Ethnic Marginalization in Guyana

Stabroek News
September 23, 2015

Recently the PPP accused the APNU+AFC government of ethnic cleansing. The term ethnic cleansing was made popular by the PNC in the mid-1990s and former president Desmond Hoyte actually used the term in a letter to Stabroek News in 1996. At no time in Guyana's history was there an ethnic cleansing. Not even the ethnic tit-for-tat killings of the early 1960s or the ethnic/extra-judicial/narco killings from 1997 to 2006 qualify as ethnic cleansing in Guyana. This term was used by pro-ethnic leaders like Hoyte and Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo to stir up fear of the other and resentments among their respective ethnic masses. Typically, this strategy of fear mongering is meant for cementing the ethnic divide and preserving pro-ethnic voting.

In Guyana there is a struggle between two dominant ethnic groups to control economic opportunities and resources. In no way does it qualify as ethnic cleansing. The ethnic elites use crass and subtle methods to keep their respective masses within the group. The masses are kept at subsistence production and in a state of ignorance and fear of the other group. This fear manifests itself at election time in polarized ethnic voting, in spite of some hopeful indications of an emerging class of swing voters. Winning the election means the ethnic elites have to reward their supporters who come mainly from one ethnic group.

The elites cannot do much for their masses as the country does not possess many natural resources (except gold) or agricultural crops that can be produced at a globally competitive price. Therefore, fear mongering is one technique to keep the masses ignorant and scared of the other side. Much of the struggle for economic opportunities plays out in the public service which has been thoroughly abused since the time of party paramountcy of the Burnham PNC. Indians were virtually non-existent in the pre-1992 public service and in prestigious semi-autonomous agencies like Bank of Guyana.

The logic of the pro-ethnic vote meant the Cheddi Jagan PPP went about to reward some of its ethnic Indian masses with public service positions. By mid-1990s the Hoyte PNC saw this as ethnic cleansing. There was no ethnic cleansing, of course, but a struggle to control economic opportunities through the domination of the state systems and public service. The Jagdeo PPP shifted up gears to a regime of elected oligarchy. A small group not only tried to control the senior positions of the public service, but also much of the private economy and the media space. While party paramountcy converted the seemingly developmental state apparatus left by Britain into a more predatory one, elected oligarchy has given a bad name to smart industrial policy – hence the complete abuse of the state apparatus and a misuse of economic policy since independence.

The indicators of marginalization are enforced by the intra-group social networks and skewed voting patterns. Is this deliberate or pre-meditated marginalization? It is not easy to prove because one would need to take into consideration self-discrimination like following through with the leader's request not to cooperate, seek certain employment or to plant certain crops. At minimum those claiming deliberate marginalization should have some data to back up their claims. Moreover, there will have to be controls for other determinants of the systematic patterns of employment or resource allocations so as to isolate causality; in this case that the actual cause is prejudice.

We need data-driven analyses to statistically establish whether there is systematic marginalization of one ethnic group relative to another. It is the only way to scientifically cut through the crap of narrative anecdotes and cultural viewpoints. I think the Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Economics in particular, has failed the country in this regard. Economics has a collection of awesome tools – like the idea of statistical discrimination – that can beam some scientific light on this problem.

First, there has to be another Living Standard Measurement survey. The last one was done in 1993. It helps us to understand the depth of poverty and the degree of inequality across groups. Second, a comprehensive study of the ethnic employment in the public service and semi-autonomous agencies for different time periods is needed. This study must go back to independence to get a feel for the changing ethnic employment patterns. This will help to put into perspective the relative claims of marginalization and explain to what extent intra-group networks determine the skewed employment patterns. There also has to be an account of the hiring patterns of the high level positions in the public service.

Third, the most significant incidence of land distribution took place under the PPP between 1992 and 2015. It must be easy to verify whether there was systematic discrimination in the distribution of house lots. This is not a trivial indicator since house lots and home ownership are examples of asset accumulation. Assets are important for determining the future economic success of all people. Fourth, there should be a study of access to bank credit for making new homes. Is there a pattern that one group was disadvantaged relative to another? Fifth, there also has to be a study of inequality within each group. What is the income variation and asset ownership variation within groups such as Africans, Indians, Indigenous peoples and other groups? Sixth, there has to be a study of employment patters in the private sector. It is also important to account for the ethnic distribution of the top positions in the private sector.

In conclusion, politics in Guyana is organized around most people voting for their respective ethnic parties because they perceive the best opportunity for patronage lies in their ethnic elites winning the election. This is an unfortunate inbuilt mechanism that will result in skewed hiring practices in the public service. Depending on the party in power we will see the swings in top management and the continual failure to mobilize a developmental state apparatus. It should not be like this as it is possible to create completely professional, embedded and yet autonomous public service. But this is the reality.

It will take decisive leadership to address imbalances in the public service, police force, army and private sector. While most of the masses will likely continue to vote on ethnic considerations and instincts alone, and intra-group social networks will most likely skew the hiring practices after elections, the onus is on the President to provide decisive leadership in making sure negative perceptions do not fester. The buck stops on the President's desk! Given the nature of the APNU+AFC coalition government the Prime Minister also has a duty to show leadership.

I feel if we have more data-driven scientific studies coming from the social scientists the society can better understand the causes of skewed employment practices. The government must urgently fund data-driven studies in these areas. In the next column, I will outline how to minimize the inbuilt mechanism of ethnic marginalization – real or perceived.

The previous column makes the point that perceived or actual marginalization results from the political process which is bedevilled by ethnically skewed voting patterns. After elections party supporters expect to be rewarded. One of the easiest ways to reward supporters with patronage is to allocate public service jobs, particularly at the senior levels, to trusted supporters. Over the years this resulted in an inefficient state apparatus with more predatory instead of developmentalist instincts, to use the classification of Peter Evans. The present state systems will find it difficult to implement smart industrial policies and address coordination and market failures.

Loyalty to a political party is usually seen as the best path to economic opportunities and career mobility. However, the desire for economic gains often overlaps with ethnicity because of the intra-group social networks and the ethnically skewed voting patterns. It was also noted in the previous column that it will require intelligent empirical research to disentangle personal ambitions from ethnic victimization. This is some of the research in which the Social Sciences must be engaged.

People are very protective of their turfs in each political party in Guyana and even in diaspora party groups. I once took out a photograph in New York with now President Granger. It sent shockwaves through the PNC. People felt I was coming for their jobs. The Brooklyn PNC group went crazy that outsiders can be close to their party leader. The rumourmongering took on a life of its own. Within the AFC there are those who felt upward mobility can only be gained through smooth talk and sycophancy to get to the ears of leadership. The PPP is always in a class of its own. Before losing the election it operated on the principle that it has to buy loyalty through patronage. It has done so making a few individuals of various ethnic background rich. I was told by someone if I joined the PPP prior to 2015 not only will I be given substantial financial rewards, but also my family members will be taken care of. The PPP will soon find out that this strategy does not work well in opposition.

The crucial question arising is how to break the political process that naturally results in marginalization. Since most of the masses are likely to vote mainly for their respective ethnic leaders, the strategies have to come from leadership if they really want to make the country a better place. Perhaps it is naïve to believe leaders would want to change the status quo. Nevertheless, it is still important to write down these thoughts. There must be a multitude of ways to minimize marginalization, but I will present three possibilities.

First, senior leaders in government, private sector, army, police and other agencies should be required to undertake diversity training. Diversity comes in various forms including gender, religious, age and geography. But in the case of Guyana ethnic diversity in leadership positions should be given prominence. These days one can hardly obtain a tenure-track academic position in the United States without writing a one page diversity statement in addition to all the other skills requirements. The same should be implemented for anyone taking up a senior post in government such as the level of Permanent Secretaries. I would argue that a leader is up to no good if most of the employees and advisers in an agency are skewed in favour of one ethnicity, age or gender and the leader does little to nothing to promote diversity. In addition, research has shown that diversity is very helpful in promoting technological advancements and other benefits.

Second, inclusive governance is high on the agenda of the APNU-AFC administration. I can understand where this is coming from since many of the tasks ahead require the cooperation of the PPP, which since 2011 is a party laser-focused on the pursuit of Mr. Jagdeo's desire for a third term. The difficult tasks ahead to deal with the sugar crisis and the barter-induced artificial rice boom will require PPP's cooperation. But inclusive governance has to be backed by constitutional mechanisms. One other possibility is to promote the emergence of a substantial and inelastic group of swing voters. One tweak to the present constitution would be to allow for post-election alliances instead of pre-election coalitions. This would add a high degree of randomness regarding the likely winner and therefore minimize race-baiting campaigning. It should also make voters more likely to vote as swing voters.

Third, Guyana is one of the few countries experiencing a population decline. This column has argued that the population is small and density needs to be increased to decrease the average cost associated with a polder system of drainage. The country also does not have a critical mass to settle the Rupununi so as to make a road or rail system to the Atlantic financially viable. Therefore, there has to be a radical immigration policy based on two principles. (i) The need to create a larger internal market and increase population density. (ii) It must shift the country away from having two large ethnic groups suspicious of each other to about five groups with none having an overwhelming majority.

The first principle is rooted in the logic of microeconomics. The second one is rooted in political economy. Ideally immigration from the diaspora is desirable and must be given priority. However, people from surplus populations would have to be encouraged to enter in order to create economic opportunities for themselves and existing locals. The second principle does not mean any existing group will see their aggregate number decrease. It requires bringing immigrants from surplus countries such as China, Brazil, India and Nigeria in such a manner that the country will have no group exceeding 25 per cent. So, for example, the East Indian population might increase by 200,000 but its relative percentage does not exceed 25 per cent. The same can be said for the African Guyanese population.