A social contract for Guyana

(Portions of this article were first published elsewhere in 2010, but attracted no comments. Though somewhat dated, the views might be considered still relevant.)

Guyana is not unique in its system of adversarial politics. In fact, Guyana shares with most democratic countries an elected legislature to which competing parties seek membership. The extent of that membership depends on the votes received by political parties in elections. Each political party at these elections seeks to persuade the electorate that it is the best equipped to lead the country. This continues in parliament after the elections where the government’s policies are subject to scrutiny by the opposition.

Adversarial politics is part of the democratic process and no change in this system is likely any time soon. But unless there is a broad acceptance that the political process, its rules and its outcomes are not loaded against the political representatives perceived to represent the interests of an ethnic group, the benefits or advantages of the adversarial system would be disrupted and political instability ensues. Even if the political system and its outcomes are accepted, the intensity of political differences in a society divided by ethnic or political suspicion can be such as to affect the development process.

20131117ralphThe reform of the health insurance system in the United States is a case in point. Even though the system needed reform, Republican opposition driven by the Tea Party was so intense that the legislation had to be substantially modified; and even that did not get Republican support. In Guyana the historic Amerindian Act which vastly expanded the rights of the Amerindian people, received similar treatment on a lesser scale. However, it was passed with government support and opposition silence after intense debate.

Guyana is ready for a social contract by which the major sections of the society, including the political opposition, can agree on broad national goals, while maintaining their freedom to criticize individual policies for any reason. Agreement on national goals, whether expressly or impliedly, could provide the basis for a social contract.

Returning to the United States again, Barack Obama said in his book The Audacity of Hope: “The last time we faced an economic transformation as disruptive as the one we face today, FDR led the nation to a new social compact – a bargain between government, business, and workers that resulted in widespread prosperity and economic security for more than fifty years.”

Guyana today faces many challenges. In a rapidly changing world, we need to charter an innovative economic course that attracts broad support. We need to agree on the distribution of resources through a system that is accepted by all as ensuring equity. We have to establish sufficiently effective mechanisms to facilitate such a level of transparency that all stakeholders will be satisfied. Guyana has other issues such as ethnic insecurity which drives accusations of discrimination. Even if increasing inclusivity becomes a reality, it would be still necessary to implement such additional institutional measures as are agreed to ensure that all allegations are addressed.

The social contract for Guyana does not necessarily require a formal agreement between stakeholders. The social compact referred to by Barack Obama did not consist of a formal agreement but was based on a national consensus. The government has the responsibility to ensure that all Guyana subscribes to a basic set of goals, buttressed by the necessary laws, regulations and agreements which ensure that policies are informed by the goals and are directed towards their achievement. If the government can get an agreement, all the better. But developments in the recent past and the nature of adversarial politics suggest that such would be a difficult proposition.

A good place to start is the National Development Strategy. The government ought to retrieve this document, which already has broad national support, from its current resting place and again place it on the agenda. It could be the initiative which would trigger a national debate on the creation of national goals which are already encapsulated in the NDS and merely need revision. A positive consideration by the National Assembly of the idea to establish a NDS Secretariat which would promote its goals in economic, social and political policies would be a great victory for inclusiveness and political stability in Guyana.

Note: The recent controversy generated by Dr Henry Jeffrey’s recent articles in SN did not appear to challenge the validity of APNU’s proposal for a social contract, but its relevance to political strategy in terms of its mobilizing power which is non-existent and which the government will ignore anyway. My proposal in 2010 was directed to the PPP which I expected to be returned with an absolute majority in 2011, and was intended as a strategy for inclusiveness of the opposition.  I do believe that a social contract ought to remain on the table as one potential way out of the current political impasse. But I have no idea why the opposition is not demanding instead a share in the government which is a mandate given to it by the electorate.

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