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By GHK Lall
The national budget for 2023 is now public. At GY$781.89 billion, it is a huge 41 percent plus increase over 2022. As written last year, and putout again last week in the media, my interest and priority were and remain what will be in it for ordinary Guyana. That is, those citizens grappling and losing on each occasion with soaring prices and cost of living, an impoverished state, the resulting standard of existence, and the dreadful hopelessness that accompanies such unforgiving circumstances.
There was provision in this year’s budget for the children and parents (“Because We Care Cash Grant”) to the tune of an additional $15,000 per child, and totaling $2.1 billion in monies freed up for disposable income. It is a positive development, which I laud. Then, the income tax threshold was raised by $10,000 to $85,000, which means that 12,000 Guyanese will not be paying any taxes, and that the rest of Guyanese taxpayers would benefit to some extent, via the $10,000 now not taxed. The total for this gesture is $3.3 billion. Once again, this is a good thing, though definitely on the skimpy side, and I hail the PPP Government for this little measure. Next, the 29,000 people on public assistance will get an additional $2,000 per month, while Guyana’s 73,000 Old Age Pensioners have been bumped up $5,000 per month. By my crude calculations, increased public assistance share of this year’s budget is $696 millions (29,000 X 2,000 X 12), and gross Old Age Pension amounts to $4.38 billion from the $5,000 monthly increase ($5,000 x 12 x 73,000). The grand total for public assistance and Old Age Pension is $5.076 billion. Also, the Hon Minister of Finance pointed out that 5,000 healthcare workers and almost 9,000 members of the Disciplined Forces will benefit from an additional $3 billion in disposable income, which is factored in the 2023 budget. Good!
I take a bow to budgetary provisions for cars, electric vehicles, and new home ownership, through the reduction in duty and VAT. These are helpful provisions, and again, I recognize and commend the PPP Government. Now I confess to needing some urgent assistance. As important and as welcoming as vehicle and home ownership developments are, and the differences they make, I am compelled to leave those out of my thinking, what I represent now.
Our most worrying issue is how some Guyanese, too many of them, are managing to get by from day to day. In a bruising, draining, price environment characterized by lesser and lesser purchasing power, the dollar stretching only so far, access and ability to buy basics, such as routine foodstuffs have come under intensifying siege, with those who can’t afford pummeled and losing ground on an ongoing basis. In one of the richest economies (per capita) in the world, in one of the most mouthwatering Gross Domestic Product (GDP) countries, a sizable percentage of our population simply cannot cope. This means they have to look the other way at the shops and markets, and do without. I assert that something is wrong with this harsh reality, that is not imaginary. In a country that is poised to withdraw $208.9 billion this year for budgetary subsidization from the Natural Resource Fund, this just cannot be the best that we (government, leaders, budgets) can do for our fellow citizens sliding farther and farther away from being able to partake of essentials of a dignified living. If this is the most that Guyana’s Oil Fund, and withdrawals of such sizable amounts from it, boils down to for Guyanese in the essences, then our oil wealth has come to mean the least for those who need its benefits the most.
For here we are with a national budget for 2023, and $13.476 billion, in aggregate, is what is reserved, or provided, for Guyanese as additional disposable income. This is so that they can combat spiraling prices, and a hard ‘guava’ season economic situation, with some fighting chance to overcome what plagues them. This is the extent, $13.476 billion in relief money, to battle with putting food on the table, dealing with transportation expenses, and other areas such as medicines, clothing, rent, and so forth. As I pinpoint $13.476 billion that directly touches the pocket in some manner, my reaction is that this can’t be all. It is too paltry, almost insulting, in a country like Guyana, given all these earthshattering economic developments, gaudy numbers, and oil money featuring richly in the mix. If I have left out, overlooked, any other segments from the budget that are set aside to have an immediate and direct impact on the pockets of poor, struggling Guyanese, I stand to be corrected, and I asked to be pardoned.
Here is the key, and it is a stark and revealing one, in all this cascade of budgetary numbers, and sifting through to identify what is in there for the little people. It is that that $13.476 billion to give Guyanese a much-needed financial hand, and some sense of relief, equals to the measly percentage of 1.7 percent of this budget that is 41 plus percent bigger. To repeat so that this registers clearly and powerfully: it is a tiny 1.7% of the budget into Guyanese hands, those languishing near the poverty line. Surely, this can’t be, is not happening, has to be a hallucination. Surely, in a Guyana with so much going for it, this in an oversight, and not a failure of will. Truth be told, it is an indication of the utterly heartless and callous nature of the PPP Government, evidence of where its priorities are, and how much the wellbeing of struggling Guyanese matter to it. Is this oil, do all these fantastic numbers, mean anything to Guyanese hurting and in need of a generous hand from government?