Last Updated on Friday, 19 August 2016, 20:45 by Denis Chabrol
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been told that it needs to urgently support the improvement of Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) in Guyana before the coalition administration’s priorities change and are overtaken by the next local and general elections and possible economic decline.
“Time is of the essence as this window may not be open for long. The assessment team estimates it will close within the next 18 to 24 months as the focus shifts to the 2019 local elections and 2020 national elections. Some believe it will close even sooner if not supported, citing rising citizen anger and impatience against the slowness of the reforms and signs of business-as-usual,” states the assessment report that was done in March, 2016 and released on Friday, August 19, 2016 by the US Embassy.
The USAID assessment hinted that another reason that the Guyana government might eventually become disinterested or unenthusiastic about a DRG programme is an economic decline to due to a drop in the prices for major exports, and so the priority would most likely be on winning sufficient votes to be re-elected. “As Guyana’s economy is reliant on international commodity prices, there is strong likelihood that the country’s financial situation will increasingly distract the government from undertaking DRG interventions. This is in part because the government is well aware of the slender margin through which it came to power, and is therefore increasingly anxious to please voters in the lead-up to the 2020 elections,” states the document.
The USAID report notes that while the coalition government has an ambitious agenda for reforms, it has a limited pool of persons available to plan and implement reforms. “The continued emigration Guyana’s professionals abroad has decapitated the public and private sectors.”
USAID was told that now should be a good time to swiftly embark on a DRG programme in Guyana because the chances of achieving the objectives are very good because local elections will be held again in 2019, with general elections in 2020. Assistance provided now will educate the public on how to improve the election process and determine whether Guyana continues to move forward with democratic reforms or backslides.
Other considerations are that the APNU + AFC coalition remains intact through to the 2020 general elections because of self-interest., it maintains enough citizen and political support to achieve constitutional and other reforms; civil society will be an active partner in the reform process, Guyana will join Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and put the systems in place required to be a member of that organization, and Guyana will be seen as a strategic country in the region, not only because of its oil reserves, but given its position as a gateway to and from South America, which makes it a key partner in the fight against traffickers.
Repeated concerns have been raised by the opposition People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC), private sector and other interest groups and individuals about the slothful economy, increased taxation, lack of or limited consultation, perceived semblances of corrupt practices, conflicts of interest and alleged racial and political discrimination.
Conducted by Tetra Tech ARD, a consulting firm based in Burlington, Vermont, U.S.A for USAID, the assessment recommends that USAID takes advantage of the window of opportunity that is open now to support the reform process that is underway that can strengthen Guyana’s governance, balance the power of the executive, start the devolution of power to local government, and ensure a more accountable and responsive government.
“If adopted and implemented, these democratic reforms can address the over-centralization of power, address politicized and nonperforming institutions that were found during the assessment, and increase governance effectiveness and responsiveness,” states the document.
USAID was advised that a two-tiered strategy should be employed in a new DRG engagement with Guyana. The aid agency was told to focus on reform processes, key oversight mechanisms, information flow, and newly elected local authorities that are collectively aimed at achieving more accountable, responsive, and balanced governance in Guyana.
In the medium to long term, USAID was advised to reinstate a DRG programme that can make a more substantive contribution to strengthening Guyana’s democratic institutions and system.
Unlike the initial availability of assistance to political parties under the Leadership and Democracy Project (LEAD), the consulting firm said if the DRG programme is reintroduced to Guyana, no offer should be made to the parties because there is no appetite.
It does not recommend political party assistance in the near term as the parties are internally regrouping and intending to work out their own issues and are not open to assistance at this time,” states the 74-page document.
The assessment described the APNU+AFC coalition as “stable” and predicted that it would last until the 2020 although they need to maintain cohesion and manage tensions arising between the two parties.
In recent times, the AFC has been very forthright in calling or the Minister of State, Joseph Harmon to be relieved of some of his key responsibilities, stating categorically that it will not be supporting the parking meter project and highlighting its emphasis on integrity. Its Chairman, Attorney-at-Law, Nigel Hughes has been also very condemnatory of the manner in which Stabroek Market area vendors had been removed earlier this year. There have been also murmurs that Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo’s responsibilities have been largely titular and that Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan’s portfolio has been denuded since the start of the new government because immigration, citizenship and birth, death and marriage registrations have been handed to Minister in the Ministry of the Presidency, Winston Felix.
Noting that the coalition partners contested last year’s general elections on a reform platform that promised constitutional reforms and the holding of long-delayed local elections, the USAID document says the now more than one-year old government has been saying the right things about reforms including asking donors for DRG support that had been resisted by the former People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC) government but it is still too early to tell if this reform resolve will last.
With the main challenge to DRG in Guyana being the legacy of political parties organised along ethnic lines, single party dominance and its centralized patron-clientelist system that contributed to weak, unaccountable, unresponsive, and ineffective government institutions, USAID has been told that a new DRG engagement with Guyana should focus on a range of priorities. They include constitutional reform through support for the current reform process and the implementation of previous constitutional reforms. “These can help balance the power of the executive, address the winner-takes-all nature of the political and electoral systems, and devolve power to local government,” states the assessment report. Near-term priorities are reform content and consultations, constitutional referendum (if held), and constitutional commission appointments.
Mid- to long-term priorities for a USAID-backed DRG programme, the experts say, are the implementation of the new constitutional reforms and strengthening the Human Rights and Integrity Commissions that provide oversight and citizen protection.
In the area of strengthened checks and balances, USAID may assist in strengthening key institutions and increasing access to information and evidence-based decision making. This can help increase accountability; balance the dominance of the executive; address issues of cronyism, impunity, and corruption; and ensure the rule of law is applicable to all. Near-term priorities are assessments in the key areas of rule of law, electoral system, and economic governance and consideration for a small flexible fund to support quick-impact, low-cost changes within key institutions. Mid- to long-term priorities include parliamentary oversight and outreach.
The assessment report also points to the need strengthening of local governance through support for the devolution process; capacity building for local institutions; and increasing citizen engagement to ensure local government has the authority, resources, and capacity required to be responsive to its communities, serve their needs, and counter the top-down, overly centralized nature of government.
The DRG assessment states that the near-term priorities are the Local Government Commission, newly elected local officials, and constituency engagement. Mid- to long term priorities include supporting the training curricula for local officials, constituency engagement, and information on and monitoring of the 2019 local elections.
The consultancy firm informed USAID that it found that the election of a multi-ethnic, multi-party coalition brought a fresh opportunity to Guyana to make these substantive democratic reforms that could transform its political system and make it more effective, accountable, and inclusive.
Tetra Tech ARD was highly critical of Guyana’s Proportional system of Representation, in which presidential candidates lead closed party lists made up of party loyalists combined with recall legislation to discourage dissent by members of Parliament (MPs). The lack of effective accountability mechanisms thus leaves a winner-takes-all system that marginalizes the losers, encourages disloyal opposition, and renders the party in power virtually unchecked until the next election.
Also pointed out to USAID was the ineffective functioning of the National Assembly as an oversight mechanism because parliamentarians are not allowed to deviate from their parties’ positions. The National Assembly itself does not play an effective oversight role. Since MPs are answerable to their parties and not to voters, given the use of party lists for elections, MPs toe the party line. Ministers of” Government are also required to be MPs, further reducing the separation of powers and undermining checks and balances. Thus, the Assembly is often referred to as a rubber stamp.
The assessment report remarks that the current checks and balances system is not functional, with only the courts providing some measure of redress. Court cases, however, can take years to be heard or reach finality and the legal system has not been untouched by allegations of corruption.”
Constitutional reforms in 2001 provided for a series of constitutional bodies to be created to ensure integrity in public service and equality for all Guyanese but, according to the assessment, most of these commissions are not functioning as the National Assembly has disagreed on nominees andother aspects of the work of the Commissions.
The experts reasoned that unyielding executive dominance of the political system might be eroding in the post May 2015 period given the slim victory margin of the APNU + AFC coalition over the PPP/C.
Stating that the coalition is undoubtedly aware of the need to preserve or improve this slender lead by demonstrating the improved performance of, and the perception of responsiveness by, the government ahead of the next election, the assessment observed that strategically, the executive has been pursuing the interests it stated in its electoral platform: unity, reform, inclusion, and good governance.
According to the Assessment Report, the Executive appears to have scored low marks in gaining the confidence of all ethnic groupings at the same time; pursuing politically meaningful reforms, including electoral system, political party, and campaign financing reforms; achieving political unity on crucial policy issues, such as how to save the sugar industry; restraining the abuse of state resources for partisan ends; managing corruption; Containing the size of government, and constrain the habit of inserting party loyalists within made-up positions or by bypassing due processes. “Already, the new executive has done enough to suggest that it lacks the political acumen needed to address the above-listed struggles. The most dramatic illustration of this deficit has been the decision to raise the salaries of ministers and MPs, a decision that evoked the widest of condemnations—most vocally from APNU + AFC supporters,” states the document.
The report cites observers as arguing that the new executive is significantly influenced in its modes of functioning by the military background of the president, his advisors, and supporters. From a management perspective, this might be a good thing: heightened efficiency could improve responsiveness and service delivery. At a minimum, observers opine that, given its security sector credentials, the new government should do better in the fight against crime.”
Positively, and across most stakeholders, the current executive was complimented for “talking the talk.” “When it comes to democracy, human rights, and governance, the executive has been credentialing itself as champion, intent on reforming government and upgrading governmental performance. To this end, the executive has invited partnerships—including with USAID—to give effect to the reform agenda.
It was considered still too early to assess whether the executive is actually “walking the walk.” Events occurring during the writing of this report suggest that the executive has been sufficiently reminded of its political vulnerability. They include the decision to table in the National Assembly the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Guyana Sugar Corporation, along with the postponement of police promotions, may indicate a preferential option for more democratic governance. Alongside the drafting of a ministerial Code of Conduct, which has been opened for public comment and input, there is cautious optimism that a deepening of democratic values within the executive is occurring
Worrying signs observed by the assessment team, they said were perhaps not due to a lack ofwillingness, but to inexperience in governing, incluce parliamentarians giving themselves a 50 percent pay raise while giving the public service five percent, which created anger among their supporters and a feeling of “business as usual; slow pace of action for some important functions such as getting the human rights and other constitutional commissions up and running; fast tracking of legislation that bypasses parliamentary standing orders and gives the opposition the opportunity to charge foul and boycott the sessions; tensions within the coalition that are becoming more evident with the more moderate AFC members feeling sidelined by the former PNC members; and continuing opposition from the PPP/C, which refused the offer to form a government of national unity, which controls seven of the 10 RDCs.
Positive indicators are that Guyana is also important for its biodiversity and forests, which will be perceived as important global assets that must be protected, other donors will provide some DRG assistance to Guyana to support the reform process—especially if the United States provides the lead, as the United States is still considered among the most influential donors in Guyana, and USAID is able to gain additional resources to support the DRG sector in Guyana and the APNU + AFC reform agenda.
USAID’s efforts in Guyana are managed by its Eastern and Southern Caribbean regional office in
Barbados since 2012.
At least US$700,000-project have been set aside under the global Elections and Political Processes (EPP) Fund to support voter education for the already held 2016 local elections and social cohesion efforts with parties, newly elected leaders, and their constituents. USAID also has a US$7 million, five year Skills and Knowledge for Youth Employment (SKYE) Project funded through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), which will end this year.
Other Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI)-funded activities are implemented and/or planned by the State Department with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) for police training, counter-narcotics, and the courts.