves as possessing the autonomy and authority – indeed, power – of sovereign states to be left alone to function as they determine to be fit. Partner is an alien word, and a dirty one, too. Just ask the government for its experiences with that relationship.

As I share this, Guyanese must remember a few things paramount to America and its commercial titans. Business is uppermost; capitalist freedoms go hand in hand with that; and the two are always intricately, though not publicly, linked with America’s visions and interests. The history of Exxon alone testifies to those three components, be it in Equatorial Guinea or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

For its part, I thought that the Georgetown Chamber could have exhibited some more robustness in its response to the American Ambassador. Quite bluntly, it evaded through the lame generality of something that sounded like the American diplomat has to represent her country’s business interest and what Guyanese locals are doing is the equivalent. I submit that a stronger statement should have been along the lines of: we hear the ambassador, we share (and commit to fulfilling) those priorities on ISOs, best practices, and financial transparencies. We will make the sacrifice of meeting those obligations on a sustained basis. And we then expect to stand as recognized allies in the oil adventure that is Guyana. Hold the ambassador’s feet to the fire; call her out by worthwhile actions that stand scrutiny. And then claim due place at the elevations. The challenges will be responded to, and then there will be some from this side. To be clear: those with a weak hand, those that have no standing, and those that are suspect, are not in a position to deliver hard ultimatums. (To be clear: financial transparency does incorporate elements of the new colonialism and imperialism)

More has be to be done to favor reputable and capable Guyanese local content. On this I agree. But so much more must be delivered first at the local level that they are worthwhile and trusted partners on the way forward; on this there must be minimal distrust. And on that (worthwhile and trusted) I will agree that we have a far way to go. There are extremely few people and groups with which I would engage in partnerships in this country. The government has its problems confronting that same reality, but it is stuck. The Americans are not. I hope that concerted efforts will be made to undo what has harmed and continues to limit, and which gives locals their chair at the head of the table. Ort somewhere close to it.

Mr. GHK Lall is a Guyanese author, columnist and former financial analyst on Wall Street.