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One of the weaknesses of political discourse in contemporary Guyana is that each person or group tends to concentrate on their particular issue as if it is the sum total of the country’s reality. This compartmentalisation has worked against a holistic discourse which in turn inhibits an overarching vision. It occurs both at the level of those who seek to influence government and those who actually govern. It is not that I am against single-issue advocacy but what is lacking is the linkages between and among those issues—a relationship between the tree and the forest.
One would have to go way back to the early post-independence period to find broad-based political polemics on the central challenges facing the society–what was then referred to as the concourse of ideas. One is tempted to ask—“Where have all the flowers gone?” It seems as if the brighter we have gotten, the less incisive our analysis of our society has become. This is part of what I was driving at in my column last week when I drew attention to the delinking of economic theory and theorization from the plight of the poor and the powerless in society.
I have been following the discourses on the oil contracts and more recently the local content policy recommendations. The critiques are for the most part very sound. I myself have from time to time offered some limited critique of the contracts from the perspective of the vulnerability of small countries going into big negotiations in a high-stake global industry. Sadly, this perspective has been downplayed by the critics who seem eager to drive home the incompetence or corruptibility of those who signed the contracts.
But what I find lacking in the critiques is their isolation from the larger meaning of the imminent oil and gas economy for a small post-plantation society whose history has been mostly one of bondage. The overt and covert absence of that history from the discourses has led to an almost alien discussion among bright people. At the risk of angering some of my friends involved in that discussion, I am arguing that unless that discourse can be broadened and further contextualized, it would in the end mean very little to the ordinary people of Guyana.
Yes, the contracts are flawed—they gave away a lot to the foreign companies. They reek of poor decision-making by those representing the government and the people. So, what next? The world moves on and the oil will begin to pump next year. How do we link advocacy for better contracts to distribution of the coming oil revenues, however depleted? Is it that we are saying that there should discussion about the distribution of the coming wealth are useless because the contracts are flawed? In other words, I ask how do the bad contracts affect or inform the distribution of the resources beyond the fact that more would have been coming to Guyana if the contracts were better?
If you are poor, as most Guyanese are, it is the distribution that you are ultimately interested in. I am very sure that poor people hear the criticisms of the contracts and are grateful for the knowledge and oversight of government. But what about an equal oversight of the “little” that is coming? Aren’t we equally concerned about who gets what and how? I am asking if its not time to include in our critique a direct witnessing for the poor. The same questions apply to the advocates of Local Content. The more local content the better for Guyanese. But better for which group of Guyanese—the poor? How are poor Guyanese going to benefit directly and semi-directly from the Local Content policy proposal by both government and business advocates?
The critics of the oil contracts and the Local Content Policy have avoided getting into a discussion about the poor. Yet the logic of the post-plantation society has to be ultimately about improving the condition of the poor—about closing the gap between those who have plenty and those who have little or nothing.
I stand with the poor. The rich can defend themselves. Governments more often than not cater to them. Parties pay lip service to the poor, but they don’t turn that rhetoric into policy. That’s why the poor has remained powerless to change their condition. For me, development is a multifaceted undertaking , but its central focus must always be the poor and powerless. Progress in a post-plantation society must ultimately be measured by the extent of the movement of the poor from poverty and dependency to sustained prosperity. In other words, how has the country treated with the social inequalities that are so blatant in the society? The Oil and Gas economy must work for the poor if it will make a big difference for Guyana.
The poor want quality education opportunities and outcomes. That must mean education apartheid must go. That must mean the advantages for the rich in the education process must go. That must mean more Bishops and Queens College across the country. That must mean better school buildings with classrooms , better trained teachers with better pay, better nutrition for the children, more incentives to go to school and more incentives for parents to participate in the education of their children. The poor want better health care, but they also want better nutrition. They want better roads in their communities, but they also want all-weather roads to bring their crops from the farmlands.
But above all, the poor want direct access to more money in their hands. That means they want jobs that pay a livable wage. That means they want to own their own small and medium size businesses that can guarantee a livable income. They don’t want government handouts; they want government policies that put money in their hands.