Ashni Singh criticizes Transparency International methodology

December 9 was an important day for Guyana. For the first time since 2003 when the United Nations designated the day as International Anti-Corruption Day to raise awareness about corruption as an international and domestic agenda issue, the day was marked with a public activity – a seminar – in which the Government of Guyana took part. While President Ramotar could not be present his administration was represented by re-appointed Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh who made a full-length presentation on behalf of the government, and Ms Gail Teixeira.

The event was sponsored and hosted by Transparency Institute Guyana Inc and its directors succeeded in having Ms Zoe Reiter, a senior programme officer of Transparency International come especially for the occasion to make a presentation. Ms Reiter used the occasion to launch formally the Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perception Index (CPI). She did not bring good news.

Guyana falls
The CPI ranks countries according to their perceived levels of public-sector corruption using a simple form of indexing to arrive at a score ranging between 0, perceived to be the most corrupt, and 10, perceived to be the least corrupt. The 2011 index draws on different assessments and business opinion surveys that are carried out by independent, reputable institutions. The surveys and assessments that are used to compile the index include questions which relate to the bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and questions that probe the strength and effectiveness of public sector anti-corruption efforts.

Guyana was first included in the CPI in 2005 and in 2010 was ranked at number 116. It plummeted to 134 this year. By comparison our Caribbean neighbours were ranked as follows:

Three of the Caribbean countries are included for the first time: the Bahamas, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname.

Not wealth nor size but systems
Wealth seems no easy antidote to corruption; some relatively rich countries, including Russia, fall at the bottom of the global league table. Meanwhile, some of the world’s poorer states do comparatively well: Botswana, Bhutan, Cape Verde, and Rwanda all appear among the 50 “cleanest” countries.

Nor is size a major issue either. Many of the smaller island states are in the top half of the corruption ladder while many larger countries are in the bottom half. What seems clear is that those countries with strong systems, independent institutions, modern laws and effective enforcement are likely to be at the head of the line.

New Zealand, a country that has shown a willingness to help Guyana develop systems for better parliamentary governance, occupies the top spot with a score of 9.5 followed by Finland and Denmark. The countries that occupy the bottom ranks in the index are Somalia, North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan, which are helmed by unstable governments and conflicts.

Jagdeo’s basket
In terms of corruption, the final year of the Jagdeo administration was not a good one for Guyana or for the PPP/C government. It was dominated by scandals surrounding persons high up in the administration being associated with deals involving state lands, containers, and shady characters. We saw too, the continued inability of the government to bring into operation the Public Procurement Commission, a failure that allows Cabinet to have the final word in contract awards. And it was too the year in which the excesses of the Former Presidents (Other Benefits and Facilities) Act were put under a harsh spotlight and the misuse of state resources for partisan purposes assumed new heights.

It is difficult to tell whether those revelations had any impact on Guyana’s decline but the news confronted Mr Jagdeo’s successor President Donald Ramotar, with both an obligation and an opportunity to establish the first marker on his administration’s attitude to corruption. As stated above, Mr Ramotar delegated that role to his Finance Minister and the abrasive Ms Teixeira. If it was intended to be a clear signal for change, Dr Singh failed both in substance and in style, alienating many if not the entire audience. It is unlikely that if Dr Singh appreciated the significance of November 28, 2011 or the concerns sweeping the world about corruption, from India to the EU countries, Brazil and Russia, that he would have been so hubristic in his reaction to responses and questions from the floor.

Missing the message
Dr Singh might have missed too that Transparency International (TI) chair Huguette Labelle recently pointed out that, “This year we have seen corruption on protestors‘ banners be they rich or poor. Whether in a Europe hit by debt crisis or an Arab world starting a new political era, leaders must heed the demands for better government.”

One wonders how someone as bright as Dr Singh could fail to understand that to continue doing exactly as he did under the Jagdeo administration was neither an option nor wise.

In what was programmed for a 15 minute presentation, Dr Ashni Singh spent no less than forty minutes in a criticism of the methodology used by Transparency International in constructing the CPI and in telling the overseas guest and the diplomatic community about the unrecognized and unacknowledged efforts by the PPP/C administration to deal with corruption. It was all about the significant changes to the constitution during the Jagdeo presidency, the many select committees of the National Assembly, the best Procurement Act in the world and the tremendous strides made in the Audit Office.

Dr Singh seems to have ignored the logic that if the methodology is weak for one it is no different for the others, and that whatever he may think of the CPI it is closely watched by investors, economists, and civil society campaigners and the international financial institutions. He might have noted too the direct comments from the head of the European Union that the EU as a major donor to Guyana is paying close attention to how concerns about corruption are addressed.

The future, not the past
From the floor I pointed out to the Minister that three months ago Ms Gail Teixeira had regaled a TIGI launch ceremony with the same information but only in a slightly more abrasive manner. For the majority in the audience, those acheivements were about the past while their interest was in the future. In other words, the current interest is whether the Ramotar administration would treat with corruption any differently. For Dr Singh – and I guess he intends for all of us – the future would be a continuation of the work-in-progress.

Perhaps Dr Singh’s most ironic and astounding claim was the enhancements in the Audit Office and the number of staff they now have. It was a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width.” I could not publicly and in that forum remind the Minister of the lack of appropriate qualification of the holder of the top post in that office, the unprecedented lack of independence of the holder of the second most top post and the fact that both were acting in their positions!

Maybe he should speak with Greg Christie, Contractor General of Jamaica which scored 3.3 out of 10. Mr Christie called on Jamaicans to demand major changes or face stagnation and in language that resonated in the southern-most Caricom state, Mr Christie said, “It should now be abundantly clear to all Jamaicans that unless they demand monumental changes in the country’s existing moral, ethical and legal anti-corruption codes, and in its approach to the co-joint issues of transparency, accountability and good governance in the administration of the affairs of the Jamaican state, 10 years from now we will still be at the same place, talking about the same things.”

So what can we do? Here are some obvious steps:

1. re-constitute the Integrity Commission;

2. constitute the Public Procurement Commission;

3. revamp the Audit Office, replace the head and deputy head, remove the Office from the financial controls of the Minister of Finance and modify the processes and procedures by which it conducts its audits;

4. strengthen the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly, widen its mandate and ensure that it is properly resourced and has access to independent professionals;

5. repeal and replace the Access to Information Act with one that brings in sunlight and that provides for protection for whistleblowers;

6. introduce anti-corruption legislation;

7. replace the expired Commissioner of Police and set up a strong anti-corruption unit in the Guyana Police Force;

8. punish in the court without fear or favour showing no mercy, those who feel it is their right to steal from society.

Clico and the related crisis: Confusion continues

It has been an incredibly hot week in Guyana. In fact so hot that the President who was directly or indirectly involved with every single financial decision made in the public sector for the past sixteen years decided it was just too hot and took off for a change of climate engagement. He asked his Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh who has carried statutory responsibility for the operation of the Insurance Act and therefore supervision of Clico for more than two years as well as of the National Insurance Scheme, the biggest single potential loser in the Clico debacle, to make a statement to the National Assembly.

Clearly stung by the revelations of what may prove to be a major loss to the country there has been heightened activity by the government. Even as lower-level letter writers were at work, the government called into their corner big guns like Messrs Yesu Persaud and Clifford Reis for a panel discussion with the Minister of Finance. We heard again from the Bank of Guyana not on whether it has continued to track and assess “every bit of information being provided on the issue as it develops” but to “dispel the misrepresentations” by persons whom the Bank did not name. We heard as well from Ms Maria Van Beek, the Commissioner of Insurance/Judicial Manager of Clico, witnessed a press conference by the directors and management of Hand-in-Hand Trust, TV interviews with economist Ramon Gaskin and TUC President Gillian Burton and disturbing but not surprising fears expressed by insurance broker Mr Bishwa Panday and leaders of the teachers’ union. By the end of the week it was clear that there was little confidence in everything said by the government and the regulator in relation to Clico. Having done next to little so far, the Minister of Finance rather than the Judicial Manager is impressively rushing papers to The Bahamas to prove our debt. We all hope it is not too late.

Red herring
The Bank of Guyana and the big guns were called out mainly to speak about the strength of the banking system, as if that was the issue. There are currently many questions about the banking system but not about its strength. Yes, different persons in varying degrees and sometimes with varying justification question many things, such as the role of the non-bank cambios in the underground economy, the absence of any meaningful interest or effective efforts to stamp out money laundering, the interest rate policies and the conservative approach inherent in banking, and the increasingly troubling failure of the Bank of Guyana and the government to bring the New Building Society under the Financial Institutions Act. But the strength of the banking system has not been an issue to academics or depositors who place increasing sums with the sector, which must surely be a big test. Raising it was a pure red herring.

Experience has taught that the public is more sensible than it is given credit for. It knows that failures do not arise only in weak systems, with Globe Trust being a good case in point. It knows how toxic assets can contaminate good ones akin to Gresham’s law and money. It is concerned that the NBS has just invested some $1.5 B in the Berbice Bridge, hardly on the grounds of an investment but more as a bail-out using poor people’s money. It would still be sceptical about the optimism of the Board of HIHT to withstand a near billion dollar loss in Stanford and wonder whether the Bank of Guyana was too soft in allowing such a concentration of assets. None of these issues was raised by the moderator of the panel or by the Bank of Guyana. It is wrong to believe that because the public does not have access and opportunities it is voiceless or does not understand.

Much of what was said by our men of learning had little impact. What really had the country and the Minister of Finance going was a statement by the Prime Minister of The Bahamas that “there appears to be no record available at this time” of Clico (Guyana)’s investment in Clico (Bahamas). That is contrary to everything accepted by all including the company’s auditors Deloitte and Touche and the Commissioner of Insurance. In fact the Minister of Finance confidently told the press that there was “a plethora of correspondence, including wire transfers of substantial amounts, dating as far back as 2004” supporting the investment.

I have looked at the 2006 and 2007 financial statements of Clico (Bahamas) and these seem to support the qualified statement by the PM. In the books of the Bahamian company, note 12 (2007) and note 10 (2006) show the following (in Bahamian dollars which is equivalent to US dollars):


And note 22 (2007) shows that the figure of $212,723 at December 31, 2007 is made up of amounts owing to Barbados, Suriname and CL Financial Limited which is the parent company. Nothing is shown as owing to Guyana. Over the three years 2005-2007 the only year shown with a balance with Guyana is 2006 where the amount was stated at $275,317.

Transactions with Guyana over the same years are shown as follows:


The Guyana books showed investments at 31 December 2007 in Clico Bahamas of $5.95B and accrued investment income of $329M. Can it be that the balance owed by the Bahamas company to the Guyana company is shown somewhere else in the accounts? That is possible, but given that the accounts are both audited and in both cases by the same auditing firm − but by different offices − it is hard to understand why the Minister chose the route of the plethora of documentation rather than having the Judicial Manager call in the auditors for an explanation, to be followed by the paperwork. After all, the auditors would respond quickly, bringing their audit working papers files, anxious to avoid the implications of what seems on the face of the financial statements to be a major discrepancy which routine audit procedures should have revealed. Yes the paperwork is necessary, but surely the persons who have given their stamp of approval on the accounts would be a good place to start.

Different strokes…
One of the very striking features of the still far-from-over saga is how the two countries have treated the matter at the regulatory and more so at the political level. The Prime Minister of The Bahamas made an early and clear statement to their Parliament on the whole issue including offering advice to affected persons. Our President has chosen to make several statements including one before he departed these shores repeating his assurances about meeting all valid claims against Clico. From reports of a meeting Mr Panday had with Ms Van Beek and the information conveyed to the teachers, it does not appear that Clico is relying on those assurances.

There is also some discrepancy about the timing of Mr Jagdeo’s contacts with his counterpart in The Bahamas with the latter saying that it was after the announcement of the move to liquidate the Bahamas company that President Jagdeo called him. But what is more significant is Mr Jagdeo’s revelation that he had proposed as (part) settlement of the debt by Clico (Bahamas) to Clico (Guyana) to take over the Florida real estate in which the Bahamian funds were invested through one of its subsidiaries. It is not clear whether his intention is that our politically-controlled Privatisation Unit would then sell the asset, but surely our President, who is never hesitant to pronounce on matters legal, ought to have realised that that was not possible as a potentially fraudulent preference. The suggestion by a columnist in another newspaper that our President say nothing further in this matter has a lot of merit and was reflected in the call by the Finance Minister to “ensure that the court appointed process is allowed time to exhaust all avenues to protect the assets of CLICO Guyana.” Regrettably there is too much at stake for the public to wait on the necessarily cautious and deliberate court process.

Huge costs
Liquidation costs are enormous and are a first call on the proceeds of any sale of company assets. Many of the assets of the Bahamas company are pledged to secure debts other than deposits, and we therefore need to prepare ourselves for a substantial loss by Clico (Guyana) of its investment in the Bahamian company, assuming that there is such an investment. This then raises the question about Mr Jagdeo’s assurances which the Commissioner of Insurance through GINA initially reaffirmed, ie that all polices held in CLICO (Guyana) will be protected. This of course, whatever form it takes, will have to come from the taxpayers.

The Commissioner as Judicial Manager has to act independently and professionally. She has been instructed by the court to return promptly to them with a plan and no court will accept such vague assurances as those given by President Jagdeo and later repeated by her. She should not be unmindful that medical service providers have refused to extend further credit to the company while holders of short-term policies are already looking elsewhere for their coverage. In repeating the President’s assurance about guarantee, Ms Van Beek will recognise that this cannot be open-ended. If we care about our constitution and the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act, any such guarantee has to be given by Parliament.

In this regard, it seems a fair assessment that the President has not been sufficiently informed of the liabilities which his assurances that “all claims” will be met are interpreted to guarantee. The motion submitted by the PNCR calls on the government to take all necessary steps “to guarantee the savings, pensions and investments of all CLICO (Guyana) investors including the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), depositors, policyholders and contributors.” That would cost the government billions of dollars even if Clico’s actual and contingent assets are taken over. In Trinidad and Tobago Mr Lawrence Duprey had to give up huge chunks of assets in exchange for the government’s assumption of liabilities. Assuming we take over the liabilities, what do we get in return and how? It seems that Clico (Guyana)’s main assets – other than the Bahamas investment, are the loan to Caribbean Resources Limited ($1B), shares in the Berbice Bridge Company with a book value of less than $80M and any remaining bonds in the Berbice Bridge Company.

The President in his typical style has threatened prosecution against the directors and management of Clico if fraud were found. The President may not be aware, as disclosed by Business Page of February 8, that there is only one Guyanese director who is also the CEO who less than ten weeks ago he lavishly praised and made a director of his revamped GuySuCo Board. We are now paying the price for our failure to take governance seriously, not only in what I have referred to as public interest companies but in all public and state-owned companies.

Next week I will continue looking at the implications of this debacle but for now, please if we are thinking of selling off any of the policies to other companies, remember that there will have to be actuarial valuations done. From what I have seen we have not even begun to deal with this problem.

Putting some sense in the 2009 Budget

The National Assembly has the most unenviable task of making sense of the 2009 Budget presented last Monday in the National Assembly. The Minister of Finance apparently saw its greatest virtue as being the “biggest budget ever.” Not only is a boast on size from a Minister of Dr Singh’s stature interesting, but if size is the only thing that commends this budget, then there must be serious concern about its wisdom. Size only tells us how much of our money the government will be spending and where the money is coming from. It does not tell us how well the money is being spent and surely that is at least as important.

I understand that MPs, constituted as the Committee of Supply for purposes of Budget consideration, can at this stage, raise “any question relating to the line item being considered and all others relevant to the provided profile for capital items, description provided for each line item, etc.” They need to use that right to the hilt. In terms of ideas and direction, this Budget is by far the worst ever constructed under the Economic Recovery Programme, and even before. It perhaps reflects the involuntary departure from the Ministry of Finance of Mr Winston Jordan who long held the position of Budget Advisor and who was replaced by Ms Sonia Roopnauth, parachuted into the ministry, along with a Deputy Minister of Finance whose role and utility is hardly well communicated.

More resources for the Audit Office
Expenditure has been climbing inexorably over the years which Dr Singh sees, incredibly, as a virtue. The perpetual late availability of the annual report of the Audit Office on the annual public accounts is often of little more than curiosity interest. That adds to the responsibility on the committee to thoroughly review the entire Budget, even at the risk of being accused of stalling. They owe it to the nation.

By the time the year is over, with accurate accounting, we will likely see the highest deficit ever recorded by this country. If all goes to form we can expect that the audit report on the finances allocated in the 2009 Budget will not be available until some time in 2011, the year of the next general election. We can expect as well that the report will be subject to the usual defects expected from an office short of critical resources and accustomed to failure to meet statutory obligations. One of the urgent and most significant recommendations of the committee therefore is the provision of increased sums to finance a functioning Audit Office.

As usual, most of the big players know that because of weak supervisory oversight on spending, they have tremendous latitude on how they account and spend. There is still lots of money outside there that is not properly accounted for on the income or expenditure side of the accounts. That is the case with the Lotto funds and now NICIL headed by Mr Winston Brassington, involving over the years billions of dollars. Those are unconstitutional and unlawful acts. The committee must come down on this. Since a Budget deals with available resources and their application, the estimates (budget) as presented are not correct in that they leave out substantial resources. They should be referred to the Minister for amendment.

There is no known case in recent memory where any Budget figure was changed after debate. Additionally, a significant part of the Budget is based largely on the system of incremental budgeting − take last year and add x %. That is not budgeting but arithmetic. In other words if we spent $100 dollars last year we look at inflation and then do a top-up to arrive at the current year. If we assume even a modest 10% in fat, wastage and inefficiencies, a clinical surgery of that fat without going yet into “lean and clean” could cut the budget by $12 billion – allowing a reduction of several forms of taxation including the VAT.

Zero-based budgeting
No change will come about without a new approach and nothing ever will. But blame me for being an optimist. I think it can be done, even beginning in 2009. Dr Singh was keen to tell us again about his government’s plans for the constitutionally independent Office of the Auditor General. What he should be telling us is how he intends to improve and modernise the system of budgeting of government finances. As an academic and accountant the Minister would be very familiar with the system of zero-based budgeting (ZBB).

He would know that properly applied, zero-based budgeting is particularly useful in the public sector and that the UK government in its 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review carried out a set of zero-based reviews of baseline expenditure in government departments to assess the effectiveness of government spending and its long-term objectives. ZBB starts from the premise that no costs or activities should be factored into the plans for the coming budget period, just because they figured in the costs or activities for the current or previous periods. Rather, everything that is to be included in the budget must be considered and justified. In effect, start by saying the budget is zero and then add the cost of those things considered necessary.

The key benefit of ZBB is that it focuses attention on the actual resources that are required in order to produce an output or outcome, rather than the percentage increase or decrease compared to the previous year. Under ZBB, budgeting is no longer a number-crunching process of spreadsheets, but an exercise involving the budget agency and the spenders in an analytical and decision-making process. The stupidity of the government’s rhetorical question, where is the money going to come from if this or that tax is cut, is based on a lack of appreciation of ZBB and the whole budget matrix, a criticism I never thought I would make under this Minister’s stewardship.

Bloated government
ZBB is not rocket science. Admittedly our budget is distorted by political considerations like having to find ministries and placements for all those party loyalists and those willing to go on the elections slate, hardly a relevant factor for ZBB. Do we really need a Ministry of Sport with a Minister and a Parliamentary Secretary, when we have a Director of Sport and a National Sports Commission? Do we need two former ministers to advise the current Minister of Local Government which cannot deliver local government elections? And does the President need and use all those advisers in the Office of the President?

The committee looking at the line items in the Budget should ask for full particulars of the terms of employment of all advisers to the President and his ministers. Under ZBB there would have had to be good reasons to for their continuation.

Think what happens when you cut a ministry: savings on ministerial salaries and perks including chauffeur, guards, duty concessions, allowances, secretaries, public relations persons and property expenses. Even with the smallest ministry this can easily add up to hundreds of millions.

ZBB particularly lends itself to discretionary spending such as this and that activity, and showing overseas travel, etc. The committee should ask for details of the 2008 expenditure and 2009 projected expenditure on local and overseas travel by the President, ministers and other public officials. Almost on every occasion I travel I see some politician or other travelling first class. The committee should not be prepared to accept glib answers but only hard evidence on the amount and details of money spent for the President and his ministers’ overseas travel in 2008 and their specific spending plans for 2009.

Too many dollars, too little sense
The committee should ask about the $2.5 billion being spent on GECOM in 2009 – more than the amount spent on agriculture – and consider whether we are getting value for money. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is getting $3.2 billion and cannot put a representative in the UK where even a government supporter has lamented we do not have a representative and miss many, many meetings. What contribution does former Home Affairs Minister Mr Gajraj’s presence in India bring us that cannot be achieved by contacts between our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Indian High Commission?

We need to know why with all this overseas representation the President has to go out of the country sometimes three times per month. Are our representatives not functioning and do the things the President goes to really require the presence of our head of state?

The committee should find out about the money allocated in 2008 for airstrips in Leguan and Wakenaam, for which no work was done. It should ask for information on the Hope Canal on which $3 billion is being spent this year – all from borrowings and on the basis of technical advice of which the public knows nothing. Should the committee not want to ensure that it acts before the money is spent and the problem remains? The committee should scrutinize the capital budget with the greatest of care – some $46 billion dollars are involved.

It should request the audited financial statements of the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority since it came into being in 2006. To give money to people who are derelict in their statutory duty to account is irresponsible. That of course applies to all the Budget agencies and those to whom public monies are given.

I do not expect that everything can be done immediately. But it is time that we move to serious budgeting and not indulge in politics and arithmetic as the 2009 Budget does. The Committee of Supply should request the presence of the Budget Director as it wades through the 2009 Budget. The accounting officer from the relevant ministry or department should be present to answer questions and if Minister Singh is too busy then his apparently under-worked deputy should be present at all the sessions.

Business Page would also like, respectfully of course, to recommend that we move to a system of zero-based budgeting and that we begin by identifying three or four ministries for the exercise in phase one, to begin in 2009. And to recommend as well that all positions paid from the public purse be listed in the Estimates, and not only those which have come through the Public Service Commission. Too much is being hidden.