If nothing else, the last 18 months must make crystal clear to the government that accountability with public funds and the highest standards of financial probity must be adhered to. Even if it is completely incorrigible the government must be aware that the opposition-controlled Parliament will move to make it accountable and that the people themselves will begin to press for answers.
Last week the call for greater accountability didn’t come from the opposition parties or one of the civil society groups that the government relishes painting into a corner and defining. The call came from the sugar union GAWU which can hardly be described as hostile to the government. Indeed, its President, Mr Komal Chand sits in parliament as a PPP/C MP. Mr Chand was concerned – like many other Guyanese – about the state of the sugar industry particularly in the light of the enormous sums of money that have been made available by the European Union to ease the pain of adjusting to the radical reform of the EU sugar regime.
It is first a question of whether all of the funds were applied to preparing the sugar industry for the post-EU era and if not, whether this was permitted under the terms of the agreement that the government signed and second whether the monies have been properly channeled and are producing results.
Charitably speaking, there is no sign from 2006 onwards that there has been measurable and sustained improvement in any aspect of sugar production. Field and factory performances have declined drastically.
Workers have left the industry in droves and have not been easily replaced. On the value added front, the Enmore packaging plant is producing packaged sugar that has been well-received in the Caribbean and other places except that sugar production has been so dismal that it can hardly keep the factory well-supplied. Spending on the ill-starred flagship Skeldon sugar factory is yet to show any sign of meaningful returns. Several years of grinding at the rated capacity of 350 tonnes of cane per hour have been written off as a result of the problems bequeathed by the Chinese contractor and the paucity of canes in the Skeldon fields. The time is more than ripe for GAWU and other stakeholders to demand answers from the government and GuySuCo on what they have to show for all of the money received.
It seems that the EU is now more aware that there is a valid expectation that its sugar support should be ranged against specific benchmarks in the industry. Its latest tranche to the government this year came with a series of stipulations which will crucially determine whether the sugar industry receives all of the earmarked funds. The June 20th, 2013 joint press release by the Guyana Government and the EU said “The industry has to meet a series of Specific Conditions in investments and performance in areas including replanting, land conversion, mechanical harvesting, drainage works and factory improvement.
In addition, the Ministry of Finance must meet the General Conditions of stability oriented macro-economic conditions, and implementation of reforms to further improve Public Financial Management.” Given the state of the sugar industry this is a stern challenge and it will become clearer later in the year how GuySuCo is doing.
However, for the moment, the outstanding questions are how much money was received from the EU for sugar and how much of it was actually put there. Has the expenditure yielded material improvements in the industry and if not why. Mr Chand’s call for greater accountability was followed up by an open letter to him by the EU Ambassador to Guyana, Mr Robert Kopecky. In his missive, the Ambassador let it be known that the EU would have no problem in sharing with the union the indicators that had been set and which ones have been met. However, he said that since the project is owned by the Government of Guyana, it should be asked.
We hope that Mr Chand does take up the advice to seek the answers from the government. We believe however that both the government and GuySuCo should seize the initiative to fully enlighten the public. A staggering amount of money from the EU has been sunk into the industry since 2006. The industry today remains moribund and there have been dire prognostications in some quarters. All of this has been cloaked in unacceptable silence and secrecy.
The government and GuySuCo post-2006 have relied on a blueprint which failed to produce positive results. Out of the blue, Minister of Finance Dr Singh at the June 20 signing spoke of another development plan to run from 2013. Why this plan is not available eight months into the year is beyond explanation. For any plan for the hobbled industry to be taken seriously both Government and the sugar corporation must provide detailed information on where the EU money has been allocated and why it has not produced the expected results. There must also be scrupulous accounting for it.
The pending plan and the new tranche of EU funding, as long as it meets the EU criteria, should be ideally tied to an assessment of the condition of the sugar fields, the regime of replanting of cane, the state of the supporting infrastructure such as canals, the efficacy of its fertilizing and pest control, an investigation of the Skeldon sugar factory and a survey of the industry’s labour availability problems. The government has an exasperating ability to ignore the reality on the ground and even deny it. Continuing this outlook will add to the disasters facing the industry.
The remainder of the EU money must be profitably used and the sensible point of departure is to properly account for what has already been provided.