Viewpoint: Guyana's Economy at age 30

From Caribbean Daylight , May 20, 1996

by Dr. Clive Thomas

This month marks the 30th Anniversary of our Independence. Coming so close to year 2000 - the start of a new millennium - there is all the more reason why we should use this period to reflect on what we have achieved, or failed to achieve, with our hard won independence.

A number of media events and publications will no doubt provide a framework for this. In this Viewpoint, I use the opportunity to share a few of the observations which I have made about our economy, that will be carried in this month's issue of Guyana's Review, which focuses on the 30th Anniversary.

At Independence, Guyana held out the best prospect for economic development in the English-speaking Caribbean. Our size and our natural resources endowment were clearly superior to all the other territories. Our human resources were second to none. For those too young to recall, this was the period when high standards in education and training were diligently pursued, and when too most individuals, families, and households saw education and self-imptovement as the only opportunity for economic advancement and social mobility. Corrupt practices, fraud, illegal trading and drug trafficking were rare occurrences.

But what has happened'? Using any set of economic or social indicators, this promise has been fulfilled. Consider a few. First, the value of the national output per person in 1966 was US$300. Today it is about US$690. This figure is about 1/17 of that in the Bahamas: 1/10 of that in Barbados; and less than 1/6 of that in Trinidad and Tobago and 1/2 of that in Jamaica.

Second, our exchange rate has fallen precipitously from G$2 to US$1 at Independence to G$142 lo US$1 today. But in other Caribbean territories we find presently that the exchange rate in Belize and Barbados is still 2 local dollars to one US. In the Leewards and Windwards it is EC$267 to US$1, in Trinidad and Tobago TT$6 to US$1 and-in Jamaica J$40 to US$ 1.

The social indicators are just as hard. For example our population at Independence was 630,000 persons. In the April 1970 Census the figure was 670,000 persons. If the floodgates of legal and illegal immigration were not let loose because of deteriorating economic, social and political circumstances, our population today alone would be about 1.1 to 1.2 million persons - without taking into account migration into Guyana from the rest of the over populated Caribbean, which we had all expected to occur after Independence.

Perhaps the single most accurate indicator of the gap between the promise at the time of Independence and actual performance is revealed in the cross-CARICOM comparison of the UNDP Human Development Index ranking for 1995. The Index measures the level of "well being" for 173 member countries based on both economic and social indicators. Guyana is the lowest ranked among the CARICOM countries at 105. Six CARICOM countries rank among the top 40 in the world (Antigua-Barbuda , Bahamas, Belize, St. Kitts-Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago).

Despite our advantage of size, natural and human resources at the time of Independence, the quality of life and livings standards in the rest of CARICOM have gotten closer to those of the most developed countries in the world than ours, leaving Guyana trailing far behind.

Despite all this, I still remain hopeful about our economic prospects. The natural resources endowment of Guyana is awesome by international standards - ranging from power to minerals, and including forest resources, biodiversity, agriculture and economic structures. Guyana is an El Dorado, but not one which is waiting to be "discovered." It is one waiting to be built out of the sweat, intelligence, ingenuity and inventive ness of us all. But to achieve this we have to find a solution which turns the rich ethnic variety of our country into an asset, not the liability and continual source of worry, instability and disintegration it presently seems to be. If we do not find this solution by Year 2000, I personally doubt it will ever be found.

The future of Guyana, therefore , literally is in our hands - as it should be for any independent nation.