Poor public relations contributed to the failure of the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project (AFHP) and PR for future projects should be left to professionals rather than politicians, former Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran has said.
“Answers needed to be in the media every day, not merely as a response to the critics, but as a public information activity in an effort to mobilize public support. But this was never done. The distinct impression created was that no seriously organized public information effort went into the promotion of Amaila and the questions were dealt with on an ad hoc basis by persons who were otherwise heavily engaged with other daily activities,” the former PPP stalwart said in his column in yesterday’s Sunday Stabroek.
Sithe Global, the developer of the AFHP walked away from the project last month after failing to get parliamentary consensus on it.
“In an effort to convince the opposition and critics on Amaila, discussions took place with President (Donald) Ramotar and (Finance) Minister Ashni Singh. Mr Winston Brassington and his advisers also had discussions with critics. Documents were handed over. The chief public spokespersons for the government defending the project and answering critics were President Ramotar and Minister Singh, although others, including Mr Brassington weighed in occasionally. There was no organized public information campaign or effort to supplement, expand and define on a daily basis what they had to say,” Ramkarran said while adding that on the other hand, the opposition and other critics were in the media every day.
“The result was that important questions were not answered either at all or in a timely manner and others were answered only partially. There was no effort to take the offensive, to anticipate what the critics were likely to raise, and answer them beforehand, bearing in mind the suspicions surrounding the project. The result was that the narrative of the opposition and the critics gained ascendancy and enough traction to enable APNU to argue in justification of its negative vote in the National Assembly,” he asserted.
Ramkarran said that it appears that Guyana was unable to obtain the optimum terms from Sithe Global. He noted that this rarely ever happens and said that compromises, sometimes painful ones, are necessary in negotiations such as these. “But taking everything into consideration, including the importance of hydroelectricity for Guyana’s development, the actual cost, the cost to the country arising from a delay of organizing a new project or projects around the Potaro Basin and the growing demand for electricity, Amaila ought to have been supported, at the very least until the IDB study was completed,” he declared.
The former Speaker said that some of the most important questions which were raised included (i) the cost of electricity to the consumer after the construction of Amaila, (ii) whether Guyana would have to go into debt, (iii) Sithe Global’s financial commitment, (iv) the rate of return, (v) the inadequacy of Amaila by the time it comes on stream and (vi) absence of a plan for the development of the Potaro Basin. “The first was never answered or adequately answered. The second had no relationship to the viability of the project. The third was never fully clarified. The fourth could have been defended. The fifth is no reason not to proceed with Amaila because without it the situation will be far worse. The sixth is giving up the bird in the hand for two in the bush,” he wrote.
He said that answers needed to be in the media every day but this was never done. “There was no government website to answer in a timely manner all the questions which were being raised. Attractive publications arguing the case for Amaila were absent. Such publications as came out in the state press were unattractive and uninteresting,” he asserted.
Ramkarran said that no one watched government spokespersons on television and credible engineers and financial experts were not engaged to promote the
project and debate with the critics.
“There appeared to be reluctance to deal with certain critical issues, even if unpalatable, such as the cost of electricity to the consumer. Even if the cost would not have gone down initially, the public ought nevertheless to have been told. This could have been defended. Instead the government allowed the critics’ accusation of deception to take hold. The Sithe Global website did not deal with this and other important issues,” he said.
Ramkarran stated that as a result, the narrative on Amaila was dominated by the opposition and the critics. “With the suspicions about corruption and accusations about inadequately negotiated deals, it is hardly a surprise that APNU said that it was not convinced. But the public relations disaster that really took the cake was accusing APNU of being criminals and terrorists at the PPP Congress one week before the crucial vote in the National Assembly. This major faux pas alone should convince the government that public relations is serious business and ought not to be left to politicians. It needs to be conducted in the future on an organized basis by professionals. If the lesson of Amaila is not learnt, the new airport and the specialty hospital will go the same way unless lawful extra-budgetary ways are found to contribute government’s share of the finance, if this is required,” he declared.