Cheddi’s mantra was: ‘give them the books’

“Interest and objectives are two sides of the same coin. They are closely related, yet being able to differentiate one from the other can often make all the difference during negotiations.” (Godefroy C & Luis Robert – 1991 – “The Outstanding Negotiator” Piatkus). Put so starkly, few of us will fail to see the importance of this differentiation, particularly since negotiating is a pervasive activity that touches most aspects of our lives. The book mentioned above is one of the first negotiation texts I acquired after the PPP/C took government in 1992 and it appears to me that the quoted observation is still very relevant in these combative political times.

A common feature of our public discourse is the tendency to explain and assess social policies from the standpoint of objectives. Indeed, we frequently tend to go a bit further along the continuum and focus on inputs rather than outputs and means rather than ends.

It is my contention that the task of building a happier and more prosperous Guyana would be better served if our political leaders broadened the discourse and paid greater attention to the goals they set themselves.

Consider the quarrel about the appropriateness of the VAT rate. If we are to go by their proclaimed objectives, all the political parties have more or less the same basic interest. The PPP/C claims its energies are being directed at providing a better tomorrow for all Guyanese, APNU wants to produce a good life for all of us and the AFC has the vision of Guyana as a just, equitable, unified and democratic developing nation. Again, if their often expressed concerns are anything to go by, all the parties have basically the same objectives, the main immediate one being poverty reduction, but where they differ is about the best means of achieving those objectives.

The opposition wants to cut the VAT rate because they believe that it would significantly reduce poverty, while the government claims that cutting the rate will not substantially help the poorest. (In passing, let me say that I am more convinced by the government’s rather than the opposition arguments on this issue.) So the quarrel over the VAT rate is not a quarrel either about the parties’ interest in providing a good life or about their immediate objective of poverty reduction; it is instead a quarrel about the best means of achieving the latter.

An important complication should be noted. The public has bought into the opposition argument that the VAT rate should be reduced and this “social fact” has taken on a life of its own. Many who cast their votes at the last national and regional elections did so with the expectation that should the party they voted for have the opportunity, it would at the very least struggle for a cut in the rate of VAT. The government is aware of this sentiment among a significant number of Guyanese and so has established a committee (perhaps as a stalling device) to consider the tax system in general and make recommendations on, among other things, the VAT rate.

So the quarrel over VAT rate is at best a third level dispute: it is only indirectly related to the desire to provide a better tomorrow and to the more immediate objective of reducing poverty. If we focus on the collective objective of reducing poverty, we have a right to ask ourselves how, in the context of a budget of some $198 billion, proposals to cut the income tax threshold, increase old age pension and social assistance, the miraculous appearance of $2 billion to aid depressed communities, etc., is it not possible to find an avenue for compromise on the VAT issue if the political will to discuss and compromise exists and we focus on the immediate objective rather than on the means.

Given the proper architecture for negotiations, only the most dimwitted would be unable to create a win-win situation notwithstanding the fact that a reduction in the VAT rate has taken on a life of its own.

Other examples of this type of approach abound. On an almost daily basis, government spokespersons regale us with the large quantities of moneys being spent on numerous projects but how often have they provided information that will allow us to properly measure these inputs and outcomes? Indeed, how often has the opposition located their critique in the absence or inappropriateness of or failure to achieve the specific goals?

But focusing on means can be even more deleterious to the ultimate objective of a better tomorrow. For example, GINA, NCN, etc. were not established to provide jobs, but as the means of providing fair/unbiased communication services to the Guyanese people. But again the means have trumped the ends and absurdly, efforts are being made to blindside us with talk of job losses rather than about the efficacy of those organisations, i.e. whether or not they have been and are instrumental in perpetuating an autocratic environment which is diametrically opposed to the good life.

In around 1996, one of the more rabid PNC supporters, now with the PPP/C walked into my office and told me that he had evidence that the government, of which I was the minister responsible for housing at the time, was discriminating against “black people” in the allocation of house-lots.  I responded that I had no such awareness and I would like to see the evidence.

The person immediately began to obfuscate and to avoid his time-consuming meandering I suggested an examination of our allocation records in as much detail as was necessary. Indeed, if my memory serves me correctly, I enquired precisely where this discrimination was taking place and brought those files to my office for consideration, after which I was told that there might have been some misinformation about the specific location and I suggested that we return to the enquiry when the proper location had been identified: no further request was made. I could have done this with confidence because in those days an important plank of Cheddi Jagan’s defence against any accusation of impropriety or subterfuge was “give them the books.”

I tell this story lest it be thought that I am naïve or trying to conceal what many perceive to be the major problem affecting proper political engagement. Maybe over two decades in office has made the Jagan mantra difficult to sustain, but without such openness no proper negotiation at the governmental level can take place and juxtaposed against this, the approach suggested by Godefroy and Robert though important, is secondary.

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