Guyana is a work in progress and development is happening with or without any oligarchy

Dear Editor,

I refer to Stabroek News’ Development Watch of 07/21/2010 on Elected Oligarchy and Economic Underdevelopment. There, an overzealous writer made the charge that I did not do justice to the concept of elected oligarchy; this allegation is simply outlandish.

My short letter did not intend to effusively analyze Michels’ theory of the Iron Law of Oligarchy and its critiques; rather, I merely wanted to project a few sayings on the oligarchic dimensions of American society and government, as the oligarchic aspects seem to coexist quite well with American democracy. Oligarchy characterizes many forms of political systems, but we have to be vigilant that people within the oligarchy serve the public interest and are subject to the democratic electoral process, among other things democratic.

It will be rare to find a democratic political system around the world where there is no oligarchy; in fact, some people may refer to interest groups as similar to an oligarchy. Leach (2005) argued that the debate on oligarchy is more than a century old since Michels’ law, but the concept remains insufficiently specific and its measures too derisory to analyze anything remotely resembling an oligarchy in non-bureaucratic organizations; and Leach contended that there is need for a conceptual model that would define what comprises and what does not comprise ‘oligarchy’ in both bureaucratic and non-bureaucratic settings; clearly, an influential elite can function outside of formal organizations.

Nonetheless, what are critical in this situation is to ensure that development happens through the public interest and democracy, and the gains of democracy are sustainable. These issues would require further exploration.  Nevertheless, I want to say in this letter that Guyana is a work in progress and that development is happening, with or without any oligarchy.

And let me say something about the U.S., as the columnist presented the U.S. as an honourable and faultless society. The U.S. is not the gold standard for democracy, perhaps, for things oligarchic. On July 21, 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the financial reform bill that is necessary to address the financial catastrophe, but this law is no panacea for the financial mess that the U.S faces. On the same day as the signing, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke noted that the U.S. recovery would experience ‘unusually uncertain’ prospects, recognized the labour market’s Achilles’ heel, and provided no particulars for stimulating lending and investment; in fact, there seems to be a lack of fiscal stimulus in the new law. Indeed, the Republicans had a lot to say, too, in opposition to the financial reform bill; they believe, among other things, that it will hinder job growth and hurt small banks. For these reasons, let us not make Obama’s financial reform law seems as if it is a gift from the democratic gods, and where the U.S. appears to have all the answers. That is certainly not the case there.

In the aforementioned Stabroek News column, too, there is an implicit suggestion that democracy in the U.S. is omnipotent and a magic potion for curing the ills in U.S. society. But how democratic is the U.S.? Noam Chomsky, in an interview with Tom Morello in the Summer of 1996, stated that a Gallup poll for years showed that in 1995, 82% of the people believed that the U.S. government did not represent the minorities and that it only represents the Whites.

Clearly, American democracy exists only for those with power. And this is what the American power structure partly looks like: Domhoff (2010) found that at 2007, the top 1% (the upper classes) owned 34.6% of all privately-held wealth, the next 19% (professional and managerial classes) owned 50.5%; thus, 20% of the people owned circa 85% of all privately-held wealth, leaving 80% of the population (lower class) sharing only 15% of all privately-held wealth.

In fact, the top classes are able to own more and the lower classes less, as the bottom 80% had a total net worth of 18.7% in 1983 while it was 15.5% in 2001. According to Domhoff (2010), in relation to financial wealth in 2007, 1% owned 42.7%, the next 19% owned 50.3%, and the bottom 80% owned about 7%.  And in 2007, Whites had about 15 times more wealth than the other major minority groups. This gross disparity remains untouched in the U.S. today, notwithstanding the U.S. gift of democracy from the divine spirit.

Additionally, in 2008, the world experienced a significant crisis vis-à-vis the international financial meltdown since the Great Depression; for this reason, it is foreseeable that Guyana being a part of the developing world would also experience some impact from this economic calamity.  Fortunately, Guyana did not suffer as much from the devastating onslaught of this international financial meltdown as other countries endured. The World Bank last year approved the New Country Assistance Strategy (CAS) for Guyana to sustain the country’s development; Ms. Yvonne Tsikata, the World Bank’s Country Director noted that “Guyana has made significant progress in laying the foundation for macroeconomic stability and higher pro-poor growth”.

Nonetheless, development is more than economic growth rates and per capita income, etc. They are important, but not the endpoint for definitively concluding on comprehensive human and societal development. There are also societies with good growth rates historically associated with immense poverty. We need to extend our conversation on development well beyond narrow economics. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate today that invariably some discussants on Guyana’s progress would constantly cite solely per capita income, GDP, etc., as real indicators of a country’s development.

And there are those prophets of doom who feel there is no development in Guyana. Let us for a moment think of Guyana’s   achievements, to which I recently alluded, with some updates:

Guyana is a free country (Freedom House Survey 2010); reduced Presidential powers; inclusivity through the parliamentary sectoral committees, a parliamentary management committee, a standing committee on constitutional reform, Oversight  committee, Public Accounts Committee, constitutional commissions, and the President’s  consultation mechanism with the Leader of the Opposition on some  appointments; Berbice River Bridge and Takutu Bridge; Foreign Direct Investment was US$71 million for 1993 through 2005 compared to US$2.6 million between 1982 and 1992; sustained macroeconomic stability – a reduced inflation rate of 3.6% in 2009 compared to 101% in 1991, increased disposable interest rates, stable exchange, reduced budget and balance of payments deficits; increased per capita GDP of US$1298.6 in 2009 compared to US$231 in 1991; increased disposable income of US$1,436 million; increased minimum wage of US$158 in 2009 compared to US$22 in 1991; growing service industries; upgrading the CJIA; housing boom – more than 70,000 house lots, 35,000 titles, and as little as 6% mortgage interest rates (current); 85% access to water today compared  to 40% in 1992; improved CXC performance of 80% compared to 47% in 1991; expansion of University Education  into Berbice; 56% more trained teachers now compared to 35% in 1991; greater secondary school enrolment now at 72% compared to 35% in 1991; 84 new schools built; health infrastructure rebuilt – new hospitals at New Amsterdam, Georgetown, and Kamarang; high immunization rates among children now 95% compared to 65% in 1991; Infant Mortality Rate now 48 per 1,000 compared to 120 per 1,000 in 1991; maternal mortality rate now 11 per 1,000 compared to 34 per 1,000 in 1991; Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission of HIV with 159 sites in 2009; the 1951 Amerindian Act revised; 50 Amerindian communities obtained titles and demarcation.

We can always argue that there should be more development, but Guyana is a work in progress. Clearly, what is happening here is that the new opposition believes that by constantly talking about ‘oligarchy, it may gain divine intervention for its power pursuit. And why not?

Yours faithfully,
Prem Misir