These might be early days to be discussing the results of the census taken in 2012, but the population decline may have dashed the hopes of the government to brag about its handling of the economy and the economic development of the nation. If anything, the population decline points to several issues which suggest that Guyanese are not happy with the government’s management of the economic affairs of state. It appears as if the disaffected opted to abandon the stressful social, political and economic life in Guyana in favour of some other alternative in other countries. The crash of the population and its linkage to the economy also has implications for per capita income, productivity, consumption, and investment, particularly in housing. This article will take a brief look at the impact of the population decline on those issues.
For the better part of the recent intercensal period, the Guyana economy grew by an average of four per cent. While real, that growth was never a result of any constructive economic policy by the government. The high price of gold, the high level of workers’ remittances, the relatively high price of rice, and debt concessions from creditors enabled the economy to expand and sustain positive economic movement for several years. The smaller population size means that per capita income was higher than was being reported over the years 2002 to 2012. It is likely also that labour productivity too was higher than imagined, even though employment numbers are yet to be made known. This is positive news.
But the smaller population also brings bad news. Budget proposals on wages and reported tax data have made it possible to estimate the income earned by workers in the Guyana economy. Based on the findings, it can be said with high confidence that the smaller population means that a higher proportion, close to 30 per cent, of low-income workers and their dependents eke out a living on six per cent of the income generated by the economy. When one considers that remittances account for between 20 and 25 per cent of money spent, the economic reality for many wage-earners is tougher than the government often concedes. Workers, analysts, politicians, and various commentators have tried over the years to tell the government that things were not going well in the country, but it chose to ignore their warnings and advice.
Upset and hurt
The government must now ponder what the positive growth reported over the last six years meant for the quality of life of Guyanese. If it did not want to believe that Guyanese were upset and hurt by drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, extrajudicial killings, spousal abuse, child abuse, torture, piracy, smuggling, and corruption, then it must realize now that these things matter to them. If it did not want to believe that Guyanese had lost confidence in the police and the justice system, it must realize now that these things matter to them. Equally important is the marginalization of a significant portion of the Guyanese population in the economy. An economic policy that prefers foreign labour to local labour cannot motivate a population. An economic policy that gives preferential treatment to foreign contractors cannot motivate a population. An education policy that costs Guyanese more money to educate their children after school hours than during school hours cannot motivate a population. No one whose ambition is made of sterner stuff would hang around this lawlessness. Neither would they tolerate the open disrespect and intimidation often shown to them by their own government.
Narrative of its own
Further, the decline in the population has generated already a narrative of its own. There is disagreement among members of the public with respect to the true size of the reduction. This is not a trivial matter as investors and entrepreneurs would have relied on the data coming from the official sources over the years to plan economic activities. The significance of this dependence is reflected in the following remarks taken from the newly released 2012 census report. “Although these are preliminary results, they are very important in informing government, international community, civil society organisations and the general public on the population size and distribution and basic housing information as captured by the 2012 Census.”
In contrast to the idea that the population only fell by 3,339 from 2003 to 2012 as claimed in the released preliminary census report, the population decline is obviously much larger. Even if one doubts the size of the decline that was suggested by Christopher Ram in a letter to Stabroek News of July 2, Guyanese only have to look at the reported change in the number of households to realize that the decline in the population is much more substantial. Understandably, one would have to wait until data on immigration and emigration are known before settling on a realistic size in the decline of the population.
However, there are alternative ways in which to deduce the magnitude of the decline in the Guyanese population. This could be done by looking at changes in the number of households. A study of population changes in European cities observed that the number of households could increase even when the population has declined. However, that likely scenario seems to hold if the newly formed households consist of one person each. The census report, found online at the Bureau of Statistics website, indicates that the size of the household in Guyana declined by an average of one person. Under such a scenario, the reduction in the population would not interfere with the expansion in the number of households. But if that were the case, it would raise serious questions about the housing policy of the government. The census report shows that the number of households increased by 27,515 and that the average household size was 3.5 persons. This relationship implies that the increase in the number of households should be responsible for an increase in population in excess of 96,000 persons, unless the entire increase was made up of one-person households. The decline in population by over 3,000 further suggests that the total population loss was at least 100,000 persons.
Additional insights of the population changes could be gotten from the annual reports of the Bank of Guyana. The BOG states clearly that the data found in its annual reports were gotten from annual budget speeches and the Bureau of Statistics. The data projected the annual changes in the population. From its own mouth, the government expected the population to be around 800,000 by this time. With the population now placed at 747,884, we know with added confidence that the government has been over reporting the population by at least 50,000.
It was on these faulty numbers that investors and entrepreneurs would have been making economic plans in the intercensal years. Some of the boom and bust of businesses during the intervening census years could well be linked to what were obviously erroneous numbers. Many businesses would have to revise their forecasts of consumption and the growth in demand for their products and services. The level of demand and economic optimism that such numbers generate must leave the private sector deflated since it would have been making plans on the basis of false numbers. The newly revealed numbers on the population size must have also brought dismay to the government whose lack of constructive economic policy and poor leadership have been further exposed by the declining population numbers.
One other observation from the preliminary census report has to do with the construction sector. The stock of buildings has reportedly increased by 31,813, representing nearly a 17 per cent expansion in buildings used for various purposes. Buildings for businesses increased faster (27 per cent) than those for housing (16 per cent). Yet, the rapid expansion in buildings for business purposes does not alter the proportion in which these buildings are used. Eight per cent of the building stock is used for businesses while presumably the rest is used for housing. That is no different statistically from the situation that obtained in 2002.
Another jolt to the government’s claim that its housing policy is effective could be seen in the difference in the demand and supply of housing and in the way the construction is financed. The National Development Strategy of 2001 to 2010 estimated that 52,000 houses to accommodate new households, ease overcrowding and replace deteriorating stock were needed. With the stock
of buildings rising by 31,813, there is a housing shortfall of at least 39 per cent. An added concern is the way in which many buildings are being financed. The Bureau of Statistics has reported that 14,804 mortgages were acquired for construction purposes from 2003 to 2012. This means that over 53 per cent of buildings were constructed without bank loans and provides further evidence that government policy has a marginal effect on many Guyanese.
A change for the better
There is much more to discuss about the census report. But at this early stage of its release, the news about the population decline is not good even though it offers an opportunity for Guyana to make a change for the better. It might be difficult to achieve that goal with the constant refusal of the government to compromise and its reluctance to act in the interest of all Guyanese.