It was interesting to see almost the entire Cabinet turn out on February 17 at a ceremony at the Georgetown Club to mark the end of the Guyana Threshold Country Plan/ Implementation Project (GTCP/IP). The two-year project, financed by a US$6.7 million grant from the (US) Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), was launched on January 14, 2008, reportedly with the specific aim of supporting government’s efforts to overcome the country’s serious fiscal challenges while also streamlining the business registration process.
With the project closure coming soon after the 2010 Budget projecting a record deficit for 2010, it had to be diplomacy rather than reality for Director of Threshold Programmes, Mr Malik Chaka, to report to the assembled dignitaries on the successful implementation of the project, an assessment echoed by President Jagdeo and Dr Ashni Singh, Minister of Finance. Even if the 2010 Budget was overlooked, the assessment was not borne out by the results of other elements of the project. Indeed, the ultimate test is that Guyana did not qualify for further assistance under the programme, a sign of failure, not success.
From conception to conclusion, Guyana’s performance on the project was sub-par. Identified by the MCC on November 8, 2005 as eligible to receive Threshold Programme funding, Guyana had to secure assistance from the MCC to enable it to make its proposal. That was accepted by the MCC on June 27, 2007.
E-mail and telephone consultancy
During the course of the project, US consultants MetaMetrics Inc provided “performance-based management systems technical assistance… through email and telephone communications.” According to this firm’s website, the Government of Guyana requested the support of the MCC to provide technical, institutional and operational support in:
(i) the preparation and implementation of a value-added tax (VAT) while at the same time strengthening the institutions involved in tax administration and tax policies;
(ii) the transformation of Customs administration;
(iii) transformation of the institutions that provide fiduciary oversight on the utilization of public resources; and
(iv) completion of government procurement reforms.
According to the Final Draft Report (FDR) dated June 26, 2006, the project was a continuation of the government’s “comprehensive fiscal reforms” in the area of reducing the fiscal deficit and improving transparency, accountability and fiduciary oversight. According to the FDR, these reforms, which have received financial support from the World Bank, IMF, IDB and the CARTAC, are expected not only to alter the fundamental structure of revenues and expenditures but more importantly, to strengthen the institutions involved in tax administration and oversight, leading eventually to a progressive reduction in the fiscal deficit.
Nathan Associates Inc, another US consulting firm was appointed Implementing Partner for the project. The ‘local’ face of the project was Dr Coby Frimpong, supported by a small number of Guyanese employees. The government would, of course, be aware of how the US$6.7 million was spent, and in the spirit of transparency and accountability, should disclose how much was paid to MetaMetrics, Nathan, and Dr Frimpong who for many years was the country’s highest paid consultant, until that prize went to another foreign, non-resident consultant. It would be interesting to know too, whether the value of the grant has been incorporated in the national accounts, as required by the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act.
MetaMetrics noted that the Guyana Threshold Country Plan Implementation Project would be conducted through the following six tasks:
1) Strengthening tax administration
2) VAT implementation
3) Creating tax policy and forecasting analysis capability
4) Improving expenditure planning, management, and controls
5) Empowering and creating capacity within two principal parliamentary fiduciary oversight committees
6) Business registration and incorporation
It is submitted that it is against these objectives that the success – or failure – of the project should me measured. Let us look at these, though not necessarily sequentially. Item 2 of course came one year after VAT had been introduced, and it would be disingenuous for the project managers to claim any success from VAT’s implementation. Mr Chaka’s praise of the collection of “more taxes and customs revenue” was not only ill-informed but is also not the kind of comment one expects.
Did he know, for example, the government’s commitment to make VAT and excise tax revenue neutral, when in fact it turned out that collections were 48% over budget, because of an error in the rate? Had any work been done by the consultants, they would have realised that the government, even after discovering its error, never publicly admitted or corrected it, or honoured its revenue-neutral commitment.
An informed analysis of the tax collections should extend beyond crude numbers to the composition of the direct and indirect taxes garnered by the GRA. The analysis should examine the composition of the taxes collected by revenue type, sectors, regions, and classes of taxpayers. Did any of the consultants realise that using loopholes and tax shelters one major entity subject to a nominal rate of tax of 45% pays only 14% of profits in taxes? And that many others in a similar situation are not that different? Or that a person receiving a $10 million dividend from any such company pays no income tax, while an employee of the company earning $100,000 per month is required to pay income tax of $260,000 per year? Or that any pension, without limit, is tax free? Perhaps the consultants should have explained their concept of tax equity, to allow a fairer assessment of their own measure.
The missing GRA’s Annual Reports
It will take a dedicated column to examine the tax take and how the self-employed continue to evade taxes on a massive scale. The consultants should have asked the Minister of Finance why he has not brought in regulations to give teeth to the section of the Income Tax Act which empowers the Revenue to apply a presumptive method of determining the income of certain self-employed individuals. Suffice it to say that all the self-employed taxpayers of the country pay a mere 2% of the total income and corporation taxes collected by the GRA. This modest increase by this large group is partly because, as this column has consistently pointed out, a number of previously incorporated trading companies have de-registered, immediately and automatically reducing their tax rate from 45% to 33⅓% and excluding them from the minimum corporation tax of 2% of turnover. If proof be needed, the numbers show that corporation tax as a percentage of tax revenues has declined from 23% to 20% from 2006 to present. Yet, the self-employed percentage has remained fairly flat.
But tax administration would also require better governance, accountability and transparency in the Revenue Authority. I have recommended on numerous occasions that the annual report of the GRA provide useful statistical data on revenue collections to enable informed statistical analysis. Instead, in blatant violation of section 28 of the Revenue Authority Act, the Minister consistently fails to lay the annual report in the National Assembly. This is the same Minister who in his 2010 budget speech railed against persons not providing information to his Bureau of Statistics, describing non-compliance as “unacceptable and unlawful,” and threatening steps to enforce the law.
The missing tax policy
In relation to task 3 above, there has been no progress and therefore, not surprisingly, no report. The consultants were of course at a disadvantage. If the government and the Minister are not serious about tax policy, no consultants could make them become so. It takes a special government to care about tax sources or their impact.
Others care only about quantum and this government has been almost unique in that it has never been hard-pressed for revenue to finance its policies – some good and others less so. Debt-write off, on the back of poor country status, helped the government increase expenditure on the social sector, such as health and education. And just when the write-offs started to dry up, there came the annual windfall from the VAT and Excise Tax. VAT and Excise Tax in 2010 will double the collections in 2006 of the taxes they replaced, even as the economy grew by an average of 3% over the five year period.
Bureau of Statistics workshop
The consultants also probably did not notice, but according to the 2010 budget speech, the country is not nearly as poor as the government was representing it to be. With the Finance Minister now saying that the economy is actually 69% better off than would have been previously calculated, each Guyanese is now much, much better off than we had been told, if not felt. No one has bothered to say how rebasing could actually increase the value of goods and services produced in the country, but the public would no doubt be looking forward to the workshop which the Minister of Finance promised that the Bureau of Statistics would host “shortly” to provide technical details on the rebasing exercise.
Had the rebasing been done earlier, we may very well not have qualified for some of the assistance and concessions we have received from all and sundry.
But there is a more direct connection to tax revenues. The working person is paying income tax at 33⅓% taxes and VAT at an average of a minimum of 10% (to allow for zero-rating and exempt supplies), averaging about 40% and on top, another 5% to NIS which is a form of taxation. At the other extreme are companies, self-employed persons including the new army of government consultants and contract employees; those whose salaries are exempt and whose income comes from unearned income, such as dividends, interest and rents, bear considerably less than half the tax borne by the employed persons.
Since 1994, I have pointed out the inequities in our tax system. These were later identified in National Development Strategy 1 and 11. In fact this is what NDS 11 says, in part, about our tax system:
“Income taxes in Guyana appear to be inherently unfair, since persons in the informal economy, and almost the entire agricultural sector, indeed almost all in the self-employed category, do not pay them…”
If anything, despite all the studies, consultancies and promises, the situation has become worse.
To be continued