Civil Society and the development of Guyana

by Kenneth King
Stabroek News
September 5, 1999

In the past, in most countries, development plans and strategies were prepared by national governments. It is true that in some cases, certain sections of the population were consulted during various stages of the preparation of such documents. However, in very few instances, if any, were representatives of civil society actually involved in the identification of the objectives of national development, in the formulation of policies and strategies to attain the objectives and, perhaps most important, in the management of the entire process.

By civil society is meant individuals and groups, organised or unorganised, who interact in the social, political and economic spheres of a country. Neither governments nor political parties are included in this definition of civil society although many of the members of civil society might belong to or support either the government or the political opposition.

In 1993, Dr Cheddi Jagan, the then President of Guyana, approached the Carter Centre seeking help in the formulation of a National Development Strategy (NDS). The Carter Centre agreed to provide both financial and technical assistance in the preparation of a first draft, which was published in 1996.

Although many Guyanese experts contributed to the preparation of the series of documents which comprised the Strategy, the management of that project was not placed in the hands of Guyana's civil society. Moreover, a number of well-qualified persons did not have the opportunity to participate. In addition, the major opposition party objected to it being put forward as a national strategy mainly on the ground that it would be used by the People's Progressive Party as its manifesto for the elections which were due in the following year.

Although the first draft was therefore never brought to Parliament, it soon became apparent that a policy framework document, such as the NDS, would provide a useful guide for the future development of Guyana. It was also evident that the Strategy contained so much useful information and so many useful analyses that it would be a pity to discard it in its entirety.

However, it was rapidly becoming out-of-date and the dynamics of the economy had altered somewhat. Furthermore, it was more than likely that a mere revision would be met by the same objections that were made to the methods of preparing, and to the perceived political objective of the original document.

Accordingly, the Carter Centre, after consulting the Minister of Finance, Mr Bharrat Jagdeo, approached a number of members of Guyanese civil society and discussed with them their possible participation in the formulation of a second and final draft of the National Development Strategy. A very high proportion of those who were contacted agreed to serve and, in September 1998, a broadly representatively national civil committee, now known as the National Development Strategy Committee (NDSC), was assembled.

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the Minister of Finance had no say in deciding which persons should be approached or which persons should be selected. Nor, according to Carter Centre sources, did he express any desire to influence the composition of the Committee. Moreover, the arrangement between the Minister and the NDSC is that the report once completed, will be submitted to him. It will then be discussed in Cabinet and laid, unaltered, in the National Assembly, in the same manner as are Reports of the Auditor General. There, the Government, as well as opposition parties, would be free to express their views on the Strategy.

At its first two meetings, which were the only ones attended by the Minister of Finance, the NDSC elected five co-chairpersons whose task it is to co-ordinate and manage the process. Before formally taking up their positions the co-chairpersons, either together or in groups, met the leaders of all the parliamentary parties and apprised them of the intention to re-write the NDS, the broad composition of the NDSC, and the procedures which would be followed in formulating the Strategy. The co-chairpersons, in addition to chairing all meetings of the NDSC, where draft chapters are considered in detail, meet among themselves each week. They also inform the Minister from time to time of the progress being made in the Strategy's preparation.

All members of the NDSC give their services without payment. The Government of Guyana and the Carter Centre meet all secretarial expenses. Immediately after the convening of the NDSC, sectoral committees were selected to undertake the work of developing revised drafts of all the existing chapters, and of preparing new drafts for chapters on Governance and the Guyanese Family, which were not included in the original NDS. It must be stressed that these sectoral committees are not engaged in the mere updating of the document published in 1996. Their rewriting of the chapters entails, in many cases, changes in philosophy, substance and thrust. Put in another way, the entire strategy is often changed and entirely new versions are being put forward. Every race, every religion, every political party, every economic sector, and every ideological persuasion is represented on the NDSC, and/or the sectoral committees.

The two new chapters on Governance and the Guyanese Family are perhaps illustrative of the all-embracing approach which the NDSC is taking with regard to Guyana's socio-economic development. The Committee is convinced that there can be little or no economic development in Guyana if there is not good governance. Accordingly, it has made prescriptions in respect of inter alia, civil rights, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, public administration (including the Public Service, and systems to ensure accountability and transparency), and the delegation of authority from the Centre to the regions and villages. The chapter on the Guyanese Family emphasises the crucial importance that is attached by the Committee to the enhancement of human values in our society, and to the vital role which should be played by the family in this area. Particular attention is paid in this new chapter to the plights that are currently being experienced by our young and elderly persons, and strategies are put forward towards the alleviation of the problems which they face.

The importance of gender and environmental issues pervades the document.

This is not the time and place to go into a detailed description of the strategies that are being formulated. The intention here is merely to provide a backdrop to the studies, and to emphasise the participatory nature of the exercise. It would, however, be remiss of me were I not to stress three salient features that are emphasised throughout the document.

First, the imperative of modernising and restructuring those public institutions which are essential in the nurturing of an enabling environment for our future development is given prominence. Second, the necessity to attract, entice and assembly in our society a critical mass of administrators, scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, and other professionals, as quickly as possible, if the objectives established in the NDS are to stand any chance of attainment, is repeated, some might say, ad nauseam.

And third, the obvious need both to diversify the economy and expand into the interior is emphasised.

This last point is considered to be so important that it might be apposite, even in this introductory article on the NDS, to expand on it. We contend in the Strategy that it is worth reflecting on the special character of our nation. Guyana, land of many waters, is in many respects unique in landforms and ecosystems. It is a land of savannas, majestic waterfalls, and renowned forest wealth. It is a land of rich agricultural soils, and fabulous mineral deposits and marine resources.

It has the vigour of a multi-racial society, embracing the gamut of cultures: African, Amerindian, Asian and European. It possesses an outstanding educational tradition. The country's language is the lingua franca of the world, opening up international contacts and stimuli for all Guyanese, to an extent that is not true, not only for other developing countries in South America, but also for large parts of Africa and Asia.

With this background and potential, it is the greatest of ironies that Guyana, one of the world's least populated countries in relation to its geographic space, has become a cramped society characterised by small horizons, and bedevilled by self-doubt. Perhaps without realising it, over the decades of independence, we have grown to accept, almost unquestioningly, accretions of restrictions and constraints.

By not expanding our transport and energy systems into our vast interior, we have allowed ourselves to become crammed into a narrow retreating coastal zone, trapped between seawall and backdam. Our capital is hemmed in by the Atlantic Ocean, the Demerara River, and expanses of cane and rice fields, with no adequate outlets for the urgent demands for housing, for industrial development, and for recreation.

By accepting an overweening, interventionist, and controlling role of government, which has to approve our access to land, our private investment decisions, -- indeed almost all the major decisions we make in life - we have restricted our social and economic freedom and have placed a massive incubus on our creative energies. Too many of us now instinctively look to government, instead of to ourselves, for charting and following our own courses. We are not a confident, self-assured civil society.

We have allowed the shadows of our history to dominate our potential and to perpetuate fear. We have become captive to our own racial and political stereotypes.

Guyanese who have chosen a life abroad have earned well-deserved reputations for hard work and competence. Those of us who have stayed, or have returned, to engage in the labour of building our nation, can do so as well, provided that we free ourselves of these self-imposed restrictions. This means expanding into our geographic interior; extending our civic and private sectors; and putting central government in its proper roles of policy maker and regulator, not commander. It requires the strengthening of our local government to allow fruitful participation by all. It demands resisting appeals to act and react on the basis of race. It implores us to conduct ourselves first and foremost as Guyanese.

This also means the further widening of our economy from the narrow base of sugar, rice, and bauxite on which it has rested for far too long. It means drastically diversifying our agriculture. It means moving from a predominantly agricultural society to an agro-industrial economy in which the value that is added to our products accrues in this country. It means utilising all the available technology rapidly to modernise our country.

This National Development Strategy is put forward by Guyanese civil society both as a compass, and as a framework for realising potential and for releasing our society and economy from the shackles which now so decisively restrain us. It seeks to define our most urgent priorities and, in every area, clearly lays down concrete policy reforms and actions. It is the product of many of us, Guyanese of all races and of diverse professions. To implement it and to realise the dream it embodies would require the collaboration of all of us.

What is now happening in Guyana, in regard to the formulation of the National Development Strategy, is a rare, if not unique, occurrence. Indeed, it is perhaps the first truly inclusive and participatory development exercise to be ever undertaken in our country.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples