Like Guyanese everywhere, I am deeply concerned about the present environmental disasters affecting Guyana. There is a formality but it is partly political and directly in the power of political managers. I assure these managers that this is not an argument for power-sharing, which is now seen as a crime and a diversion from destiny. This letter is about the countrywide floods, the pandemic, and the impact of the new oil industry on the environment, and on long-term survival.
At the outset, let me say that regardless of whether my ideas and recommendations are accepted or not, I wish those in control of government as much success as possible in efforts to manage the disasters named and avoid damage to life, property, and ecology. This wish for success would have applied the same way if the previous government had been in office.
The political system allows single party management of disasters. This is regrettable but since the system cannot change overnight, I sincerely hope that in the interests of Guyanese of every description and political grouping, we can get away with it at least for this time. Whether Guyanese support the government or the opposition, it is in our common interest to wish success to all survival measures taken, and are about to be taken, for our common preservation.
In practical terms, it is my experience that disasters, epidemics or pandemics and environmental slippage can be more effectively approached by representative non-partisan or all-partisan working groups regarding each other as fellow citizens, fellow humans, and people in the same boat. Failure to work for and develop groupings and task forces along all party-lines is not the fault of any one party. All governments have traditionally turned national projects into party projects with the aim of eclipsing political rivals. In other words, they have carried the spirit of the election campaign into daily life between elections. Each new government repeats the practice of the government before it because its supporters expect it to do so and to gain political advantage.
During my first visit to the African continent, even as one-party regimes were spreading, I heard from ordinary people the phrase, “he chop, make I chop.” It was used as an excuse, for copying bad practices rather than best practice, so as not to appear stupid or be left behind. It seemed that this behaviour could be found in individuals, in parties, and in governments.
In the case of Guyana, if I am to avoid naming and blaming both of which are often useful, I can claim that governments tend to justify their successes, failures or shortcomings by reference to the same things in the regime, which they have succeeded or replaced. But this is all part of the political routine, and I don’t expect it to go away. As we all know now, we should have to find ways of dealing with disasters in spite of these features of our political practice.
I once wrote a short paper, not a letter to the editor, titled “The Pandemic”. In it, I made a brief reference to the fact that the first government under the pandemic, the APNU+AFC coalition, treated the pandemic in effect as a party project. I commended the new government of the PPP/C for their distribution of $25,000 to each household and then said that unfortunately, it had not improved the coalition’s method of handling the pandemic, but was also treating it as its own party project. In both cases, this treatment of the pandemic as the project of the government in power, reduced in my opinion the extent to which people generally were prepared to comply with preventive measures recommended for the whole population. The people on the spot can better design the presentation of an anti-pandemic campaign. To me, at a distance, it seems that the more people associate any campaign with the party in power, the more it is that large numbers of them will feel an inclination and in some cases a duty not to cooperate with it. The authorities should be wise enough to design task forces and to include public advocates who do not all appear partisan or chosen by the government in power. Although it will be useful for the Minister of Health at times to reassure the public of their awareness of the national needs, when the minister becomes the main daily spokesperson on the pandemic, there may be a lot of room for unintended partisan advocacy in the minister’s communication.
Assembling task forces and working groups with well-defined and limited authority should help to bring realism into the way particular disasters are seen and managed. For the sake of accountability, I would suggest that financial responsibility for the expenditure of all kinds should be left clearly in the hands of public servants accustomed to complying with the financial regulations. Expenditure on these projects should be subject to investigation by field auditors under the control of the auditor general and subject to the review of the public accounts committee. There should be some encouragement to media operators to encourage more frequent communication from our experts in health, in climate change, in environmental impacts so that after a time, larger sections of the population can engage in discussion of these issues and achieve some competence in the existing legislation and required legislation, and the best practices available globally.
The non-government members of the task forces and working groups should share in decision-making and have the right to advocate for communities, but expenditures should be left to the representatives of the state. The non-state member must be free to be vigilant against discrimination, conflicts of interest and feather-bedding. I hope that decision-makers of all political tendencies will take these recommendations not as a route to be followed, but as an alert that we have a duty to devise and introduce with urgency a system of disaster management much superior to the one now prevailing.