Government/private sector relations: A lesson from a Caricom neighbour
One does not get the impression that the private sector in our sister Caricom country, Barbados, stands on ceremony as far as engaging the government on issues that have to do with their respective roles in ensuring that the business community remains what we in Guyana loosely describe as the engine of growth.
From all reports Barbados is in the midst of an economic slowdown; the tourism sector is still to recover from the global financial and economic crisis and several Barbadian companies have reported reduced sales and by extension, reduced profits.
Amidst all of this, Executive Director of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) Lisa Gale has pronounced on what the Barbadian private sector appears to feel is a waning focus by government on its role as a stakeholder in the public/private sector partnership. Ms Gale is reported as saying in this week’s issue of the Barbados Business Advocate that the Barbadian private sector is not always convinced that the wheels of government move swiftly enough to take advantage of opportunities that come the way of Barbados and which, in some cases, affect the private sector’s advancement. The private sector, Ms Gale said, is not looking for handouts but for enabling mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that it maximizes its opportunities.
What Ms Gale had to say in public recently is really not all that different from what some local private sector officials have been saying for years, privately, that is. Quite simply, here in Guyana, the private sector as a stakeholder in the process of economic growth and development continues to resemble a junior partner in the firm, uncertain as to exactly how it must behave in the presence of the ‘senior’ stakeholder.
The local private sector can argue, of course, that its efforts to publicly engage government on issues of concern to the business community – like corporate taxes, for example – have been met with sharp admonition by former president Bharrat Jagdeo on two quite memorable occasions. Since that time the issue has not surfaced in any serious private sector public pronouncement. Then there is the National Development Strategy a mechanism that bundles a wide range of matters relevant to the development of the private sector under a single umbrella. Here again it is the government that determines the pace at which discourse on the National Development Strategy proceeds and the private sector must play the inevitable waiting game.
Earlier this year, Stabroek Business reported on what we were told were complaints by local importers over dissatisfaction with sub-standard goods being ‘dumped’ here by Chinese exporters and difficulties being experienced by our importers in securing restitution. At that time we were told that a forum convened during the China-Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum would address this matter. As far as we are aware there has been no report on the outcome of the promised follow-up and here, we feel, was a good opportunity for the Government of Guyana to demonstrate its support for the private sector by engaging China through diplomatic channels on this matter.
Two other issues that have to do with public/private sector cooperation are worthy of mention. First, there is the failure by the authorities up until now to produce and make public a comprehensive report on those outcomes of GuyExpo 2011 that might tell us, for example, whether the private sector is now better positioned to take advantage of regional and extra-regional markets for goods manufactured here and whether there are prospects for cooperation/collaboration between local and regional firms in one or another area of enterprise.
The other issue worthy of mention here is the inexplicable and interminable delay in putting the Small Business Bureau to work (more than eight years after the relevant legislation was passed) despite the fact that there appears to be a new wave of small businesses that have emerged and are in need of support of one kind or another.
No one is suggesting, of course, that government and the private sector remain at daggers drawn permanently. Certainly, despite her blunt expression of concern over what the Barbadian private sector perceives as instances of delinquency on the part of the government, Ms Gale made it clear that there was no ‘bad blood’ between the two sides.
Here in Guyana one often gets the feeling that the relationship between the state and the private sector is driven by a condition which, at best, can be described as apprehension on the part of the private sector. More than that, it is not uncommon to hear views expressed about the pre-eminence of political loyalties, a circumstance which may well have compelled the new president of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce to make several references to the Chamber’s neutrality during a media briefing a few weeks ago.
If you engage some officials of the private sector bilaterally they will concede that there is potentially a packed agenda of issues of concern to the business community on which they would wish to address government without delay. Except of course that it is government that determines the urgency – or lack thereof – of those matters and determines whether and/or when it engages the private sector. Government can of course take that posture secure in the knowledge that whatever the circumstance, it is unlikely to have to deal with much in the way of protest from the private sector here. As the Barbados experience continues to prove, a greater measure of assertiveness on the part of the local private sector is not likely to trigger a permanent confrontation as long as the two sides possess an appreciation of each other’s roles.