by Dr. David Hinds
Guyana’s second Presidential debate at the Theatre Guild was low-keyed compared to the one held last week at the University of Guyana. Perhaps the absence of the ruling PPP’s candidate had a lot to do with that outcome. Yet some of the answers are most revealing. They exposed, to a large extent, the ideological mindset of the candidates. Ideology matters even in a situation of extreme ethno-racial tension. In this regard I was struck by the candidates’ attitude to poverty.
Most economists estimate Guyana’s poverty rate to be somewhere between 30% and 40%–a high rate even for a so-called Third World country. This has been the story of Guyana for the last two decades. The out-going PPP government boasts that this is one of its achievements and asks the electorate to vote for more of the same. The PPP is asking poor people to vote for more poverty. It is asking the rest of us to vote to continue the poverty of two out of every five Guyanese citizens. Only a party that has utter contempt for Guyanese would dare make such a request.
When asked whether his party would consider some form of Affirmative Action to help reduce poverty, Khemraj Ramjattan of the Alliance for Change (AFC) gave an emphatic NO. He said his party believes in a Meritocracy. This was an astonishing revelation from a candidate that considers himself and his party the change agents in Guyanese politics. Talk of a Meritocracy in the absence of a level playing field exposes a frightening bias in favor of the status quo which is steeped in racial and class inequality. Put bluntly Meritocracy in the Guyanese context is Anti-Poor People and Pro-Rich People. In a real sense Meritocracy assumes a level playing field which does not exist in Guyana. There cannot be any National Meritocracy with a 30-40 percent poverty rate. The only Meritocracy Mr. Ramjattan could be talking about is one for the rich and privileged; the playing field is leveled for them.
Affirmative Action, on the other hand, is a concept aimed at leveling the socio-economic and racial playing field. It is aimed at giving compensatory opportunities to previously disadvantaged groups. In Guyana’s case these groups are primarily poor Indo Guyanese and African Guyanese and the vast majority of Amerindians. Affirmative Action seeks to overturn the status quo by offering special opportunities to the poor and downtrodden so that they can exist at the same level as the rest of the society. Only when the playing field is leveled can we begin to talk about a Meritocracy.
It boggles the mind that a candidate in a country like Guyana in 2011 can talk about Meritocracy in the face of the high level of socio-economic inequality. It is a shame that the AFC leader opposes Affirmative Action which is meant to help the poor out of poverty. Asking poor people to vote for such a party amounts to asking them to vote for their continued impoverishment. In this regard the AFC sees the world through the same lens as the discredited PPP.
When asked the same question, David Granger of the A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) was loud and clear in his commitment to Affirmative Action. Here is a leader with a very clear position regarding the future of poverty in Guyana—he is on the side of helping the poor out of their powerlessness. Granger and the APNU have the most progressive outlook on and approach to dealing with the scourge of poverty. When Poor People vote for the APNU they will be voting for the only party in the contest that is genuinely prepared to radically attempt to change their socio-economic circumstances.
David Hinds is an Associate Professor of Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University in the USA. His writings on Politics in Guyana and the Caribbean can be found on his website: guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com