Threshold Country Plan/ Implementation Project was a major failure – conclusion

Last week Business Page began a discussion on the just concluded two-year US$6.7 million Guyana Threshold Country Plan/ Implementation Project (GTCP/IP) funded by the US Government Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The column argued that the assessment announced by Director of Threshold Programmes, Mr Malik Chaka, that the project had been successfully implemented was inconsistent with the actual results of key elements of the project. That announcement was made on February 17, 2010 to assembled, mainly government dignitaries, and was echoed by President Jagdeo and Minister of Finance Dr Ashni Singh.

What each of these gentlemen must have known was more than seven weeks earlier, a meeting of the MCC Board chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was held to select the countries that would be eligible to receive Millennium Challenge Account assistance during 2010. Guyana, which was included in the lower income countries category, was not even mentioned in the release by the MCC of the decisions taken at the meeting. The countries selected were Cape Verde, Indonesia, Jordan, Malawi, Moldova, the Philippines, and Zambia.

So, before resuming an examination of the statement by Mr Chaka, I will briefly discuss the assessment by the MCC Board, and how it may have come to the decision to exclude Guyana from further MCC fund support.

The MCC decision
In determining eligibility, the Board compared countries’ performance on 17 transparent and independent indicators to assess, to the maximum extent possible, countries’ policy performance and demonstrated commitment to just and democratic governance, economic freedom, and investing in their people. Additionally, the MCC considers adjustments for data gaps, data lags, or recent events since the indicators were published, as well as strengths or weaknesses in particular indicators. From all indications, Guyana performed creditably based on the tabulated assessment, and probably did not suffer from any technical adjustments. Guyana’s failure then must have stemmed from additional quantitative and qualitative information, such as (absence of) evidence of a country’s commitment to fighting corruption and promoting democratic governance, and its effective protection of human rights.

Such additional information could include Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index which rates Guyana among the most corrupt countries in the world; Heritage Foundation which ranked Guyana at 155 of the 183 nations in terms of economic freedom, as well as oversized government which the Foundation considers one of the biggest barriers to economic development; and the World Bank Doing Business Guide which ranks Guyana at 101 of 183 countries for ease of doing business, with 1 being the best. Then of course the United States Embassy in Guyana would prepare its own commercial and other reports on Guyana, none of which can be assumed to be particularly flattering to this country.

Broken promise
It should come as no surprise therefore, that Guyana did not win MCC’s approval, despite the President’s attempt to discredit these various reports as soon as they were published. Last year for example, he dismissed Heritage as a “conservative right-wing body” and disclosed plans to invite researchers here to dispel fictions about the situation on the ground. It is not known whether President Jagdeo brought in the researchers, or whether his subsequent silence was because their findings did not support his allegation. What it does mean is that when next Guyana complains about any such adverse report, the failure by the President to justify his allegations against these reports would certainly not help our case. Indeed, the report released by Heritage in 2010 was even more damning, demonstrating that despite the use of his bully pulpit, the President has not succeeded in deterring those who use a slightly more objective yardstick to judge the country and government’s performance.

Guyana was rated by the Center for Global Development (CGD) as having passed all the benchmark indicators although it was substantially below the average of the “3-year budget balance” among comparator countries. The median score of all countries for this indicator was a negative 1.36%, while the percentage for “substantially below” was negative 3.34%. Guyana’s score was negative 8.46%. Using the overall score, the CGD had identified Guyana from among the low income countries most likely to be selected for MCA funding. That it failed to win the Board’s approval is a measure that the modern world judges governance well beyond the construction of roads, house lots and social facilities, useful and powerful political incentives though these might be. Unfortunately, this appears to have escaped the notice of our top politicians.

As Mr Chaka had said, failure in one year is not a disqualification from participation in succeeding years. But again, President Jagdeo who demonstrates a pathological inclination to micro-manage – and to do the work of even his “bright” ministers – does not help the country’s case by building close ties with Iran whose leader seems to enjoy daring the international community to declare his country an international pariah. With corruption assuming venal proportions, the country’s biggest budget dollar deficit ever, poor governance, and further evidence of bloated big government, the prospects for Guyana being selected for MCA funding any time soon do not appear too good. So let me take up where we left off last week.

The other tasks
I had noted then that MetaMetrics, one of the project’s US-based consultants had disclosed that the project would be conducted through six tasks. Suggesting that it was against these objectives that the success – or failure – of the project should be measured, I concluded based on the evidence available to the public, the country had performed badly in relation to the first three tasks. How then did we do with the others?

4) Improve Expenditure Planning, Management, and Controls
The revelations arising from the recently concluded budget debate, including the reckless abuse of contract employees; the serial violations of the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act 2003 by ministers and officers; waste and corruption in the procurement processes both in central government and the regions; unqualified contractors; state subsidies to sugar, rice and electricity; the expending of billions on projects for which there is little or no proper technical, economic and financial assessment; the consistent weaknesses identified in the annual reports of the Audit Office; and the almost daily reports of frauds in public offices including the Guyana Revenue Authority, must more than adequately establish that we score poorly on 4) as well.

5) Empower and Create Capacity within Two Principal Parliamentary Fiduciary Oversight Committees
The two principal oversight committees are the Economic Services Sector Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. Reports are that the first has been meeting regularly to identify entities and departments it would question about their performance. Press reports indicate that the committee has met with the loss-making Guyana Sugar Corporation and the National Insurance Scheme which is appearing increasingly under-funded. That this is happening is a positive, commendable development but the information available to the public is far too sketchy to allow an objective assessment of the effectiveness of the committee’s work. It would be useful if the public were allowed to attend the meetings of this committee and its reports made public.

The better known fiduciary oversight committee is the Public Accounts Committee which has as one of its principal mandates the oversight of the Audit Office and the review of that office’s Annual Audit Report. Those reports are always late, are often incomplete and raise more questions than answers. The last report of the Audit Office for 2007 is mainly a repetition of prior years’ issues that have not been resolved and those awaiting “policy decisions.”

While the parliamentary opposition complains that their views and recommendations are ignored, the government has been showcasing the committees as inclusive governance.

The fatal weaknesses in the Audit Office need no repeating. From top to bottom the office is poorly qualified and inadequately staffed, subject to strong political influences and instructions, in violation of its own act and the constitution.

6) Business Registration and Incorporation
While MetaMetrics on their website had referred to both registration and incorporation, I do not believe that those who actually carried out the consultancy in Guyana understood the difference between the two, or that there are two laws dealing with the registration of businesses. These are the Companies Act 1991 which allows for the registration of external companies, and the Business Names Registration Act which deals with unregistered companies.

I participated in a sensitization workshop on Friday December 4, 2009 at which grand claims were made about the reforms in business registration. I was amazed at the level of misunderstanding among the consultants and what they call success. For example they spoke of 96,000 business registrations and 5,600 company registrations, even as only 700 companies file tax returns annually! It must have been the greatest act of resurrection for more than 2,000 years.

One of the lead consultants said at that forum that when the World Bank does its next Doing Business Guide, he expects Guyana to jump by about one hundred places since the time for the registration will be less than countries now in the top 10! I had to point out to him that that is one of ten criteria under one of a score of benchmarks. He did not know that.

Another example of misinformation about the success is an official website that proudly boasts that it is possible to incorporate in Guyana a company by way of the internet, and the time has been significantly shortened. That is not true. Incorporation and registration require statutory declarations by attorneys-at-law and photo ID’s while forms risk being bounced for what appears to be the pettiest of reasons. Under new money laundering rules, commercial banks would not deal with a non-resident company until it has been registered or incorporated and even residents must now produce official, unexpired proof of identity.

There has been more rhetoric than reality in the boasts about success of the project. It has had significant overlaps with other projects such as the National Competitiveness Strategy, parliamentary reform, and other consultancies. This allows several persons and organisations to claim credit for success, and to disown failures. What no one has so far done is consider objectively whether the country gets value for money, with the competitiveness strategy an outstanding example. With scarcely any benefit accruing to the country from that project, it will be the taxpayers who will have to find the money to repay the IDB the five billion dollars we borrowed from them for the project. The poor taxpayer gets poorer.

Threshold Country Plan/ Implementation Project was a major failure

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.

The plan
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

Assessing success
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

Numbers are what you want them to be

Mark Twain said, “there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I won’t be allowed to say that in these hallowed columns, particularly in relation to the National Accounts announced by Senior Minister of Finance Dr Ashni Singh in Budget Speech 2010. But I do draw attention to that speech and specifically paragraph 4.146 in which the Minister announced that the Bureau of Statistics had completed the technical work required “towards the rebasing of our National Accounts framework as well as updating the basket of goods and services underlying computation of our Consumer Price Index (CPI).” As if to lend some authority to that work, the Minister announced that this was done “with external assistance and support.” The National Accounts presented by the Minister are now “rebased to 2006 prices” and are introduced from January 2010, along with the new CPI.

Of course, the Bureau of Statistics has not distinguished itself for its independence, nor has its professional image been helped by the government and this Minister in particular. Business Page of February 7, 2010, under the caption ‘Budget 2010 – Looking back,’ noted that the Minister would be ahead of the bureau if, soon after he announced his statistics on GDP and CPI, the bureau gave those numbers its blessing. There is no prize for guessing that what was feared, actually happened. The official website of the Stats Bureau has now endorsed the Minister’s numbers. Perhaps the bureau would also explain how VAT collections declined by 3 % while the sector to which it most applies – distribution – is reported to have grown by 6%. And why all the hard-to-measure sectors, like transportation and rental, reflected growth. Are we so dumb as to take these at face value?

Singular control
It is fortunate for Dr Singh, but less so for the country, that directly or indirectly, he either influences or controls the spending (as keeper of the Consolidated and Contingencies Funds), the record-keeping (the Accountant General Department) and the measurer (the Stats Bureau). In addition, he has the potential to influence the auditor (the Audit Office). Each of these entities is headed by an employee on contract, which is not an arrangement conducive to demonstrations of independence.

This column supports rebasing which is recommended by the UN and is done routinely across continents. But it would have been useful if we had used the expertise of the University of Guyana in the exercise and done it with some form of consultation, explanation and information. With so much of the information on consumer spending empirical, anecdotal and incapable of precise measurement, it would have been helpful to have the widest possible engagement on its construction, but this is simply not this Minister’s style.

The justification for rebasing is simple enough. As the Minister explained, up till 2009, the base year for Guyana’s National Accounts was 1988. He further explained that as the years progressed, there was increased likelihood of errors in measuring the level of growth and other components of the National Accounts.

This is because the prevailing price and cost structures in the base year become progressively less relevant for calculating volumes of output and for estimating value added. Also of relevance, is what is called the industry cycle as new products, technologies, and industries take the place of, or add to, those prevailing in the base year.

Never was so good
The Minister announced that the results have been predictable and that as a result of the rebasing to year 2006, the estimated weight of agriculture, fishing and forestry and of government has declined, while the weight of mining and quarrying, manufacturing, and services has increased. The rebasing has resulted in an upward revision in the estimates of nominal GDP. (See table and chart extracted from the Minister’s data.) Prior to the rebasing being brought into effect, Guyana’s GDP at market or purchaser prices for 2010 would have been estimated at $268.5 billion, but with rebasing, this has increased by 69% to $448.1 billion.

Adjusted for the rebasing, this is how the economy’s performance appears for the years 2006 to 2010 projected.

But rebasing has other consequences. In addition to the economy being larger, it means that other figures, like the amount of debt to the size of the economy, are better, while tax to GDP or government spending as a fraction of the economy, are lower. Based on his rebased numbers, Guyana is now one of the least taxed countries in the region, despite having the highest corporate tax rates and the most punitive system of personal taxation. It is true that many major sectors – like sugar, bauxite and forestry – make only a small contribution to the tax revenues of the country. Rusal and BOSAI enjoy generous tax concessions in bauxite while Barama’s capacity to make losses and still survive goes down in the business folklore of Guyana, and perhaps the world.

The private sector’s understanding
The concept of transfer pricing, one of the most common forms of exploitation by multinationals, clearly does not apply to Guyana. And what seems not to be understood by our captains of industry – who are also the beneficiaries of tax concessions and a liberal interpretation of the tax laws – is the difference between the nominal rate of tax and its effective rate.

Take our commercial banks for example. The nominal rate of corporation tax that applies to banks is 45%. Yet, according to their most recent reports, these banks paid an average of 26%, within the range of 14% and 39%. And the shareholders pay no tax on the dividends. Quite what the President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce therefore means when he suggested that his Chamber was not too concerned about Budget 2010 since tax reform is on the horizon, is anyone’s wild guess.

But let us for one moment accept the Minister’s new numbers. It means that tax evasion by the business community is taking place on a scale previously unimaginable and/or the incidence of loss-making and tax exempt operations is much bigger than we think. The Auditor General (ag) simply ignores the law that requires him to do an annual audit of concessions under the Tax Holidays Act. But there is no ambiguity or uncertainty that the workers are taxed at close to 50%, taking income tax, VAT and NIS into account. On the other hand, the business community as a whole probably bears tax at less than 10%! Yet, the Minister of a government that claims working-class roots could not see it fit to reduce the personal tax rate of 33⅓%, or increase the measly US$175 per month personal allowance.

Know only mistrust
While I know a little about taxation, I confess that economics is not my field, and I therefore called several entities to help me understand the re-basing. The Minister of Finance Dr Ashni Singh, as usual, did not take my call; the head of the Stats Bureau, also as usual, was out of the office and at the Ministry of Finance, while relevant academics at the University of Guyana claimed no participation in the exercise by the Stats Bureau.

With mistrust everywhere it is sad, but not unexpected, that official statistics and reports of transactions are not well regarded by Guyanese. Think of the ‘now you see them now you don’t’ state-owned properties that are sold off; or of the conflicts of interest among important state institutions; or of the violations of the constitution and the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act; or of the incestuous relationships between the politicians and some members of the business community; or of the government’s unwillingness to entertain MP Raphael Trotman’s Freedom of Information Bill. It would be hard not to be cynical and distrustful.

And those who care only about the bread and butter or rice and curry issues, are hardly likely to be impressed by the announcement that her/his personal GDP has jumped to US$2,308.50 but s/he still cannot find a job, or is in receipt of a pension of $6,600 per month. And even for those who have jobs, their food basket costs easily exceed their income. These issues do not seem to matter to the Minister of Finance or his Bureau of Statistics.

Supplementary or contingency: Same abuse

So often we hear time-worn sayings like ‘Chickens coming home to roost,’ ‘History repeating itself’ and ‘Forgetting the lessons of history,’ and we think they are just platitudes of no consequence. Yet the brouhaha in the National Assembly last Monday showed how some such things are not only more than idle talk, but rather powerful enough to have an after life.

The occasion for the war of words in the National Assembly was consideration of Supplementary Appropriation (No.3 of 2009) Bill 2010, for $8,245,758,278 as further and additional funding for various purposes, some of which had already been spent (Contingencies) and to be spent (Supplementary Appropriations).

On one side there were Prime Minister Sam Hinds, Housing Minister Irfan Ali and Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy, three persons whose ministerial portfolios were significant would-be beneficiaries of the bulk of the supplementary funds. Over the other side were two attorneys-at-law, Opposition Members of Parliament Winston Murray (PNCR) and Khemraj Ramjattan (AFC), both of whom eventually left the arena in anger and frustration, threatening to take the fight elsewhere.

Déjà vu
To understand the exchanges one needs to delve a little bit into history, going back to the National Development Strategy which was adopted by the National Assembly a couple of years ago. Chapter 13 of that strategy dealing with Fiscal Policy and The Public Sector had this to say about the Contingency Fund which is so often confused – either by design or otherwise – with Supplementary Appropriations.

“Deficiencies in the Budget Process: Largely due to deficiencies in the budgetary process, the Contingencies Fund has been used to meet all kinds of expenditures, such as shortfalls in ministries’ provisions arising from basic miscalculations in estimates and unrealistic budget assumptions about exchange rate changes, inflation and spending patterns, and the introduction during the course of the year of new projects or programmes deemed ‘necessary’ or ‘relevant’ by a political or high-ranking technical functionary. Instead of being used for emergencies, such as a major breach in the sea defence system – the use intended by the National Assembly – the Contingency Fund now serves as a source of financing for unauthorised (by Parliament) and additional expenditures.”

More and more we have to admire, and owe a debt of gratitude to, the scores of persons who contributed to that document. Had we taken the NDS seriously we would long have been on an environmentally-conscious development trajectory rather than travelling to dictatorships like Iran to beg for money to sustain our economy.

The first walkout
The French have a wonderful way of expressing the English equivalent of “the more things change the more they remain the same.” And that introduces the second bit of history, this time in December 2003 when the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act 2003 came up for consideration in the National Assembly. The Stabroek News of December 16 of that year reported the PPP/C refusing a request from the Opposition PNCR to send the 87-clause bill to a select committee for detailed consideration. The Minister of Finance then was Mr Saisnarine Kowlessar and the reason he advanced for the government’s refusal of the request was that urgent passage was necessary to pave the way for debt relief of US$30 million from the World Bank and the IMF for the next twenty years. That explanation appears as strange as the request was sensible but then the National Assembly has never been the forum for the most sensible decisions or debate in Guyana.

Given no more than forty-eight hours to study and debate the bill, Mr Winston Murray, the PNC Shadow Finance Minister walked out in protest, allowing the overwhelming passage of the bill that may soon be at the centre of a legal action by the Alliance For Change. Ironically, the PPP/C may itself be a loser for not having read and understood what is clearly a complex and possibly badly worded piece of legislation. Indeed a statement given by Mr Robert Corbin, the PNCR leader on the recent exchange suggests that, at the very least, the act lends itself to continued misunderstanding in how billions of taxpayers’ funds are spent and accounted for. Over the next couple of weeks Business Page will examine some of the main provisions of the act, the principal objective of which is better transparency and accountability for the receipts and payments of the state in the Consolidated Fund which has as a sub-fund a Contingency Fund.

The Supplementary Appropriation
Section 24 of the FMAA requires that the variation of an appropriation other than reallocation of approved appropriations must be authorised by a supplementary appropriation act prior to the incurring of any expenditure. And that is where the experienced Prime Minister, the adventurous Health Minister and the green Housing Minister appear to have run into problems, confusing the supplementary funding with the kind of expenditure for which the Contingency Fund was specifically set up.

It seems too that the Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh is also not sufficiently familiar with the act’s provisions on supplementary appropriations since he consistently fails to comply with the requirement that on the introduction of a supplementary appropriation bill, he is required to present to the National Assembly the reasons for the proposed variations and “a supplementary document describing the impact that the variations, if approved, will have on the financial plan outlined in the national budget.”

And before we go on perhaps it would be useful to note that Ram & McRae in Budget Focus 2008 had identified the absence of meaningful debate and real accounting for such additional funds.

Did it not strike our parliamentarians as odd that they should pass legislation that requires a request for $100 million in the budget to be subject to extensive scrutiny and debate but for an $8 billion supplementary request to be supported by only very limited information and subject only to questions and not a debate?

Cocking a snook at Parliament
Because of the supremacy of the constitution which empowers and regulates the raising of revenues and the incurring of expenditure by the government, we will also be looking at how the FMAA gives effect to and is circumscribed by the constitution. In researching for this column I found an interesting article by Indian Professor P.K. Tripathi and titled Lawless withdrawals from public funds: Cocking a snook at Parliament. It is apparent from that article that the application of responsible public accounting begins with the appreciation of a fundamental point about democracy and the rule of law.

As Tripathi points out, in a democracy the government must function both in respect of determination of its policies and the administration of those policies strictly under the control of the representatives of the people. The democratic process requires that no public monies can be spent without a grant made by the Parliament following a request by the government in the form of an Appropriation Bill or a Supplementary Appropriation Bill presented to the National Assembly specifying the purposes for which it plans to spend and the amounts of money it plans to spend on each of those purposes.

One exception for the prior approval of the National Assembly is in respect of monies out of the Contingencies Fund. I will look at the governing constitutional and statutory procedures next week, but for now it is not at all clear that those on the government side of the House, including the Prime Minister and Leader of the House Samuel Hinds and the Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh, Dr Leslie Ramsammy and Mr Irfan Ali are familiar with those provisions. The two financial papers which were embodied in Supplementary Appropriation Bill #3 were in respect of both advances from the Contingency Fund and Supplementary Provisions for the year 2009. If we accept the position in the law that supplementary provision must be approved prior to expenditure it would seem beyond logic that one can be asking for supplementary provision for 2009 in 2010!

The New GPC again
Included in Financial Paper No. 5/2009 for $1.449 billion were amounts totalling $473 million for purchases of drugs mainly from the New Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation towards which this government had earlier found itself acting illegally. Is history now repeating itself with breaches of the Contingency Fund being involved in payments made to the company between December 28 and 31 to procure drugs to last up to April 2010? What neither Dr Ramsammy nor Dr Ashni Singh told the National Assembly is when the drawing rights for these were requested, and issued in accordance with section 41 of the FMAA.

It may well turn out to be entirely ironic that one of the few amendments proposed by Mr Winston Murray and accepted by the government when the FMAA Bill was debated in 2003 may come back to haunt the government. And that is in relation to penalties for breaches.

The act makes it an indictable offence punishable on conviction to a fine of two million dollars and to imprisonment for three years for any official to knowingly permit any other person to contravene any provision of the act.

Maybe the Prime Minister sensed the rising temperature and not so implicit threats during the exchange in the National Assembly, taking refuge in the need to consult legally.

Those who have honed their political skills and owe their allegiance to the architects of the more permissive recent financial arrangements do not appear so compelled.

To be continued

Economy firewall malfunctions – Conclusion

This is the fourth and final part of a review of the Mid-year Report 2009 presented by the Minister of Finance to the National Assembly under the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act, 2003. As I promised last week, the purpose of this closing part is to pull the strands of the three preceding segments together and to look for any causes of optimism in the economy and its management.

Despite its title, the Act requires of the mid-year report more than the year-to-date execution of the annual budget. It requires the report to set out the prospects for the remainder of the year. It also mandates the inclusion of a revised economic outlook for the rest of the year, a statement of the projected impact of the trends on the remainder of the year, and very importantly, a list of major fiscal risks for the second half of the year with likely policy responses that the government proposes to take to meet the expected circumstances. In my view the report presented by the Minister falls very short of the requirements of the Act, and he spent no more than a few sentences on the revised economic outlook, fiscal risks and proposed government responses for the rest of the year. If proof be needed, then the Minister himself provided it this past week when he brought before the National Assembly requests for $5 billion, mainly for spending in the second half of the year, which must have qualified for – but did not receive – inclusion under projected trends and major fiscal risks. It is also a case of how bad and weak the Ministry of Finance is when it comes to budgeting and planning.

Before proceeding, I digress to repeat what I consider a major concern about the report, and that is its lack of timeliness and therefore its limited practical value. The report is by law due no later that August 30 of the year. It is now normal not only for the report to be issued months later, but also for it to bear a date that is very misleading, sending a signal to others that it is okay to do so. For 2009 it was presented on November 12, but bearing the date September 25. The Minister must be aware not only that the National Assembly has a registry to receive reports when it is in recess, but that it is wrong to send signals to subordinates that such conduct is acceptable.

In part 2 of this short series I drew attention to an item in the Bank of Guyana Half-year Report submitted to the Minister of Finance, in which the performance of the economy in the first half of the year was addressed in considerable detail. I noted an obvious conflict between the numbers presented by the Minister and those presented by the Bank of Guyana; while one was reporting growth, the other was reporting a decline. Clearly they both could not be right, and the public would have expected, both out of duty and professional self-respect, either or both of these entities to have addressed the issue. Neither has done so, further evidence of the Minister’s disdain for the public, recalling his response to a Kaieteur News article on grossly excessive payment by the government for the purchase and supply of equipment, when he suggested that the newspaper should start bidding for contracts!

LCDS and accountability
The Minister must be aware that the President’s attempt to raise money internationally for Guyana’s proposed low carbon development strategy is also drawing attention to the country and its management. Everyone, including the General Secretary of the ruling party, now admits that corruption is taking place in the country – any difference being only the matter of degree, with most independent opinions leaning towards corruption on a massive scale. That view is reflected in Guyana’s ranking in the Corruption Perception Index by the internationally respected, German-based Transparency International, where Guyana is rated at 126 of 183 countries, the worst in the region.

This series on the mid-year report pointed to one of the most celebrated cases of flagrant breaches of financial procedures – that involving the purchase of drugs by the government, largely from an entity with which the President admitted to having close ties, and which had earlier been singled out for unlawful tax concessions. But that is only one case among many that are surfacing daily with contractors, whose low expertise in construction is only matched by high level connections, and who receive multi-million dollar contracts that cost as much in rework in some cases, almost as soon as the work is signed off and payment made. Corruption is one C-word that is alien to any half-year or full-year review done by the Minister.

Unlike the Minister of Finance and the President, Norway, the government’s LCDS benefactor, is not oblivious to or unaware of the endemic problems of corruption in Guyana, neither does it seem willing to sweep them under the carpet. That country’s Environment and International Development Minister Erik Solheim has made its position on corruption clear by prescribing robust anti-corruption measures before Guyana can draw down on the six-year US$250 million promise made by Norway. That understanding is still only at the MOU stage and may therefore be subject to further refinements and a formal and binding agreement.

It is almost a joke to speak of a transparent financial mechanism while simultaneously and strongly refusing to put into effect constitutional provisions regarding the procurement of goods and services or an Audit Office headed and staffed by persons with appropriate qualifications. That the current head of the Audit Office is merely acting has as much to do with the fact that he has no professional accounting or audit qualification as that it serves the government well to have someone hold a key constitutional, accountability position purely at its whim and for its convenience. Those in acting positions know that if they rock the boat they risk sinking with it, a chance that out of self-interest, they will not take.

If the Norwegians are any more careful with their taxpayers’ funds than say the multilateral IDB or the World Bank, the chances of Guyana drawing down the entire sum must be low. If US$250M buys the Norwegians sufficient carbon credits to embellish their questionable record as an environment polluter, they may feel they have obtained a basement bargain. On the other hand, Guyana gives up major rights and opportunities, raising the question whether the country should not have had an indigenous low carbon development strategy rather than one dictated by the Norwegians, acting in their interest.

Contract employees
Another issue highlighted by this series was the increasing prevalence of the use of contract employees to get around the rules of employment in the public service. I had drawn attention to the more than $3 billion paid in salaries to this group of hand-picked persons, with another huge amount paid in benefits to them, including a 22% gratuity every six months. The really lucky ones get cars, drivers and duty concessions on top. This means that even the non-contract employees are really a benefit to the contract employees. Who these lucky ones are is intended to be a secret, but the Office of the President is a wonderful case of abuse. Of 201 employees in the Office of the President, ninety-five are contract employees and fifty-four are temporary. Among the contract employees are former ministers, all of whom are reported to be employed at the pleasure of the President on the same salaries and with the same benefits that they received as ministers. The Ministry of Local Government has two former ministers who must still be financed by the taxpayers.

Ironically, both the Public Service Commission and the Public Service Ministry which are expected to protect the integrity of the public service are themselves serial cases of the contract employee syndrome, while the culture also seems embedded in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport.

The implications of this are huge and costly. It gets around the constitutional provisions for employment in the public service, creating a huge army of often highly paid loyalists but more importantly, it destroys the public service and its structures. What institutional memory will remain if on a change of government, the holders of all major key positions are not retained? Are we again going to turn to the British government which in the late eighties paid huge sums on financing a study that led to sweeping changes in the public sector and a dramatic reduction in the number of ministries? But that was before we had VAT that provides an annual windfall in revenues for the government to (mis)spend as it pleases, even as the half-year report discloses increasing borrowings without any indication of the actual amount of funds in the Treasury. That simply cannot be responsible financial management.

We noted in paragraph one that the Minister had approached the National Assembly for close to $5B to pay for unbudgeted expenditure on the army, Office of the President, LCDS, GuySuCo and other agencies and ministries. But we had also noted from the first-half report the low level of spending in that half year. The country’s financial rules provide for the reallocation of funds from one budget area to another. There is no indication that this sensible practice is ever employed instead of the simplistic approach for the National Assembly to rubber stamp excess and excessive spending. Simplistic too is its approach to sugar into which it continues to pump billions while its relationship with its major stakeholder – the workers – deteriorates rapidly. It is easy to forget that the government defied the World Bank and informed the public concerned about the Skeldon Project, the largest single public investment ever undertaken in this country. The results so far have been more than merely disappointing.

Where next?
Ram & McRae will this Thursday publish its report on its annual Business Outlook Survey which would give a good indication of the private sector’s take on the economy. From the empirical evidence only a few sectors are doing well but none of these is in manufacturing or production. Our financial sector continues to do well, as does distribution, but important as these are, they provide an intermediary function. The state-owned power company, whose costs feed into the rest of the economy, continues to struggle to reduce inefficiencies and costs. The public sector wage bill keeps mounting while services remain stagnant. The bureaucracy and its sibling, corruption, impose a huge cost on the highly-taxed economy, in which equity and fairness hardly exist.

It would not be right to argue that there have not been improvements in infrastructure, health and education, which were tied to the huge debt reliefs enjoyed over the past two decades. We have, however, failed in diversifying and strengthening our productive capabilities. Until we do that we cannot declare that we have accomplished the mission set by the PPP/C when it assumed control of this country, including making the country a place where rights, responsibilities and rewards were borne and shared equitably.