THIS past week, the National Assembly approved funds for the proper setting up of the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA). It has been a long and slow process. In the meantime, Guyanese have become very literate about government corruption. More than most Caribbean countries, in Guyana corruption has become a major political issue. The very parties which are now in office educated the public about the linkage of corruption to their impoverished condition, to ethnic dominance and to the criminalisation of the State.
The government has no choice, but to follow through on its promise to correct that wrongs committed under the previous administration—its success or failure will be judged largely on that issue. In this regard, while the criticisms of the SARA bill were good—public debate of important matters are necessary for a democratic culture and practice—the critics should also take into consideration the fact that it is a very popular initiative among the section of the population that was most hurt by the misappropriation of State assets. The political and sociological aspects of asset recovery and anti-corruption are equally important as the legal and economic aspects.
I am against setting up an authoritarian state structure, but the business of stamping out corruption and recovering stolen assets require an empowered agency. If some investors will stay away from Guyana because of SARA, then they must be suspect in the first place. If I must make a choice between stamping out corruption and chasing away a few investments, I will choose the former. That is why I am squarely behind the SARA initiative, despite some of the concerns. In the end, the country benefits.
My colleague, Dr. Clive Thomas, has become the butt of the criticisms of SARA because he has undertaken something that may hurt some of the economic and political elites, but would help the working classes of Guyana. The criticism that Thomas has abandoned the working class is pure partisan rhetoric. Asset recovery is potentially good for improving the condition of the working class. Asset recovery would increase the government’s revenue base and could mean more resources for education, health care, better infrastructure and improved wages. The latter is crucial to decreasing corruption at the lower levels.
Treating with the diaspora
I presented a paper at the recent University of Guyana (UG) Diaspora Conference where I sought to both critique our current approach to diaspora engagement and suggest some ways in which we can begin to think differently about the subject. I think there is need for a new approach to the diaspora that conceptualises our overseas brothers and sisters as an integral part of the Guyanese nation. We must change the narrative of “us” and “them” on both sides. There is a critical mass of Guyanese who live partly abroad and partly at home and others who make several short trips per year. If we begin to employ the narrative of “us” more, then we are likely to have a new thinking and new policies that reflect that mindset.
It is foolish to have more than half of your people living abroad and ignore their skills and other resources, just because they do not live at home permanently. Small countries such as ours, with their limited access to the skills and resources needed to compete in an uneven world as far as development is concerned, must draw on all their energies whether they physically reside in Guyana or abroad. With the coming of the oil economy, we would be challenged to find skills and resources to serve our needs and interests. Although it would be ideal if persons return permanently, one does not have to live in Guyana permanently to contribute in a meaningful way.
Of course, those who live abroad need to resist the temptation to behave as if they are “better” than those who live here. They should not demand nor should they be afforded more privileges that those citizens who live here. But having said that, they would be more inclined to return or to invest resources if there are incentives at the level of policy.
In that regard, I wish to make two suggestions for consideration. First, I propose that each government ministry should have a “diaspora section.” I know the Foreign Affairs Ministry already has such a section, but it should be expanded to other Ministries. There is a popular view that there should be a Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. But I think that is too narrow.
My second suggestion is much more controversial, given its association with a bad period in our history. I do believe that the time has come for a reconsideration of overseas voting. Over 90 countries allow overseas voting in one form or the other. Given the increased migration globally, this makes sense. I think the problem for us in Guyana was not the concept of overseas voting, but that it was used as part of the rigging machinery of that time. So, in an era of fair elections, the meaning changes. I would propose that if we go that direction, as I think we should, it would bring overseas Guyanese more emotionally attached to Guyana.
Voting is perhaps the most significant aspect of citizenship. Guyanese who live abroad can now come home to register and vote. So, if we go the route of overseas voting, we would be merely allowing them to vote where they are located. Perhaps we can begin with some form of weighted voting, whereby for example, two are three overseas votes are equivalent to one local vote. In that way, you control for the perception and reality that those who do not live here all the time should not have equal rights and privileges.
I know that the immediate response to this subject would be partisan—whether it would benefit one party or the other. That, of course, is not my motivation. I am guided by a desire to bring our sisters and brothers residing outside of Guyana into the national mix in a substantive way. This matter, however, would have to be subject to wide-ranging discussions both in and out of Guyana and may even have to be subject to a referendum.
Checking executive power
Guyana has a very strong executive branch. In fact, one can reasonably argue that there is a form of executive supremacy. But I do not believe that there has been a pattern of abuse of power by this executive. There have been instances of over-reach and bad policy, but these, to my mind have not amounted to abuse of power. In terms of checks on executive power, despite institutional and political obstacles, there has been some degree of checks on executive power.
In an institutional sense, executive power can only be checked by the oversight of the other two branches of government—the legislative and judicial branches. In our present circumstances, where the governing coalition controls both the legislative and executive branches, it is difficult to have any effective oversight of the executive by the legislature. To be fair, there is some room for oversight in the sectoral committees by the opposition, and the PPP has been doing a very good job at that level. But ultimately when things get to the floor, the ruling coalition uses its majority to get its way.
There are two impediments to more effective oversight by the legislature. First, there is not enough separation of powers. We need to move away from the system whereby the entire cabinet sits in parliament, even when a cabinet member is not an elected member. This is a very counter-productive and obsolete arrangement. We are basically asking the executive branch to oversee itself.
The second impediment has to do with a political culture that is grounded in party loyalty or voting along party lines. It means that MPs do not vote their consciences or on the perceived feelings of their constituencies. So, there is hardly likely that a MP of the ruling coalition or for that matter of the PPP would vote against his or her party in parliament. From the ruling coalition’s standpoint, the fact that it has only has a one-seat majority makes it even more impossible for such a scenario.
We, have however, seen instances where the judicial branch has pushed backed against the executive—the most recent instance being the chief justice’s ruling on the GECOM impasse. This is good for democracy since the courts are the final arbiter of the law. When one takes into consideration that we have had political interference in the judiciary, it is remarkable that the court is still prepared to act independently.
The other area of oversight that is very encouraging is that of Civil Society. We have always had a very vocal, if not vigilant, Civil Society in Guyana. The problem has been the partisan bent of our Civil Society organisations, whereby some organisations tend to be more vocal when one or the other party is in power. But I think they have generally done a good job at oversight of this government, even if I think better can be done.
The recent development where the WPA, a member part of the coalition, has begun to be critical of government action is good for oversight of the executive. We are not a culture that welcomes internal criticism, but I think that the government can ill-afford to ignore oversight from within.
The coming on stream of integrity legislation and anti-corruption initiatives would also go a long way towards checking executive power. But ultimately, constitutional reform is the most effective way of reducing the powers of the executive which is itself a formal check on the enormous power of the executive.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to email@example.com