Give me your best and brightest, I'll give you... BUSINESS PAGE
By Christopher Ram
Stabroek News
September 29, 2002

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The level of unemployment in Guyana is without question unacceptably high. No one is sure of the true percentage of the population, because of our aversion to both accurate statistics and unpalatable truths and also because those who should, apparently do not care. Paradoxically, however, many jobs are being advertised and yet employers are left scratching their heads at not only the dearth of qualified applicants but also the small number of applications received. However, this situation is not the conundrum it appears to be if one takes a careful look at what has transpired in Guyana over the last three decades. The education system, which up to the sixties and early seventies could be compared more than favourably to others anywhere in the world, has disintegrated. Regardless of who is to blame, and there can be no doubt as to the culprits, this is an inescapable and depressing reality.

Economic development

The amounts allocated to education as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product in aggregate and when adjusted for inflation have declined each year for as long as one cares to remember. This flies in the face of conventional logic which has always embraced education as the foundation for growth, economic development and improved living standards. The age-old debate has long raged over why some countries are better off than others and all indications are that there is correlation between the level of education in a country and its economic success. For some inexplicable reason we seem hell-bent on disproving this theory no matter the cost.

Dubious distinction

While the question of education and the financial resources available to the system are relevant issues, the problem is much more far-reaching than that. Statistics indicate that Guyana has the dubious distinction of being the country with perhaps the highest exportation of skills in the world - 70% of all nationals with tertiary education have migrated to the United States. A mind-numbing statistic if ever there was one, and it is one which we as a nation should not continue to ignore or we are destined to remain in the quagmire of underdevelopment. The fact that there is a high incidence of migration in itself should be no revelation but even the most pessimistic among us would not have contemplated these staggering numbers.


The frightening implication of all this for those of us who run businesses is the harsh reality that no amount of investment in education will solve the problem unless the root causes are attacked. If the country is unable to retain its best and brightest graduates or encourage them to return once they have completed their university education, money thrown at education will only help some other country's economic progress. Of course, Mr Honourable Finance Minister, this does not mean that you should immediately eliminate education subventions from the 2003 budget.

We are faced with a shortage of skills and the situation will continue to worsen unless measures are taken to counterbalance the existing incentives that encourage those with the requisite education and skill-sets to migrate. The current situation in the country and recent events make this an unenviable task but action is needed, and not tomorrow or next week, but immediately.


A microcosm of the overall distressing picture is the situation in the accounting profession which despite its recent transgressions is a necessary component of any economic system. For the past several years, the number of newly minted qualified accountants is greater than at any time in the last two decades, yet the total number of qualified accountants in Guyana continues to dwindle each year. No, it is not that a Guyanese strain of Enronitis has resulted in many being jailed, neither is there an unusually high mortality rate in the profession. The young and even not so young are merely using their qualification as a passport to greener pastures.

Three young recent graduates have already made it clear that they see no future for themselves and their families in Guyana and have readied their applications for self-sponsorship to Canada. While the Canadians must surely be inundated with applications, the fact that these individuals have a professional qualification almost certainly guarantees their approval. It has also been reported that more than fifteen doctors have migrated since the beginning of this year and we all know how prepared the health care system is to withstand that loss.


This situation is replicated many times over throughout the country in all of the professions and other areas, and one is hard-pressed to find an argument convincing enough to change the minds of these persons. The end result is that employers are now forced to not only look at, but in most cases to hire the second or third tier applicant for that managerial or professional position. Those unfortunate individuals are now thrust into situations for which they may not have the necessary education, training or experience but are burdened with the expectations associated with their new status. This could have damaging long-term consequences since their inability to cope with their responsibilities often results in their dismissal. The cycle then recommences but this time, however, the employer is choosing from an ever-shrinking pool of candidates who, except in the most fortuitous of circumstances, are even less suited for the position than the previous incumbent.


Incompetence and inefficiency become entrenched in the culture and the frustration level of those who are accustomed to getting things done keeps escalating. The effort and time necessary to get some of the simplest things addressed is now becoming almost intolerable.

There are two dominant archetypes emerging who seem committed to the perpetuation of ineptitude and ineffectiveness - the bureaucrat and the bungler. There are some characters who are sometimes so enamoured of their authority that they forget the purpose for which it was originally given and can create every obstacle under the sun and provide every excuse for not taking action. On the other hand there are others who become so wrapped up in the academic rather than real world issues that they become victims of analysis paralysis and arrive at erroneous conclusions or decisions when and if they ever get to that point.


Invariably intervention by people at the top of organizations has to be sought to ensure that action is taken on albeit often relatively simple matters which, if not dealt with expeditiously, could result in substantial and often unwarranted cost to a business. The only solution would be to ensure that people are not placed in positions or promoted above their level of competence. Unfortunately, in the current environment in which businesspersons are forced to operate this is impossible because of the wholesale migration of skills that has taken place. In days gone by people left to further their education and were prepared to return because they felt that they could make a life for themselves in Guyana. Now sadly but justifiably not too many are willing to make what would be a considerable sacrifice to remain in Guyana if they have the option of leaving. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic it must be acknowledged that there are many valid reasons why this is so.

Working poor

Not too long ago, a young two-income married couple could consider saving money towards the purchase of a car and combining their savings with a loan could eventually make their dream a reality. This was achieved by making small adjustments to their budget, and as time passed and the car note was paid off they would turn their attention to the acquisition of a home. Again they realized that they could, with perhaps some somewhat larger budgetary adjustments, save some money for the down payment and closing costs and be able to afford a mortgage. This situation still obtained twenty-five and perhaps even twenty years ago, and could apply to persons in the civil service, and believe it or not teachers, army officers and police officers. This is no longer the case today because of the systematic erosion of the middle class and the shocking increase in the numbers of those who could only be classified as working poor in an amazingly short period of time.

Shameful indictment

If a survey were to be conducted persons in this group would represent a significant portion (without exaggeration perhaps in excess of 75%) of the employed population. In many parts of the world and even some countries in the Caribbean, persons with merely a high school diploma do not fall within this category because of the state of economic development of the countries in which they live. Here many University of Guyana graduates cannot find jobs and if they do invariably they cannot earn enough to support themselves much less a family. There are also very few businesses which can pay all of their employees enough to live on comfortably and still remain competitive or even survive. In these circumstances persons faced with this reality cannot be blamed for making a decision to bolt for the land of opportunity wherever they perceive that to be. This is a shameful indictment of our society and of the politics that got us to this point and that continue to dominate every aspect of daily life - safety and health concerns, education of our children, infrastructural decay or inability to improve one's standard of living.


A vicious cycle is created where the country keeps getting poorer as people leave and as they migrate the country becomes more impoverished. It can be argued that there are many events which contributed to the erosion of patriotism among Guyanese, many of whom are merely emigrants in waiting. However one can look with some admiration and envy at a country like Grenada whose people 20 years ago experienced one of the most traumatic upheavals in recent times but yet the level of migration is nowhere near that of Guyana.

There is no simple solution because some of those who have contributed to the decline that is the genesis of the problem are still in or are seeking to regain the corridors of power. However, the business community in Guyana must be uncompromising and vocal in its call for the decision makers to take tangible action to provide an environment where the young professional, teacher, technician or potential manager sees Guyana as a place in which there is a future. The situation is not helped by the tragic irony of a non-negotiable exchange with the United States of our best brains for criminal deportees and Canada's economic aid while that country throws its doors open to our most qualified.

(Part 2)
The accountant and the gardener

Today we continue the piece about migration which unfortunately means in respect of Guyana outward migration including our best and brightest - recent graduates and professionals - in return for which the United States sends us back those Guyanese who were ‘socialised’ (criminalised) in that country and who have hardly a ghost of a chance in a straight life in Guyana. One banker friend shared the general tenor of Part 1 offering the additional comment that he now finds it as difficult to get a competent gardener as it is to get a “half-decent accountant.” Post-Enron one does not try to defend the profession and I allowed the comment to pass.

By a remarkable coincidence the Economist for the week following also took up the issue of outward migration from developing countries reflecting the findings of an October 2001 report by the Department for International Development, UK (DFID) prepared for the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Geneva. This serious and sustained attention to the issue comes against the background of an increasingly globalised world, the growth in the, world economy and, particularly in information technology in which some developing countries, most notably India have built up in an incredibly short time a skill capacity which feeds the insatiable need for such skills in the developed countries.

The studies of course reflect classical economic thinking and are naturally limited to a sample of countries only. Guyana being among the extreme cases was not among the countries which formed the basis of the ILO study. Readers will recall the staggering statistic that 70 per cent of all our nationals with tertiary education have migrated to the United States! This compares with the range of ten to thirty per cent losses of the highly educated workforce among developing countries. If we add our losses to other countries we may find that we are close to exceeding 100 per cent!! Yet, incredibly such a drag on our social and economic development is not even on the national agenda.

The findings

The findings based on these classical approaches include: a) some amount of mobility is necessary if developing countries are to integrate into the global economy; b) since resources should go where they are best utilised, the world is a richer and ‘better’ place as a result of intellectual skills moving from developing countries to developed countries; c) migration creates opportunities for those who remain and therefore stimulates persons to pursue education, thereby increasing the workforce skill and enhancing economic development; d) that the remittances sent back to relatives help the domestic economy; and e) that emigration operates as a safety valve for the exporting country.

Guyana being Guyana and dominated even before independence by politicians unwilling or unable to undertake the kind of intellectual and objective analysis of such a phenomenon which assumed problem proportions since the early sixties, has simply ignored the issue. Indeed there is a suggestion that some circles rationalise that if they can get sufficient numbers of the ‘other side’ to migrate, winning the next election will be a breeze. This column supports the concern by those who consider many of the findings of the recent studies extremely shallow even in normal countries and hopefully there will be follow-up studies by more liberal and open institutions specialising in the study of international migration.

So when it comes to Guyana the findings are particularly irrelevant and even the most cursory examination will show that the classical theory and models do not apply here and indeed several important implications have not received any attention. To the extent that they are relevant, the negatives are extremely sharp and explain not only the lack of economic growth but also the lack of vision or more directly ambition among Guyanese.

The social impact

For many families the emigration process starts with one member of the family leaving to go and pave the way for the others. There is no known study of the social consequences of this separation on both sides of the divide but it must be inevitable that the children are affected sometimes irreparably while is not unusual for these separations to end in divorce. North American society does not share Guyanese concept of family size and this is reflected in housing, work patterns and support facilities. While both the US and Canada are increasingly willing to poach our best and brightest, those countries are not prepared to allow ‘baggage.’ Whereas grandparents are an integral part of the Guyana family structure in matters of the upbringing of the children, they are certainly not welcome in those countries. Because of this many families prefer to leave their children in Guyana with relatives reasoning that it is a better society for bringing up children and that since many of our youngsters who do well at SSEE and CXC often excel when they enter the North American education system, our system must be good. The truth is that those kids would most likely have done well anywhere. And it is difficult to see how a stagnant society now overtaken by basic security concerns can be better than North America.


For those who remain, remittance feeds the dependency syndrome since it is often more than the net disposable income from many jobs even if these can be found. Many of the recipients are really emigrants-in-waiting psychologically not prepared to make much of an effort even when they are employed. In that case the statement that “our employees are our greatest asset” must be the emptiest platitude in the book.

When there are many dependents remaining in Guyana the amount of remittance is indeed substantial. It is equally true that such remittances help to prevent poverty and its consequences for many of the recipients. They help to pay educational expenses, meet domestic expenses and offer some hope. However, as more and more of these dependents migrate, the need for remittances is reduced.

Statistics are of course very limited but there is now increasing evidence that in many cases a substantial proportion of the remittance is to pay the deposit for the illegal importation of dependents.

It is important to bear in mind that the remittance route is not one-way and as Dr Gem Fletcher and Ms Donna Culpepper found in their study The Impact of the Money Service Businesses on Monetary Policy for the Period 1989-1998, payment for education fees ranks second only to business purposes in outward remittances. Of course fees are not cheap and a few transactions can account for tens of thousands of real dollars while for inward remittance to support families, the value per transaction is low not only by comparison but in absolute terms as well. As that study emphasised, the advent of the no-questions asked cambios and money transfer services has masked the extent of export of funds even by those who have no immediate plans to migrate but who are becoming convinced that there is little or no future for this country given its existing political arrangements and key players.

Who wants to integrate with us?

The argument that some amount of outward mobility is necessary if developing countries are to integrate into the global economy is hardly relevant to a country such as ours which has perhaps one of the largest expatriate populations in the world. And as for integration into the global economy, the trouble is that we have a model open economy, but no one wants to integrate with us. Who wants to be in a country in which the security forces cannot guarantee the safety and security of its Head of State in areas of that country and in which the police are persona non grata? Worse still, where it appears that not only are the police prepared to accept that situation but so too is the government.

No doubt America and Canada and an increasing number of other countries are indeed better and richer for the Guyanese talent which they get at no cost, but since few of these emigrants have no intention of bringing back their skills to Guyana there is almost zero benefit. The skills we have received from remigration have been mostly of the negative sort which actually aggravates a bad situation.

The argument that migration creates opportunities for those who remain ignores the fact of who remains. Without being too cynical, one cannot help noticing how rapidly Guyanese rise to their level of incompetence with practically no effort.

The stock is so depleted that employers dare not hesitate about hiring the first reasonable applicant for fear of losing that person to another employer. This creates such a dangerous situation that some employers retain employees who they know add little value to the organisation on the grounds that the replacement may be worse! While it is true that this shortage may stimulate persons to pursue education, the objective is usually very narrow and is principally to position oneself to demand unjustifiably higher salaries. With little or no interest in contributing to the employer, the overall benefit to the economy of higher emoluments is negligible. Indeed, the whole focus of education for many of our youngsters is the ability to meet the demands of the international job market and the skill sets which carry marks on the visa application form.

Safety valve?

Rather than emigration operating as a safety valve for Guyana, emigration has blunted any resistance to the type of backward governance that has been our lot for decades. Societies need a strong middle class with independence and integrity to challenge the authorities but with a dwindling of this pool, there is no alternative voice to speak up and speak out. Those who remain are either too compromised or too tired of hoping that things will change.


No one will argue that we continue to lose our best and brightest. You only have to look at those who hold important positions whether in national or local government, the public sector or the private sector, the for-profit or the non-profit sectors, the professions or labour, perhaps even in religion, to realise that each of these is now well below the fifth eleven. Those friendly donor countries continue to take our best and brightest giving us little in return.

While the Buxton phenomenon is perhaps the worst situation Guyanese have had to endure for decades, it would be wrong to see this as an event rather than the inevitable result of policies, practices and attitudes to law and order, education and development. Legality and legitimacy have become blurred; tax dodgers, smugglers and convicts are treated like heroes; pavement vendors are seen as exercising their right to earn a living; housing policies have largely been dictated by squatting; respect for the environment is considered anti-development; politics is viewed as the fastest route to personal wealth and the provision of security becomes a personal responsibility. We continue to be a country with potential only for experimenting with poverty strategies rather than development - a country where migration is the only hope for the majority.