The self-restraining state: A model for Guyana?

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. – James Madison

20130305transparencyRecognising the fallibility of institutions, good governance is hinged on the functioning of three core groups: the state, the private sector and civil society. Civil society (institutions that lie above the household and below the State) takes the form of non-governmental organisations and community-based groups.

Transparency Institute Guyana Inc (TIGI) is a civil society organisation. Its mandate is derived from a conviction of what it feels is within the interest of the people of Guyana: a corruption free society. As such, it seeks to hold the private sector and the state to account, and like other such organisations, its main role is to mobilize citizens to be involved in socio-economic and political activities.

TIGI has a membership of less than 50 persons. It has a board of nine unpaid directors and an annual operating budget that is (at best) equivalent to the value of a second-hand car.

Another key pillar, the private sector has significant power to lobby government and is chiefly responsible for generating wealth and creating jobs in the economy.

The state, though often clustered with these two groups, is distinct and dissimilar from both of them in terms of power, legitimacy and scale. The state is the elected representative of the people. It has significant human and financial resources and is made up of a multitude of ministries and government agencies. Tens of thousands of Guyanese have voted for the government, and elections are a key mechanism for holding the government to account.  Once elected, all 750,000 Guyanese citizens must entrust and empower the government, the servants of the people, to act on our behalf. This is one of the main ways that we can ensure accountability.  This voting mechanism is what scholars in a book that shares the title of this article, view as the traditional approach – a vertical (top down) democracy with citizens at the bottom and the government on top. No other group mentioned previously (civil society or the private sector) enjoys that level of legitimacy and power. For these reasons, Argentinean scholar Guillermo O’Donnell asked, “Why should those who are in charge accept restraint?” since, after all, they do what they do for the common good.

As alluded to in the James Madison quote at the beginning of this article, there is a long-standing wisdom that there is a need to “guard the guardians”. Guyanese citizens or civil society organisations are not present when a President has a drink with an influential businessman, or when deals like CCTV are struck. They have no way of determining whether a company like Guyana Timber Products has breached an agreement that they have never seen, or whether the rules that govern the printing of the Caribbean Press are seemingly being creatively altered to suit the powerful in our society. To what extent can we really hold to account a government that seems to wield unrestrained power?

The immediate position taken often suggests that the state endorses a view that the government should be left to govern, and these endless examples that point to poor public accountability and corruption are erroneous.

Because the state’s leadership  wields considerable power, both citizens and civil society have legitimate reasons to fear when our own government brands us as being “anti-government”, “troublemakers” or “unpatriotic”. NGOs like TIGI are quickly put on the defensive, and are publicly summoned to “show the evidence” of studies, such as the recent Corruption Perception Index (CPI) in which Guyana fared poorly. The CPI is of course, one of several indices and reports that have found the quality of democracy in Guyana to be wanting and the level of corruption to be high.

Moreover, as outlined at the start of this article, there are obvious shortcomings of civil society organisations, which mean that they will only occasionally be able to expose instances of corruption. So why not turn the tables?

The central question of this article, and the riddle that scholars like O’Donnell have dedicated their careers to solving, is how can we ensure that the state is held to account? They came up with quite a revolutionary idea, that is, not to hold the state to account, but as Thomas Madison advised, to “oblige the state to control itself”. In other words, have the government continuously demonstrate that it is a government of integrity that it is responsible, professional and fair.

The response of the academics was to go beyond vertical (citizen centred) accountability, and focus on horizontal accountability, in which public (government) institutions hold the state to account. O’Donnell has written that his interest in horizontal accountability stems largely from the lack of it. But can we really hold our government to account? As another scholar, Andreas Schedler has pointed out the nebulous concept of accountability has two useful characteristics that ground it: answerability – the obligation of public officials to inform and explain what they are doing; and enforcement – the capacity of public agencies to sanction power holders. Horizontal accountability requires that we take a broader look at a myriad of institutions beyond (legislature, judiciary and executive) to include commissions, public agencies and every public organisation and office that can be mapped within the Guyana’s public topography.

This approach requires that we empower institutions to meaningfully monitor institutions of the state. It calls first and foremost for introspection and analysis in recognising the limitations of bodies that currently serve to ensure checks and balances. For example, an Ombudsman only has investigative powers and centres its mandate on recommendations. If horizontal accountability is to be enforced, it would mean empowering public bodies that provide oversight, that monitor, that audit and that can sanction individuals.

How would we know when a government is horizontally accountable? The most obvious is that, like our neighbours in Trinidad and Tobago have demonstrated, indicators can range from corrupt officials, including ministers, being fired or publicly sanctioned, of corrupt deals being denounced by the government and by the free availability of information, which has largely been kept secret.

The government will not ask us, the citizens or civil society, to ‘prove’ that it is corrupt but rather, the state will work assiduously to demonstrate to the public that it serves that it is not, and in doing so will improve its legitimacy in the eyes of its corruption-weary citizens.

In a horizontal democracy, a Guyanese citizen would never be made to feel that she/he has committed a grave injustice by asking how public funds are spent. A civil society organisation would never have to demand that corrupt officials be made to demit office, or an opposition to implore the state to make public records available. If the government does not want to be held to account, then it must start to do a much better job of holding itself to account.

For more information on TIGI’s eleven-point demand for greater accountability in Guyana, please visit our website – www.transparencygy.org. To become a TIGI member please contact – infotransparencygy@gmail.com

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