For one to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chain, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. – Nelson Mandela
A free and democratic society is one in which three actors are present – an accountable and representative government, a functioning market, and a robust civil society. It is widely believed that an active and vibrant civil society is an indicator of a mature and well-established democracy. Calling for a multi-actor approach to fighting corruption, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged governments, the private sector and civil society to “take a collective stand against this complex social, political and economic disease that affects all countries. To achieve an equitable, inclusive and more prosperous future for all, we must foster a culture of integrity, transparency, accountability and good governance.”
The Transparency Institute Guyana Inc (TIGI) is a civil society organisation, established in late 2010. It is small, resource-poor and voluntary in membership. As such, it may appear that TIGI has nothing in common with the government, but we do, as both TIGI and the government have both publically pledged to address corruption, and both entities subscribe to commitments under two international conventions – the Inter-American Convention against Corruption and the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Both entities also share a commitment to Guyana’s pursuit of social development and prosperity. But if we share a common goal, why is the President publicly attacking members of the organisation and its work? And if we have a shared mandate, why are we not working together?
At a recent private sector event, the President, “in one of his strongest repudiations of international reports,” (Guyana Times reporting) demanded the sources of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which saw Guyana’s position fall three places to 136 out of 177 countries since 2012. In contrast, Barbados scored a commendable 15, placing it en par with Belgium and Hong Kong. Haiti, the only Caribbean state that is ranked worse than Guyana, has improved 12 places in two years. The Chief of the Haitian Anti-Corruption Unit, Antoine Atouriste, lamented the fact that a pending anti-corruption law had not been passed which would have improved their chances. He stated that Haiti’s 163rd position in the 2013 report of the perceived levels of corruption, compared to the 175th spot in 2011, was the result of efforts made by his office and government authorities to tackle corrupt practices. He further stated that “Haiti has gained 12 positions over the combined period of 2012 and 2013 and we are sure that future reports will show more progress in the fight against corruption here,” (Caribbean News Now).
Jamaica has also done poorly this year at 87, but in an article titled ‘We Take the Business of Inclusion Seriously’, Prime Minister Simpson-Miller revealed proposed reforms to reduce corruption. She stated that “We have started to strengthen the mechanisms for reducing corruption. We have already commenced the legislative process to establish a single anti-corruption agency and we are also working to change the mindset of the society as a whole to make corruption so abhorrent to the individual that we will resist it at all costs.”
Had our President reached out to TIGI, we could have provided him with the information he requested and explained that the sources from which Guyana’s ranking were determined were the same sources used for most CPI countries. In Guyana’s case these were: (1) the World Bank – Country Policy and Institutional Assessment 2012; (2) World Economic Forum Executive Opinion Survey (EOS) 2013; (3) the Global Insight Country Risk Ratings; and (4) Political Risk Services International Country Risk Guide (ICRG). All of this information is publically available. TIGI could have also provided some suggestions and advice on tackling corruption and assist in working towards achieving a better ranking for Guyana in 2014. This will be good for the government and the Guyanese public who want to see their government take action against corruption. But despite our efforts, TIGI has been hard pressed to find platforms and opportunities to engage and work with the Government on its anti-corruption efforts, or to have government support TIGI’s efforts. This article asks: why, if we share a common goal, does the government not engage with TIGI?
Within the last two decades civil society organisations, and especially those engaged in advocacy or sensitive areas such as human trafficking and human rights, have come under attack from the government. Very often, instead of responding to the issue, the government has either rejected outright evidence that shows a position to the contrary, and has been quick to identify individuals and attack them personally and publicly. This is surprising since civil society has played an essential role in eradicating injustices throughout Guyana’s history from which the ruling party has benefited. Guyanese civil society, including the church and other bodies, has played an important role in reminding us of the values and principles which we have constitutionally been bound to live by.
Personal attacks cannot reap many fruitful returns, as the anti-corruption agenda in Guyana is much bigger than any one individual or organisation. As such, the Government has to appreciate that this effort cannot be done away with by making statements such as these:
I have seen some of the local stars of Transparency International, who talked about conflict of interest in the delegation of the APNU meeting with diplomats and I know one of them, their son is a candidate member of one of the political parties but they lecture us about conflict of interest.
The President was badly advised when he made the first statement because TIGI did not participate in any such meeting. The second statement clearly refers to the current TIGI President whose son merely consented to his name being placed on the list of candidates for the 2006 elections by a then small political party that had just been formed. The TIGI President at that time was serving the United Nations and returned to Guyana some six years later in 2012. His son migrated to the USA since 2010. The statement about conflict of interest, apart from being factually incorrect, therefore defies logic.
That apart, at the same function at which the above statements were made, the President went to state that “It is under this government that every tender bid is opened publicly. Let us talk about transparency – the transformation made in this area is even as advanced as some developed countries of the world.” However, given that the President was forced to personally intervene in a $30 million solid waste recycling project, which did not go through the tender board, indicates that the system does not always work. It also indicates that the President is aware that the public’s appetite for corruption and being told that everything is fine, is quickly evaporating. The Guyanese public is increasingly demonstrating an unwillingness to take the government’s word. They want to see a government that is responsive and accountable. This sentiment is among not only the ordinary citizens, but also private sector companies that are demanding greater transparency in public procurement, and even public servants, such as the NDIA internal auditor who bravely reported on corruption and lost his job. Most importantly, the very electoral base that the government relies on for re-election, including the Diaspora, is venting its frustration at the perceived levels of corruption in government. Increasingly, this common position among citizens is demonstrating that Guyanese can rise above what divides us and discuss an issue that affects us all. After all, why can we not have a say in defining the Guyana that we want to live in? Is this not a citizen’s right?
TIGI has time and again stated that it acknowledges and respects that the Government has an important role to play in anti-corruption efforts. TIGI respects the President’s position as Head of State. We ask that the President reciprocate by respecting our right to carry out our mandate in service to the Guyanese public. If the government were to change, TIGI’s efforts would not wane, and any succeeding government would be subject to the same careful scrutiny and demands for action and change. TIGI has a range of skills and expertise, as well as links to a wider network of anti-corruption experts who could play a meaningful role in supporting the government’s efforts through knowledge generation, monitoring and technical assistance.
The willingness of the Guyana government, and in particular the President, to work with civil society to improve governance and promote economic and social development in Guyana, will define Guyana’s ability to achieve prosperity and to progress as a nation. TIGI believes that its work is equally important, as that of the Government and private sector. We ask the President to take a bold step and support our efforts.