Undiplomatic language

The government is accustomed to trying to bully its opponents, vilifying them in sometimes quite unparliamentary terms. The tactics in most instances are intended to inhibit expression, if not actually muzzle anyone tempted to voice contrary opinions. By and large in the past that absolutist approach has been reserved for local critics alone, but now, it seems, it is being extended to the outside world as well. It is clear that the ruling party is already in full election mode – general elections, that is, since not a whisper is being heard about local government polls – which is a time when obloquy directed at detractors always reigns supreme. However, to drag the diplomatic community into the electoral season frame is something of a novel departure, even for the PPP.

The clearest example of this was when Minister of Finance Ashni Singh was reported by GINA on June 26 as making comments about World Bank Country Representative Giorgio Valentini and the organization he represents. GINA quoted the Minister as saying that in recent months he had noticed “a worrying trend of shifting priorities, with the Bank’s office being relocated to a grand former colonial residence opposite one of the city’s most fashionable cafés, the recruitment of new staff including prominently a communications officer, and frequent forays into the media by the head of the country office on all manner of subjects.”

The release did not get any better further down. “I would be much happier,” the unusually garrulous Minister continued, if the local office of the Bank “expended more effort to increase the Bank’s work and its development impact in Guyana instead of trying to increase their own visibility and creature comforts. Of all our development partners, the Bank has one of the smallest project portfolios, but one of the largest offices and, it would appear, one of the largest appetites for publicity and self-promotion, even if only recently acquired… we need the assistance of the World Bank, we don’t need grandstanding by their staff in country.”

It hardly needs observing that these remarks were at best in poor taste, and at worst extraordinarily insulting. At the very minimum they were out of order. Minister Singh is simply not in a position to decide on the matter of office space for the Bank or the size of its staff complement. Furthermore, it is not for him to dictate when the Bank’s local representative should speak to the media, let alone what he should say. Where Dr Singh acquired the notion that the representative was on the establishment of the Ministry of Finance and therefore answerable to him is a matter to be wondered at; certainly none of his predecessors seems to have laboured under such an illusion.

The trigger ostensibly for Dr Singh’s outburst was Mr Valentini’s statement quoted by Kaieteur News on June 25, that the Bank had not been approached for support for the Amaila Falls hydropower project. The GINA release referred to above went on to report the Minister as explaining that the project was a private sector one, and that any request for support would come in the first instance from the private sponsors of the project and not from the state, although the state would likely support any such request. This part of the response was very much in order, since it had direct relevance to what Mr Valentini had said, so why was it necessary, therefore, to drag in all manner of irrelevancies about the local World Bank staff seeking to increase their “creature comforts,” etc, etc? All the Minister succeeded in doing was to convey the no doubt unintended impression that he was insecure about his explanation, and needed to distract from it by browbeating the institution and its local head.

It is hard to believe that a simple statement about Amaila which only required an explanation or amendment on the part of Dr Singh, should have triggered all this contumely. One cannot help but feel that there was something else at issue which was irking the government and caused them to use the World Bank Representative’s remarks as an excuse to lambaste him. The belief that they can get away with this may not be unfounded in this instance, since they have done it with some success already when they turned their invective on Dr Janette Bulkan some months ago, in order to get her removed from an international panel of the World Bank.

So what exactly is eating the government about the World Bank? Could Minister of Agriculture Robert Persaud have revealed part of the true reason when at the opening of the Sixth Meeting of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (a World Bank fund) on Monday, he complained that the government had concerns about whether other countries faced the same level of scrutiny as Guyana. Several countries had received grants of US$200,000 earlier this year, despite the fact that their Readiness Plan Idea Note had been approved after that of Guyana. The initial grant agreement for this country, Mr Persaud said, was available for signing only in May this year, although approval had been given in June 2008. Naturally he was at pains to stress that he wasn’t being critical of the World Bank’s procedures, he just wanted to put other members of the facility on alert.

In the evening, at a reception for representatives of participating countries, President Jagdeo took up an allied theme by saying that donors should not “obsess” with capacity building before releasing funds, as this would delay development efforts. He indicated his concern that donors were slow to release money for forest protection efforts. “You have a duty to ensure that endless discussions don’t slow this down,” this newspaper quoted him as saying. So is this the root of the problem: the funding for forest protection isn’t coming with quite the ease and timeliness which the government had anticipated?  And is the administration blaming the local office of the World Bank for this? If this is so, whether Dr Singh’s extraordinary onslaught on Mr Valentini and his staff will produce the results the government desires, still remains to be seen.

The Minister of Finance did not confine himself to the shortcomings, as he perceived them, of the World Bank last Saturday. The London-based Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) also came in his cross-hairs because of a report carried in Stabroek Business citing the EIU’s April 2010 Country Report as challenging the accuracy of economic growth figures presented in this year’s budget. The reason for the Minister’s ire on this occasion is clear. A technical response is obviously required in this instance, but was it really necessary to descend to the level of saying that the comments appeared to be a “passive copy-and-paste echo of the whining and griping of a tiny minority of self-appointed and politically motivated analysts who are devoid of any technical basis for most of what they say, and who like to style themselves as independent when they are in fact unabashedly partisan and brazenly hostile to the current administration”?

Even supposing the EIU is wrong, why should Dr Singh have felt impelled to impugn their professionalism when all he needed to do was counter their figures? And what makes the Minister believe that his response will cow them into producing a more government-friendly Country Report the next time around? The government should remember that the EIU is an independent body which does not come under the Ministry of Finance either.

The general lack of circumspection in terms of the language used when dealing with external entities really does the government no credit, and will raise questions outside about its capacity to engage rationally in exchanges of views and perceptions. By extension, therefore, it will also draw attention to its intimidatory style, which is not a known hallmark of democratic governments.

As the reaction to the TIP report demonstrated, even where the government might conceivably have a case which has some merit, it has fallen into the habit of using raw expressions when responding. In the international arena, where diplomatic language of varying degrees of approval and disapproval is recognized, the government undermines its own case by seeming to demonstrate its unfamiliarity with it.

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