Check the facts first Editorial
Stabroek News
December 18, 2001

Certain questions have been raised about the ethnic composition of the staff employed by the Guyana Elections Commission in the recent elections. It would have been useful for those involved to have first read the Report of the Audit and Systems Review of the 200l elections process in Guyana by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Indeed this report which essentially gave the elections process a clean bill of health should be required reading for all elections commissioners and senior staff and all politicians, dealing as it does comprehensively with a number of issues that arose in the last elections such as the registration of voters and compilation of the voters list, the production and dispensing of the national identity card, a forensic investigation into concerns and complaints on the software and data used by the elections commission, operations and logistics and human resources and training. It is the last item however, human resources and training, dealt with in Chapter Seven, that concerns us here.

The IDEA made a thorough analysis of the process of recruitment and appointment of staff. It also dealt briefly with training. It noted that staff were recruited by the commission itself, not by the public service commission. It did find that some features of the recruitment procedures were not in its opinion ideal and suggested improvements but it also had some very interesting things to say.

For example, dealing with applications for jobs the report said: "As mentioned above in the introduction to this section, the allegations associated with the problems relating to applications and invitations are limited to specific concerns and did not contain, despite frequent questions to the political parties concerned, either proof of misconduct or direct linkages to subsequent misconduct by polling staff. No political party was able to show any reason why the administrative blunders regarding application handling and invitation delivery were not equal application, and therefore could have caused prejudice to a particular party". And again: "It is also important to note that, as previously stated above, GECOM was under no statutory obligation to produce racially balanced teams of electoral officials, rather they were obliged to select persons capable of carrying out the duties impartially and completely. Once again no evidence was produced of a pattern of incompetent or partial behaviour that could be linked to one or more ethnic groups".

And yet again: "Finally, it should be noted that all political parties interviewed shied away from making direct correlations between the ethnic composition of polling station staff and their propensity for bias. Specifically, in respse to direct questions concerning the potential need for a policy on "ethnic sensitivity" all the political parties responded that such a policy would be likely to create more problems than it would solve and rather emphasised the need for more transparency in the selection process. Once again, however, perceptions are powerful forces and the general problems related to recruitment and selection at various stages of the process provided fertile ground for allegations and suspicions in this regard".

In the report's recommendations it was suggested that the issues to be dealt with in formulating "a new, clear, written recruitment policy" should include "The validity of ethnicity as a criterion for either selection or the composition of a particular team. Because, rather than despite, its extreme sensitivity and potential to cause great harm both within GECOM and broader society, this issue must be handled directly and systematically. If, as a result of research and dialogue with stakeholders, ethnic origin is confirmed as a valid criterion, then it should be dealt with systematically within the confines of whatever constitutional and/or legal frameworks currently exist within Guyana on this issue. Should it be decided that it is not a valid criterion then every effort should be made to ensure that the recruitment process is as transparent as possible in order to make it less vulnerable to accusations regarding ethnic bias".

Simply saying, as has been done, that there was a preponderance of one ethnic group in the elections staff and implying that there was therefore inevitably discrimination and manipulation is just not good enough, not fair and not useful. It is a perfect example of the slackness and carelessness that can make public debate useless and even counterproductive. Informed public debate must start from a proper and careful scrutiny of the facts including available reports. Many who voted will testify that the procedures at polling stations on voting day were quite impressive, staff seemed to know their jobs and were polite. There were some blemishes on election day but they were the exception not the rule.

As the Report puts it: "The conduct of polling day staff on election day seems to indicate that a fair amount of learning took place and staff, within the context of new procedures, changing information, unreliable communication, insufficient contingency planning and other difficulties, made a success of the day. The Systems review team was obviously not able to observe training but GECOM and observer reports as well as the reports of specialist training advisors seem to indicate that the quality of the training was generally good and concerns rested mainly with the administration of the training".

If we start with assumptions of ethnic bias in these a other areas many false conclusions will be drawn and false allegations of discrimination will be made.We must not allow ethnic fears to cloud our judgement. The motto should always be check the facts as carefully as one can before jumping to any conclusions. Most people try to do their job as well as they can, there are often good and valid reasons for the problems and bottlenecks that have arisen that have nothing to do with ethnicity.