The government and the private sector

Our experience of engaging the business community has taught us that many, perhaps most businessmen and women, prefer to keep a low profile, avoid the media and simply get on with the business of doing business. Okay, there are some exceptions to the general rule but the practice among our businesspeople has been, more or less, to keep as low a profile as possible.

There are, we believe, several reasons for this. Over time, quite a few business houses have told us bluntly that media publicity could attract the attention of the criminal element though, thankfully, many more have taken the trouble to inform this newspaper that the publicity afforded them had impacted positively on patronage.

Sometimes, always ‘off the record,’ businessmen and women proffer other reasons why they avoid the media and invariably, one of those has to do with a concern that once whatever they say appears even remotely critical of the political administration there will be reprisals.

This newspaper has actually encountered cases in which businessmen, seemingly out of an abundance of fear, have asked that they be allowed to exercise a measure of editorial jurisdiction over what we print; a request which we have always politely denied. There was, too, an instance in which a certain merchant ‘pulled’ an interview after having granted it. However, he was honest enough to admit that he felt the content of the interview might somehow interfere with the speed with which imports consigned to him and which at the time had been lying on a wharf under the authority of the Guyana Revenue Authority might be cleared.

There is, of course, another reason why some businesspeople avoid the media and that has to do with a fear of being cut out of the loop as far as benefiting from official favours is concerned.

That brings us to another issue. We in Guyana have become steeped in a culture of ministerial authority, so that the path to getting many things done is through ministers and high officials who grant favours and concessions, which are really the gift of the state rather than the minister. How many times have we not heard of persons boasting of securing duty-free concessions and other state-related favours by resort to one high official or another? In fact, on Tuesday at a Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry media briefing, that organisation’s President Clinton Urling dropped a broad hint that he believed that one of benefits of a Procurement Commission was that it was likely to at least reduce the sheer volume of favours and concessions ministers could grant in circumstances where an independent adjudicating body existed. What Mr Urling did not say was that ministerial favours are often the architects of corruption and nepotism and of course it was hardly necessary for him to do so. Enough has been said about corruption to understand its nexus with the influence of high officials.

The fact of the matter is that, over time, the relationship between the government and the private sector has ebbed and flowed and there have been instances in recent years where well-respected private sector officials have had the misfortune of having to endure presidential tickings-off for talking too much. The private sector has been guilty of not pushing back, since in those instances, the tellings-off were administered because they dared to stand up for private enterprise.

The truth of the matter is that government has actually worked out ways of ‘backing up’ the private sector. Private business people believe that there are ways, real or imagined, in which they can be ‘reached’ if they are critical of the government. So that whatever the fuss about a public/private sector partnership, the arrangement has its rules and its paradigms. It persists with a reasonable measure of normalcy on the basis of a strictly limited measure of latitude and an acute understanding of the rules of the game, particularly on the part of the private sector.

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