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The question of social inequality is one of the most pressing and enduring global issues in the contemporary field of political economy, and national and local governments are busy trying to inquire into, design, implement and monitor appropriate disaggregated strategies to produce a more equitable world. The PPP has been in power for 25 of the last 30 years and for all of this time has been accused of being a racist government and has persistently argued, in generalized terms, that it is not. Just as it is false to treat the PPP and PNC as if they have been historically consistent ideological/political entities, it is a mistake to equate the kind of usual opportunistic attempt to play the ethnic card that has existed in both of the major political parties with my thesis of ethnic dominance that argues that the PPP has attempted and continues to try to keep African Guyanese and their institutions comparatively poor to force a sufficient number of them into its orbit (Jeffrey, Henry (2015) Political and Ethnic dominance in Guyana.Gateway, London).
Recently this kind of awareness has become more widespread and criticisms of the PPP’s efforts to dominate the political space by whatever means have become more visible and led to forums such as the Cuffy 250 conference ‘Resisting the emerging apartheid state: economic equity and security’ and the recent New York Town Hall meeting on racism in Guyana organised by the Caribbean Guyana Institute of Democracy (CGID). One would have thought that a democratic political party set upon fulfilling the aspirational ‘oneness’ expressed in the national motto would have gone a step further and clearly document its position and record on racism in a manner that could be could defended at any forum and perhaps distribute and publish this worldwide. However, instead of logically countering these expressions, the PPP embarked upon the tactic of the guilty: heavy-handed bullying and personalisations and wanton threats, as in the huge reduction in government grant to the International Decade for People of African Descent after a few executive members participated in the Cuffy 250 conference and to people like Rickford Burke of the CGID.
The absence of defendable documentation has the PPP’s spokespeople reciting the trite one-sided nonsense about rigged elections and race-baiting. Tacuma Ogunseye made a useful intervention (SN: 03/11/2022) when in response to Prime Minister Mark Philips’s position that the opposition is engaged in race-baiting he suggested that the entire political apparatus in Guyana is usually based upon various forms of ethnic balances of which the prime ministership is a good, even if ineffective, example. As stated above, in the context of Guyana both of the major parties consciously appeal to race and given the competitive nature of the political system, all the preaching and moralizing in the world has not over the last six decades prevented them from doing so and will not in the future. In normal circumstances, efforts are usually made to mitigate the negative effects of these kinds of expressions of racism by way of appropriate structures and processes.
What differentiates the Cheddi Jagan era from the present day was Cheddi’s deep belief in the possibilities of developing a nation by way of collaboration and compromise, transparency and openness. For example, given the persistent quarrels between the government and the unions about the regime’s capacity to pay greater pay increases, against significant resistance in February 1997, a month before he died, Cheddi showed a commitment to openness in government financing, which, if it had been universalised would have transformed the way we view government. Against much internal opposition, he established a stakeholder committee to check the government books and consider whether it had the capacity to improve the wages and salaries of public servants and the ways and means of doing so.
I have been a government minister in the PPP and have been confronted both internally and repeatedly externally by African-American US senators and congressmen about discrimination in the distribution of house lots between 1993 and 1997. My approach was always to be transparent and apart from publishing in the press the names and addresses of those who received lots, I followed Cheddi Jagan’s mantra ‘give them the books’, which required that most sorts of public records can be made available to stakeholders. Today there is a freedom of information legislation and a commissioner whose remit appears to be to not give information!
This Jagan doctrine, which is essential for modern democratic politics, is a contradiction to those who are set upon ethnic/political dominance. Unlike me, the prime minister believes that over the years the policies of the PPP have equitably benefitted all Guyanese. A word of caution here: the PM spoke of ‘all Guyanese’ as if he believes that state policies and budgets are racially blind even when their disproportionate impact is unintended. How a country’s budget and other handouts are distributed has the potential to help or hinder ethnic development, create or limit economic opportunities, etc. I suggest to him that he will be able to make a more creditable case if, given his institutional location, he is officially given the task of inclusively designing and completing something akin to an ethnic disparity audit.
The kind of documentation I have in mind will, among other things, identify and collate disaggregated ethnic data across the country. It will look into racial disparities and highlight the differences in outcomes for people of different backgrounds so that one can properly understand the problems and solutions. The study will identify any gaps or inconsistencies and recommend remedies in areas having to do with work, pay, culture, skills and training, crime, justice, law, the accumulation of assets and wealth, etc. This is nothing new: I pointed out a few week ago that to help to contain ethnic conflict in Kosovo, since 2008 the West insisted that inclusive legal arrangements empower the government to establish targets and special measures for combating exclusion and marginalization in the economic, social and cultural life of the country and that annually a comprehensive report on the implementation of this strategy is made to the national assembly.
I am sure the PM believes what he preaches but if possible, it is always better to be certain. The government has the resources to do the kind of work suggested here and the PM undoubtedly has the location and political will, but I suspect that it will take a lot more than that!