‘Suriname’s Budget Debate takes 3 months’

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After some 15 days of inconsequential discussions, Budget 2022 has just exited the National Assembly more-or-less exactly as it entered! In terms of the parliamentary treatment of budgets international best practices recommends that, ‘The government’s draft budget should be submitted to parliament far enough in advance to allow parliament to review it properly. In no case should this be less than three months prior to the start of the fiscal year.’ (https://www.oecd.org/governance/budgeting/Best%20Practices% 20Budget %20Transparency %20-%20complete%20with%20cover%20page.pdf.

The 1987 Constitution of Suriname sets out an approach that matches the above recommendations. In a nutshell, the budget debate/parliamentary process takes place between October and December for the budget to be enacted on 1st January. The National Assembly can amend, approve or reject the budget and after the it is read in October, i.e. Budget Day, the National Assembly begins the debate with a series of meetings open to the public. During this period, civil society groups are encouraged to engage with members of the relevant National Assembly standing committees. The contact information of MPs is posted on the internet and lobbyists are advised to use evidence-based approaches. The progress of the debate can be interrupted several times if the government fails to respond in a timely manner to requests made by the National Assembly.  A budget is approved by a majority vote of the National Assembly, ideally before the start of the new financial year on 1st January.

I am one of those who view the British Westminster type winner-takes-all governmental system as inappropriate for an ethnically divided society such as Guyana, and here again the British budget debate process subtly makes this point by demonstrating that the problem is not the system itself but the political culture and structure within which it is located. In the United Kingdom, the budget process takes almost a year: ‘Policies will be announced at the Budget in the autumn, and consulted on in winter and over the spring. Draft legislation will then be published in July for technical consultation ahead of the Finance Bill (the proposals announced in the Budget) being introduced in the autumn’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-new-budget-timetable-and-the-tax-policy-making-process/the-new-budget-timetable-and-the-tax-policy-making-process). 

In 2008, the United Kingdom was ranked at the top (on a scale of 0-100 on several internationally comparable indicators) of the international Open Budget Index of some 117 countries. But from 2012 to 2019 Zealand held first position and in the latter year the UK was ranked 19th.  Of the two Caribbean countries in the 2019 index, Jamaica was ranked at 63 and Trinidad and Tobago at 90, and on the specific issue of citizen participation, the UK got 61/100 in 2019 while the two Caricom countries could only muster 7/100 points each. ‘Well, as of 2019, our country is not doing very well … in fact, we rank 90th of 117 countries in the survey. The Open Budget Survey shows us at 30/100 for transparency, 39/100 for budget oversight, and a paltry 7/100 for public participation.’ (A Guide to the Trinidad and Tobago Budget for Civil Society Organisations; CSOs must play a larger role in public finance.)

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Generally, most of the countries in the Caribbean Community are largely homogeneous societies in which the electoral struggle is between homogeneous political parties seeking to win the allegiance of a substantially detached electorate. The struggle for political power is, therefore, between the political elites (not politically entrenched ethnic groups) attempting to develop and win the support of a significant united public opinion. For such countries the Westminster system has worked fairly well and the situation in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago indicates that neither the political elites nor significant sections of the population have yet come to view stakeholder participation in the budget process as critical.

But in Guyana, where there exists a life and death political struggle between two electorally dominant ethnic groups, the Westminster system breaks down because there does not exist the possibility of forming and winning the support of a united public opinion.  Like their Caricom counterparts, all regimes in Guyana tend to present budgets as equitably developmental in terms of ethnicity, gender etc. However, the primary conditions for this being demonstrably so is to facilitate the participation, in an open budget process, of those whose interests are being affected: allowing them to define their interests, ensure that they are properly contained in the national programmes and to monitor implementation. This is especially so because in Guyana a substantial element of the struggle for ethnic power is a struggle for equitable distribution of national resources.

In normal conditions what passes for a budget debate in Guyana is unacceptable and this becomes even more so when coupled to the existing ethnic problem. A focused and participatory approach based upon the Surinamese model would constitute a progressive way forward.



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