Notes on Poverty, Democracy and Development Viewpoint
By Dr Martin Jagdeo Boodhoo
Guyana Chronicle
October 23, 2001

ON SUNDAY August 26, I participated in the National Consultation on Poverty Reduction at the Zeeburg Secondary School in Region Three.

The consultative process which involved residents of various political, ethnic and religious backgrounds, has unequivocally reinforced my belief that the ‘ordinary’ man and woman have the ability, dedication and courage to discuss problems and put forward solutions and recommendations for Poverty Reduction, when given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

I would like to assume that the commitment of participants in the other consultations that took place on the same day was equally stimulating and refreshing. This underlines the fact that Guyanese are willing to work together at the grassroot level in the development process.

It is said that the poor are always with us; but poor people are willing to help themselves when given the opportunity. While it is laudable to give a man a fish, is it not more purposeful to teach him to fish? By instinct we are motivated to survive no matter how adverse the environment.

Among the several problems discussed and the recommendations put forward in the ‘National Pow-Wow’ on Poverty Reduction, was the need to restructure the system of local and regional administration, in order to facilitate wider and more frequent “people participation” in socio-economic development and poverty alleviation in particular.

The essence of the democratic ethic is the participation of people in matters that affect their lives. Regrettably, after all the discussions, Commissions and Multi-party consensus, on Constitutional Reform, there is very limited scope for people to directly elect their representatives at the regional and local levels. In spite of the several representations made over the years, the reform of our Local Government system has not been considered a priority, over the political spectrum.

It has been emphasised on numerous occasions that without direct election of local and regional representatives through First-Past-The-Post, people would feel left out of the development process. The involvement of people in a “now and then approach”, only whets the appetite, but does little to fill the stomach, to enable people to “talk-back” and provide “checks and balances” in an informed manner.

It should be noted that Article 160 (2) of the 1980 Constitution of Guyana, was intended to provide for not more than half of the members of the National Assembly to be elected on a Constituency basis and the remainder through Proportional Representation. Surprisingly, this option has not been invoked by any government so far!

The case for electing members of regional and local councils on a “constituency” or “ward” basis cannot be overstated. To say the least, it is overdue in the new democratic dispensation. Moreover, it is one of the most effective and expeditious strategies for encouraging our people to work together, at the regional and local levels, regardless of Party affiliation. This method would influence voters to elect their representatives on the basis of their personal and professional merit and not on Party affiliation only.

The case for a more effective system of decentralised adminstration was emphasised at a workshop in the “Deepening Democracy Series” organsied by the Commonwealth Secretariat from 23 to 25 May, 2001, in Canberra, Australia. The concept of “Distributed Government” is one of the new ideas and strategies to promote stakeholders’ confidence and democratic governance. The Commonwealth Currents article defines the concept in the following terms:

“Distributed Government is exactly what it says it is. It is political power and responsibility so distributed that a wider range of groups and individuals can assume a greater degree of shared community control over decision-making. Distributed government is the opposite of concentrated government. The concentration of the powers of government in too few hands is a recipe for despotism.”

The article goes on to state that:

“Distributed Government is not meant to limit the scope of government by providing new opportunities for vested interests to veto law and policy. It is intended to generate greater community participation in the process of government. The hope is that more people will participate, if they can see real value in their contribution to public affairs. One criticism of existing systems of representative government is that the value of public input is diminished when elected political representatives assume full responsibility for the outcomes of public consultation. Responsibility, like power, can suffer from too much concentration.”

In my view, people involvement in the development process should not be a matter of a “now and then approach”. It should be based on an inclusive, constructive, and coordinated strategy of working together.

Without doubt, the recent Consultations on Poverty Reduction have clearly demonstrated the need for a new institutional framework to facilitate meaningful “grassroot” participation in the development process in Guyana.

Dr Boodhoo is a Managent Consultant. He is a former UN Adviser and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Guyana.