Contract awards Editorial
Stabroek News
June 14, 2004

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In a letter in the June 5 edition of the Stabroek News headlined `There is lack of balance in the awarding of contracts', Mr Jonas Coddett made the following statement: "Guyana has just as many qualified African civil engineers as there are Indian. Yet in the awarding of contracts since this government has been in power from 1992, more than 90% of the major contracts have been given to persons of Indian origin. This fact cannot be disputed. In some cases Indian contractors with no professional qualifications or competence are given contracts. They in turn employ African engineers to do the work".

It is unclear from where Mr Coddett has derived his information as the source was not provided even though he says that the percentage he gave cannot be disputed. The lack of sourcing is in itself a part of the problem. In a country riven by ethnic sensibilities it is incumbent upon us all when making statements that can worsen the ethnic relations climate to provide as plausible a basis as possible for the statements made. Things have gotten to the stage where at least one commentator has gone to the extreme of claiming a Hindu slant in the awarding of contracts. Wherefrom this particular bolt of lightning has struck this commentator is unknown.

There is no requirement to list ethnicity in contract documents which is as it should be. If for the sake of the elucidation of Mr Coddett's argument this had to be determined one would presumably have to gather this information on the basis of declared ethnicities at the myriad ministry, regional and central tender board awards meetings.

There are two fundamental questions at the core of Mr Coddett's contention. Are African-Guyanese contractors being discriminated against in favour of Indo-Guyanese contractors and is there some type of institutional block or disadvantage which militates against African-Guyanese contractors being awarded contracts?

On the first question, one would rely on institutions, the law and the complaints of the contractors who have allegedly been discriminated against to settle the issue. Over the period that Mr Coddett refers to there have been very few public complaints by Afro-Guyanese contractors who have bid for projects and felt that they were wronged in the final award. If there are numerous examples of African-Guyanese contractors being discriminated against then those who represent this constituency have failed to properly forward their interests. At one stage in its New Nation newspaper, the PNC ran frequent advertisements inviting persons who believed that they had been discriminated against to provide details of this. It is unclear if numerous examples of discrimination were picked up through this process as no dossier was ever provided by the PNC to the public.

It is not sufficient or appropriate to suggest that there has been discrimination in the awarding of contracts without providing chapter and verse. So if for instance a contractor feels that an award went unacceptably against him/her he should be able to provide the details of his bid and should then utilise the appeals mechanism within the various tender board processes or seek some other means of ventilating it if he/she gets no satisfaction.

Otherwise, it would be impossible to establish whether the award constituted a clear case of discrimination or the better bid simply won out. These difficult issues require the most careful examination of the facts involved before the making of broad declaratory statements.

The second question is whether there is something that works against the African-Guyanese contractor in winning an award. That is, the advertisements of contracts might be carried in newspapers that he/she does not see, the contractors require help putting their documents together or they have no one to help guide them through the system. It is quite plausible that considering that it has full knowledge of the contracts to be awarded by the government, that the ruling PPP/C uses its resources to mobilise its supporters to bid for projects. There is nothing wrong with this. What would be unlawful is if it influenced the tender award process. What would also be unacceptable is if Indian-Guyanese contractors with no qualifications - as Mr Coddett contends - are awarded contracts ahead of their African-Guyanese counterparts but yet turn around and employ these same African-Guyanese to do the work. Something simply doesn't sound right here. Would African-Guyanese who felt they were cheated of an award settle for working for someone they know to be completely unqualified and do this on a routine basis?

Perhaps African-Guyanese contractors can be asked by the various interest groups to explain what accounts for them not gaining more contracts that they are qualified to win. This could provide useful insights into the possible problem.

The delay in dealing with the engineers act which has been sought for a number of years by the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers has led to the suggestion in some quarters that the government is reluctant to legislate generally accepted norms for contractors and engineers, etc, as it would mean that a lot of persons who are currently being given contracts would fail to qualify. There may be merit in this but presumably given the brain drain across the board these requirements would prove onerous for all and not just one segment of the population.

Nevertheless, the numerous reports of substandard work on public contracts should give the government pause for thought on the need for stricter standards for contractors and engineers all across the board.

But back to the core issue. It doesn't help to have statements like Mr Coddett's out in the public domain festering and leading to myth-making. If, indeed, as he asseverates that 90% of the contracts since 1992 have been awarded to persons of Indian origin then it is something that has to be deconstructed by the institutions that the Constitution Reform process envisaged for dealing with issues of this type.

In relation to contract awards, dissatisfaction with decisions was to be handled under the Public Procurement Commission Act. Part Seven of that act sets out how a written protest could lead to a review by the procuring entity or the National Procurement and Tender Board. Under the latter review, a bid protest committee is set up and a written decision is to be issued in 15 business days.

It is an indictment of both the governing PPP/C and the PNCR that the activation of this body has been stifled by their suffocated dialogue. It is an example of the real damage that can be done where speedy decisions are required. Considering that the dialogue has been broken off the government and opposition members on the Public Accounts Committee should find the best possible compromise on the Public Procurement Commis-sion to allow it to begin functioning so that it could address claims of discrimination.

It may also be possible for the Ethnic Relations Commission in the interim to gather complaints from members of the public who feel they have been discriminated against in the award of contracts. These complaints can then be submitted to the Public Procurement Commission when it is up and running.

A maturing society has to find answers to divisive issues within the strength of its institutions and the time is now ripe to put those envisaged by constitutional reform to the test.