Beware of the triskaidekaphobiacs (fear of the number 13)

It is that dreaded time of the year when columnists are expected to look into and engage in attempts to predict the future. You would think that in Guyana that would not be too hard – every pessimistic prediction since 1961 about our political parties failing to act in the national interest having been proved right. But you do not understand how accountants operate.

Their eyes are at the back of their heads so they can look back with no discomfort, and organise and manipulate historical accounting data to show that two and two can be whatever the CEO wants the result to be.

The feature of such year-end pieces has been a combination of levity, hopes for the new year and some not-too-serious predictions which in my case are invariably wrong. In fact so wrong that it will take up much less time and space to highlight the few obvious correct forecasts than the litany of failures. Here are two I did get right: I can claim some credit for predicting in the January 1 2012 column that the world would not end on December 21, 2012, a claim attributed to the Mayans but based on no written or scientific evidence. In fact, December 21, 2012 marked the end of one of the cycles in the ancient Mayan calendar at the winter solstice, not the end of the world.

Despite the successive failure of Armageddon to materialise (remember the year of the Rapture), this will not deter other nuts from predicting the end of the world, though ironically not in 2013 which otherwise arouses triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

The second success was that Barack Obama would be re-elected President of the United States of America with the help of his wife Michelle. In fact it was with the help of both his wife and Bill Clinton, an omission that can be explained as one of detail rather than substance.

Apologies to Usain Bolt for saying he could not repeat his Beijing triumph in London. I forgot we were dealing with a superman and a legend of Greek proportions. And yes, I note that the United Nations has responded to my plea on behalf of vegetarians by naming 2013 as the Year of Water Co-operation and also the International Year of the Quinoa, a vegetable. Thank you Mr Ban!

No place for levity
For me Guyana is a place from which levity has taken flight. Look at our cartoons and all we see is a decadent form of political atrophy that even allows APNU to claim credit for making the government more accountable, itself nothing short of a joke.

Perhaps their spokespersons forgot that Article 216 of the Constitution of Guyana is violated on a daily basis; that the Minister of Finance sticks his thumb at them over NICIL, the Marriot and the Contingencies Fund; that every initiative is upended by misguided resort to the courts; that an agreement between the Government, APNU’s leaders and those of Region 10 over a month-long protest in which three lives were lost are still not effectuated; that they have allowed several parliamentary sessions to be dedicated to a single Minister not for what he has or has not done, but according to a PNCR Central Committee member, for being “a symbol of what the PPP/C government represents”; that slush funds multiply in number and value to finance secret spy operations, discontinued offices and the employment of special advisors to do party political work. And that the PPP/C and the APNU are collectively responsible for the failure to hold local government elections guaranteed by the constitution and postponed each of the past sixteen years.

2012 as the year of the Ds
For me the year 2012 will go down as the year of the Ds – Donald, David and Disappointment, all with capital letters. Maybe I was being overly optimistic when I wished that in 2012:

“President Ramotar will reverse his prior commitment to more of the same and will:

“Demand that the Public Accounts Committee perform its parliamentary duties with greater competence.

“Push legislation to improve transparency by appointing a new Ombudsman, establish the Public Procurement Commission, revise the Access to Information Act and introduce anti-corruption legislation.

“Revisit Jagdeo’s pet projects like the Kingston Marriott, the fibre-optic cable, Amaila and the specialty hospital.

“Order the Cabinet-infested NICIL Board to bring its accounts up to date for independent audit. “Declare the implementation of VAT was a rip-off but have a change of heart and compromise on a reduction in the rate to 10%.

“Instruct the Guyana Revenue Authority to increase the volume of lifestyle audits of workers to try to understand why, like Leona Helmsley said, only the poor pay taxes.

“Get rid of the deadwood in the Office of the President, otherwise known as presidential advisors, by the application of an integrity detector test and the ability to stay awake during meetings.”

Do-Nothing Parliament
Optimism at the beginning of 2012 was I believe rational and justified. The combined opposition controlled the National Assembly for the first time in the country’s history; they took both the offices of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker; they directly or indirectly controlled the committees of the National Assembly.

Then they proceeded to become one of the most do-nothing parliaments in Guyana’s history. The Tenth Parliament has embarrassingly exposed the weakness in the country’s list system where loyalty to the party leader has proved to be far more important than competence.

With just one exception no member of the National Assembly stood out favourably; no piece of legislation could be considered truly path-breaking and substantive; no new prospect identified; no campaign promise made to the electorate only months before kept; no attempt to change the constitution; the poor getting poorer and the rich and the powerful smug, satisfied and inert. While more than two dozen MPs from the opposition made no contribution to the Assembly or the people of Guyana, the failure of Mr Trevor Williams, AFC MP, to attend a meeting of the PAC which confirmed the appointment of several unqualified persons in the Audit Office who did not merit confirmation for years must surely earn him the wooden spoon as the MP for the year.

The positives
On a positive note the domestic economy continued to do well, led by gold, massive government expenditure financed by taxation and transfers, the agenda of the Chinese and tax evasion.

Companies in all sectors continue to report record-breaking profits, while paying out huge dividends to shareholders. No wonder then that the private sector hardly bothers to remind President Ramotar that his first action as President in announcing the establishment of a Tax Review Committee has not moved a single step.

Standing out too was the series of cuts to the 2012 National Budget initiated by the Alliance For Change and supported belatedly by the APNU which saw attempts to rein in government excesses in both policies and spending.

With Government controlling the purse strings of state instrumentalities like the Gold Board and government companies like NICIL, many of the cuts were undermined by the Minister of Finance, restored by the National Assembly, or confused by a ruling of the court at the preliminary stage of an action brought by the Attorney General.

Indeed that ruling is not only hard to fathom but does great harm to the concept of governance by asserting that if the National Assembly finds a project or programme – for whatever sum – unacceptable, it has to reject the entire budget. That is surely beyond logic, common sense, or even good law.

It is bad for the country’s jurisprudence that this case was not taken to finality and the absurdity of the all-or-nothing premise resolved. Watch for a reprise with the 2013 Budget.

Civil society
But the performance of civil society was equally poor. A new entity successively named Occupy GT and the Peoples’ Parliament flattered then fluttered, and at the end of the year finds itself trying to find its feet, let alone its wings.

The best that can be said of the trade union movement is that remnants of it still exist but with decreasing relevance to all that is taking place around its various elements. Both the TUC and FITUG must accept part of the blame for the state of the National Insurance Scheme, plagued by poor governance, weak management and enforcement and catastrophic indecision.

The consumer movement is all but dead with nothing to take its place, at a time when it is most needed. The Private Sector Commission seems satisfied with the status quo raising its head only when it thinks that its members’ profit-earning machinery is under threat. Meanwhile the country’s accounting regulator, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Guyana, after several months, is still to pronounce on a number of complaints involving high-ranking members of the profession.

With all of these it should not be too difficult to appreciate why there is so much disappointment and loss of confidence in the institutions in Guyana.

Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc – of which I am not the driving force – seems to have established itself as a credible and potent force in the struggle fight against the quagmire of corruption.

Help and Shelter must wonder what else it can do to reduce domestic violence, a mission shared with Red Thread which, with little support from other key segments of the society, has so far made little progress in its efforts to reduce cost of living and improve earnings. The Catholic Church which for a number of decades had led the democratic charge with liberation theology established the Justice and Peace Commission aimed at enhancing the society. There has been no reaction from the rest of the religious community.

On crime, Commissioner of Police Henry Green died in office after his statutory retirement age was extended, leaving a society in which the Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit seems to be far more successful than the Police Force in tracking drugs.

With the substantial resources at its disposal, one might expect the Police Force and the Director of Public Prosecutions to ‘engage’ the persons arrested rather than have them passed through the Magistrate‘s courts where they hurriedly plead guilty to protect their bosses.

The world
Like the December 21 non-event, the global economy did not experience any apocalyptic turbulence and in fact performed almost as well as had been expected with the IMF forecasting that global output in 2012 would grow just 3.3 per cent, down from a July estimate of 3.5 per cent.

That would make 2012 the slowest year of growth since 2009 when the world was struggling to pull out of the global financial crisis. According to the IMF, “familiar” forces were dragging down advanced economy growth: fiscal consolidation and a still-weak financial system, the same problems that have plagued the world since the global financial crisis exploded in 2008.

Part of the problem is that as family sizes decrease and life expectancy increases, the number of workers to those too old to work is decreasing putting a strain on the economies as health care and retirement costs rise in proportion to taxes and available pension schemes.

Less than seventy-two hours before the end of 2012, the US cannot decide whether to allow reason to trump insanity or economics to triumph over politics and stave off what is perhaps with exaggerated drama, referred to as the fiscal cliff.

If no agreement can be reached between the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, taxes will increase and automatic cuts will be applied to spending. Not surprisingly, economists disagree on the precise impact these will have on the US economy but the stock market has already taken a big hit as a result of the loss of confidence in Washington to manage the affairs of the country. This will hit the rest of the world for which the US is still the largest domestic market measured by spending power.

In terms of predictions it is safe to say that we will not have campaign financing legislation or legislation regulating political parties. The Public Procurement Commission will not be set up while the Integrity Commission and the Ethnic Relations Commission will remain dormant.

There will be no constitutional reform or amendments while the parliamentary agenda of the AFC and the APNU will remain closely guarded secrets. The Government will push back any efforts at tax reform and there will be further delays in holding local government elections. Georgetown will qualify for the prize as the worst city in the Caribbean while car sales will spike as MPs cash in on their duty-free entitlements.

The odds are less than even that there will be local government elections, the bringing into law of the Judicial Review Act or the discovery of oil.

But they are marginally slightly better for the naming of an Ombudsman. And finally let us not rule out the possibility of fresh elections, either forced by the rejection of the 2013 Budget or called by President Ramotar unwilling to tolerate and adjust to a National Assembly he does not control.

Still, or because of these, best wishes to all.

Predicting the future

This column has not had a good record when it comes to predicting the future, even into the next year. It has defied probability and its predictions were so overwhelmingly more wrong than right that Dr Beckles would diagnose the attempt at clairvoyance as being purely delusional. Sometimes it does not even get the year right. For example, if one was going to predict 2011 one should really have started on December 17, 2010 when a Tunisian vendor made the ultimate protest by burning himself after years of harassment by the police. His sister Basma earns for me the quote of the year: “Dignity is more important than bread.” It was the start of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, a spontaneous revolution that led to the demise of long-term dictators like Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya, and has shaken the foundations of oppression in more than a dozen Arab and North African countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Yemen and that paragon of stability, Saudi Arabia.

If 2011 started as a work in progress – to use the commentator’s favourite loan expression from the accountants – the year 2012 is no different. The Arab Spring, a homegrown liberation movement using as its the main tool the ubiquitous imported cell phone and the social media and promoted by the expanding Al Jazeera news network, in turn might have spawned its own export to the democratic west in the form of the Occupy Movement. No one can say that the influence of one on the other or their respective role was not reciprocal. But as Syria and indeed Egypt are showing, any declaration of victory is dangerously premature. The old guard of militarism and the new establishment of religious fundamentalism are fighting back with a viciousness that suggests that in this new dispensation there is no room for prisoners; it is the ultimate zero sum game.

Remembering the Rapture (and Y2K)
2011 must also be remembered for some of the things that did not happen, with the most infamous but welcome being the non-arrival of the end-of-time Rapture which according to the American crazy horse Harold Camping should have taken place on May 21, 2011. It was also the International Year for People of African Descent, aimed to strengthen international, national and regional cooperation to benefit the people of African descent, and to recognize and promote their political, economic, social and cultural contributions. Hopefully our own African Cultural Development Association (ACDA) will present an end-of-year report to identify the gains made and challenges experienced in delivering on the ambitious targets which ACDA had set itself for the year.

And while the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) seem locked in a deathly economic vortex that is threatening to bring down the euro, the much feared double-dip recession did not take place, and in late December us President Barack Obama could actually go off on his annual Hawaii vacation against a background of some silver lining peering from behind still threatening but perceptibly receding dark clouds.

Jagdeo’s exit
In dear old Guyana the era of Jagdeo headed for an abrupt end as he almost singlehandedly guaranteed that for the first time since 1992, the PPP/C would lose control of the National Assembly. A painful blow for the unbearably arrogant PPP/C, the gift of power-sharing to the people of Guyana, long the forlorn cry of the WPA, suddenly came with the November 28 elections. A man who had pandered to the religious right by defying the unanimous vote of the National Assembly to abolish discrimination in sexual orientation then took an entire country on the road to casino gambling and worse, and seemed to become an adherent of the creed that hedonism and greed are good and that state power is for personal aggrandisement.

In a tragic reversal of fortune, the Champion of the Earth and wannabe Nobel Laureate could not face his own people. Unlike the dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Jagdeo’s fall from grace was not the work of physical enemies from without, but those from within himself. It must surely be a lesson to all who come after him and to all of us who allowed him to transform from an ordinary country boy with a modest academic record and an even more modest professional work life into a dictator in a democrat’s clothing.

The Year of the Dragon
And now the column turns to 2012, a leap year and for the Chinese, the Year of the Dragon. I am annoyed that the Chinese do not make even a token concession to vegetarians by naming one year in each decade after a fruit or vegetable, with the Chinese sounding name Pak Choi offering an obvious possibility. It is time for the vegetarians to protest. My first prediction is that the world will not end on December 21, 2012, a claim wrongly attributed to the Mayans. Yes, on 21.12.12 — the winter solstice — the sun aligns with the centre of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years. Scientists think this will disrupt the energy streaming to Earth, but like the dread spawned by the Y2K scare (remember we all feared that all computers would shut down at midnight on January 1, 2000) and by Harold Camping’s Rapture, nothing extraordinary will happen on that date. On that I am prepared to bet my shirt.

Britain will host the 2012 Olympics in July immediately following Wimbledon which will see hometown lad Andy Murray continue the heartbreaking quest for a Grand Slam by a male Britisher (he is actually a Scotsman) since 1936. Bolt will not be as dominant nor will the Jamaicans be able to repeat their phenomenal final medal haul of 11 (comprising six gold, three silver and two bronze) achieved in China in 2008.

The Olympics will also compete with the traditionalists and the ‘nostalgienti’ who will celebrate in the 21st century, in endearing, cosmopolitan and expensive London the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the producer of some of the best literature ever written in any language. Nor will we be allowed to forget that the year marks a century since the unsinkable Titanic proved far more normal than its makers and its captain had imagined.

The best and the worst
Here at home, Chief of Staff Commodore Best will order an invasion of the National Stadium in a pre-emptive strike to stop the finals of the Kashif and Shanghai football tournament and request that the GDF budget be doubled to purchase missiles required for the exercise. The Minister of Finance agrees.

In cricket, sense will finally prevail and the West Indies Cricket Board will order that with immediate effect its teams will only compete in bumper ball tournaments and the West Indies team duly sweeps all and sundry before them and is crowned champion in Test, one day and 20/20 formats.

Elections everywhere
2012 will also be a year of national elections and it seems that everyone will be going to the polls. This prediction does not apply to Guyana which will seem always on the brink but never quite get there. Let us start with the US where BO (Barack Obama, of course) will be vying for a second term even as two independent candidates enter the US presidential elections. With help from Michelle, Barack Obama will be reelected by getting 270 Electoral College votes, the exact number needed to win. However, under the Patriot Act eavesdropping programme, a dozen emails surface showing that he had begged Bill Clinton to let Hillary be his running mate so that she and Bill would not harbour ambitions higher than the number two spot.

Meanwhile the Republicans win back enough Senate seats from the Democrats and get to 50 which results in a tie in the Senate, and the Democrats win enough seats in Congress to wrest the majority from the Republicans by one seat. In that regard, the US will become more like Guyana except that in the US they call it politics while in Guyana we think it is for real. Just look at the nightmare playing out between the AFC and the APNU – parties committed to sharing the spoils of victory but not defeat – in the selection of a Speaker!

The signs are that our good friend and neighbour Sr Hugo Chávez in a weakened state will still campaign to stave off defeat, while his friends in Cuba will worry about the possible loss of cheap oil in exchange for an army of semi-qualified doctors. China’s eighteenth Congress will say goodbye to both their handpicked President and Prime Minister and the new rulers will liberalise the one child per family rule to one and a half children per family. The regulations to put life (no pun intended) into this rule will take the better part of the Congress and our Priya Manickchand will be invited to assist on the technical details.

The Budget
In domestic politics a Speaker will be agreed upon in time for the Budget debate. Except for this, there can be no other prediction involving parties committed to power-sharing but who each starts from the position that it has a divine first right to all the powers before it can start sharing any. Meanwhile the storm about statements of polls will have fizzled out by early January and APNU chief spokesperson-for-the-week will react to questions about the lightning speed of APNU’s reconciliation of the SOPs by pointing out that APNU has other pressing matters to deal with, such as a grand farewell and pension package for Robert Corbin.

The Budget debate when it finally gets going will feature two of the shortest men in the National Assembly – Singh and Greenidge. Singh’s response to Greenidge’s professorial critique will be that since the PPP/C’s Budget for the past nineteen years was founded on the same ERP that Greenidge invented back when Singh was barely a young man, Greenidge has no “moral authority” to speak evil of the Budget.

Gold will lose some of its glitter while the Chinese and Russians will contract their international operations amid increasing resource nationalism and a fear of backlash. With Robert Persaud gone looking for oil, the four P’s of his former lavishly funded ministry – pepper, pineapple, pumpkin and plantains – will give way to a campaign to save sugar.

Jagdeo will refuse an invitation to take him at his word to become personally involved, saying that his appointees are doing an excellent job and that with all the money being spent on GuySuCo there is no place for production to go but up.

China’s growth will stall, but above mid-single digits, while India will continue to be mired in corruption and their Occupy Mumbai movement will be led by a septuagenarian with the unlikely name Anna Hazare. Guyana will look anxiously to see how India deals with prevention of corruption legislation; will make Geeta Singh-Knight answer for her (mis)management at CLICO and have Dr Ramroop and Odinga Lumumba pay a fair price for all the state assets handed to them by their now invisible benefactor.

Caricom will be like West Indian cricket and the less said about them the fairer it will reflect reality.

Wish list
Finally, here is my 2012 wish list which by definition is impossible to get wrong. That President Ramotar will reverse his prior commitment to more of the same and will:

Demand that the Public Accounts Committee perform its parliamentary duties with greater competence.

Push legislation to improve transparency by appointing a new Ombudsman, establish the Public Procurement Commission, revise the Access to Information Act and introduce anti-corruption legislation.

Revisit Jagdeo’s pet projects like the Kingston Marriot, the fibre-optic cable, Amaila and the speciality hospital.

Order the Cabinet-infested NICIL Board to bring its accounts up to date for independent audit. Declare the implementation of VAT was a rip-off but have a change of heart and compromise on a reduction in the rate to 10%.

Instruct the Guyana Revenue Authority to increase the volume of lifestyle audits of workers to try to understand why, like Leona Helmsley said, only the poor pay taxes.

Get rid of the deadwood in the Office of the President, otherwise known as presidential advisors, by the application of an integrity detector test and the ability to stay awake during meetings.

Until I get back to reality, here’s wishing us all a wonderfully productive 2012.

Our World in 2009

Certainly the most authoritative publication which predicts the grand occasions and developments of the following year is the widely circulated Economist, published in the UK. Even by its own admission many of its predictions for 2008 were way off target. That of course is true of all other publications that engage in this annual crystal ball-gazing. But then the Economist is no ordinary weekly – it is the weekly on economics and political issues of the day. Yet it got the US presidential elections wrong and like everyone else did not foresee the financial meltdown which started in the US and saw the nationalisation of nine banks across the US and Europe and the injection of more than a trillion US dollars. Incidentally, economists by a margin of 2 to 1 supported Barack Obama for the presidency of the US.

The US, therefore, is as good a place to start any prediction for 2009 when come January 20, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the first black President of the USA, the world’s only superpower. That is an occasion of historic proportions in a world that has for centuries been defined by colour and class. The world has changed dramatically since Obama began his campaign for the White House on the winning slogan, ‘Yes, We Can.’ The problem for him is how he can persuade the Americans that that statement comes with the unstated qualification, “but not now.” The truth is not even Superman could right the wrongs of US economy in one year.

America’s hope
Yet there are positives from an Obama presidency. He is one reason why the world will start looking at the US through changed lenses. The other is why they should. America accounts for some 20% of global GDP, ie one out of every five dollars spent. It is the willingness of the American consumer to spend – often money it does not have, on goods it does not produce – which has driven China and India, two of the most populous nations of the world to record growth lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.

But then there are some contradictions. Some economists are troubled that a President Obama, committed to righting the US economy will adopt protectionist measures. He has signalled as much with the promise to give tax breaks to American firms that stay at home. He is also on record as describing NAFTA as “devastating” and “a big mistake,” although he later back-peddled and indicated he would not unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA as he had earlier threatened to do. As increasing number of jobs are perceived to be lost to Mexico, Canada, India and China, the unanimous support which Obama has received from US labour may start to unravel. Already faced with the worst economy ever to have been inherited by an incoming US President, Obama will find that he has one of the shortest honeymoons on record with a zero margin for error.

Obama has also indicated that he would go full steam in a stimulus package designed to slow and then reverse the rate at which the economy is contracting. Estimates of the decline are anywhere between 3-5%, a catastrophic rate indeed, that would spell trouble for the rest of the world. If not the US, can the BRIC countries − Brazil, Russia, India and China − prevent the world economy nose-diving?

The elephant and the dragon
Not too long ago conventional wisdom was that the Chinese and Indian economies could do just that. But more recently, the pessimists have been in the ascendancy. The close of 2008 finds India sabre-rattling with its long-term rival Pakistan following the Mumbai bombing last month. Suddenly the Indian star is losing its brightness with the ever-present political uncertainties resurfacing. Elections predicted to be held in the first half of the year will almost certainly see the governing party paying a huge political price for its failure to respond quickly and decisively to the attack which India blames on Pakistan. The country that has had an average annual growth rate in the past five years in excess of 8% with the major share coming from services is almost certain to slow. The most direct impact will be on the poor, with tens of millions falling back into poverty.

This columnist for one has never been comfortable with an economic philosophy in which economic growth must necessarily be accompanied by a widening of the income and wealth gap. And that is what has been taking place in India. The World Bank reckons that in 2005 the number of persons living below the poverty line was 456 million compared with 420 million in 1981, although when measured as a percentage of the population there was a drop of some 18%. India’s infrastructure is poor, foreign investment is declining and the value of business on which the country’s hugely successful outsourcing information technology sector has been built has also declined.

China too will have its own problems. Its economy and rapid growth have been driven by exports which for seven years until November 2008 kept rising at rates so phenomenal that they astounded economists around the world. Then in November the Chinese reported the first year on year decline in exports of 2.6%. That is as bad for the economy as for the psyche which had started to entertain dreams of a Chinese century. But China’s fortunes in 2009 are bleak only by its own stratospheric standards.

The safest bet to weather an economic storm is to have lots and lots of money. China certainly does. It has re-invested upward of $1 trillion, mostly earnings from manufacturing exports, into American government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt. Its challenge is on choosing between further lending to finance American consumption of China goods or risk a further slowdown of exports on which it has built a modern economy that is the envy of the rest of the world. Its greatest challenge in 2009, however, is not the meltdown itself but how it responds to it. And there the signs for the Year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar are not good. Its instinctive response was a return to censorship.

Brazil and Russia
That takes a huge chunk out of the BRIC countries which some leading thinkers consider as having the potential to challenge the West as the most powerful economies, all within the next few decades. This may seem wishful thinking but those countries cover over twenty-five per cent of the world’s land and forty per cent of the world’s population. But Brazil too is experiencing its own challenges and its Congress recently approved on Thursday a cut of 10.3 billion reals ($4.38 billion) in the government’s 2009 budget to cope with an expected decline in tax revenues as a result of the global economic slowdown.

That leaves Russia. Judging by Putin’s swagger and the short uneven war with Georgia, one gets the impression that Russian power, pride and influence are rising. But with oil prices falling, Russia will have its own economic problems in 2009 with the usual mix of reduced foreign investments, rising imports and declining exports, restrictions on credit and inflation reducing real income.

Here at home
The end of 2008 of course was highlighted by the opening of the bridge across the Berbice River. It was a tremendous Christmas gift not only to Berbicians but to Guyana, and the government should be complimented on the achievement. But as the government looks at the prospects for 2009 it can do so only with at best guarded optimism. Forty years after Independence, Guyana is still mainly a commodity producing country which has only just graduated from being a country subject to the strictures of the IMF.

We are still without any real plan or direction. After more than two decades of allocating the nation’s forestry resources mainly to foreign investors, the country now wakes up to the possibility of carbon credits with President Jagdeo so convinced that he is prepared to make fundamental changes to the use of our forests, all without consultation.  The problem is that so much of our forests have already been allocated that any decision by the President on the use of the forests will require the agreement of the licensees. We could then be in a situation similar to that with GT&T where the government is unable to negotiate out of a lop-sided agreement following years of dithering.

The shelving of any plans for hydropower leaves the consumers at the mercy of the Guyana Power & Light Company which is easily the most inefficient operator of its kind in the region. Perhaps because GPL is state-owned and managed it has escaped the kind of criticism to which GuySuCo has been subjected, sometimes unfairly. It should not escape the attention of the decision-makers that none of the growth sectors of the economy rely on power by GPL for their operations. Until GPL can become an efficient producer and transmitter of electricity, the country’s economic progress will be retarded.

Over the past few years there has been a boom in commodity prices but the national budget has little to show for it. In fact in the midst of the boom, our national sugar company continues to rely on Government for support. National performance like growth in GDP is distorted by the role of international operators in bauxite, rice, gold and forestry. Excessive taxation is imposed on labour while investors enjoy all forms of concessions. There is an obsession with GDP while ignoring people issues like employment and poverty.

The country has so far taken the ostrich’s view of the economic crisis. It is time that we take our heads from the sand if we are to successfully negotiate with the challenges of 2009.