Government’s billion dollar coastal cleanup

No one in their right mind would turn down a well-intentioned initiative backed by one billion Guyana dollars that seeks to effect a cleanup around coastal Guyana. This, however, is a peculiar political season in which every rock set firmly in the ground is believed to conceal some sort of conspiracy. Accordingly, and its best intentions notwithstanding, the billion-dollar cleanup project will attract the studied attention of the government’s political critics.

That, however, is not the measure by which the proposed cleanup exercise should be judged.

We perhaps ought to seek to put the billion- dollar cleanup exercise into some sort of perspective so that the first thing that should be said is that the outcomes of the exercise will not come even remotely close to realizing a coastal makeover. One billion dollars cannot cover the cost of remedying the abuse and neglect to which coastal Guyana has been subjected over the decades.

If, however, the initiative is carefully planned and executed it ought to make the kind of difference that might encourage a degree of continuity through similar annual interventions in the future. These, though, must have no bearing on ensuring that the respective municipalities across the country are properly equipped to carry out their own substantive responsibilities.

Half of what has allocated has been assigned to the capital. That is not surprising. Georgetown, apart from being the nation’s capital, has truly sunk to the level of a national disgrace. The government – again for what might well be construed as political reasons – has invited City Hall along as its junior and jaded partner.  A compromised City Hall tagging on to the government’s coat-tails in a multi-million dollar urban cleanup exercise may well be seen by the political administration as a useful local government elections campaign poster, though the point is worth making that the politics of the central government-local government relationship has made its own healthy contribution to the state of the city.

The billion-dollar allocation would probably have come as something of a surprise to many Guyanese. Some of us see living cheek by jowl with garbage as an occupational hazard of living in Guyana. Sometimes it seems that we have slipped quietly into a condition of resigned indifference to the physical state of much of the country and its implications for our own personal well-being.

Persistent talk of imminent general elections has caused much of what has been presented in the 2014 budget to be viewed by the government’s critics with a gimlet eye. Indications of political undertones in the billion-dollar cleanup gesture have already emerged, most pointedly in a public missive by an official of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, who, whilst singing the government’s praises on the announcement appeared unable to resist the temptation to repeatedly poke the Georgetown municipality in its eye.

Still, the physical condition of coastal Guyana is bad enough for us to pay less attention to ‘the politics’ and focus to a greater extent on how the execution of the cleanup project might begin to make coastal Guyana more livable for us and more presentable to the world.

All of this, of course, assumes that the project will be planned and executed with equal measures of seriousness, administrative and technical competence and transparency, otherwise, we may as well spare ourselves the trouble and put the money to some other more worthwhile use.

Up until now we know that the overall effort will be spearheaded by “government” and that ministries – and conceivably other state agencies – will provide administrative oversight for the project. Here, the question that arises is whether it might not be best for all concerned if the project is placed – lock, stock and barrel – in the hands of a carefully chosen independent body possessing all of the skills associated with the planning and execution of an exercise of this nature, and at the same time not known to be having any troublesome political axe to grind.

Recommended minimal government involvement in the execution of the project must be seen against the backdrop of the suspicions of corruption, which, these days, descend upon the government with monotonous regularity. The billion-dollar cleanup project is just the kind of exercise that could slip into a cesspool of corruption with dimensions of graft, kickbacks, and nepotism if it is not properly managed. Once contracts begin to be allocated to the private operators with trucks, bobcats, backhoes et al, the familiar refrains about fairness and transparency could quickly ring out, plunging the project into irreparable scandal.

One need look no further than the successive reports of the Auditor General to discern that working relationships between government ministries and private contractors frequently yield outcomes that are not only short on accountability but in which huge sums on public funds are – to all intents and purposes – irretrievably lost.  Beyond that, government controls on key aspects of execution give rise to the spectre of cumbersome bureaucratic controls that will almost certainly give rise to inefficiencies in execution while still not necessarily providing the kinds of accountability guarantees that they purport to do.

The causes of efficiency, transparency, accountability and even such political objectives as the government might have will probably be better served if, having set the parameters for the execution of the project, government removes itself from its day to day execution, save and except in those instances where state resources are required and even then, under the control of whoever is charged with execution. That way, government might save itself a great deal of unwanted criticism.

One assumes that – while it may not say so – the political administration would value some sort of public acknowledgement of its cleanup allocation though people might still want to observe the unfolding of the project before passing at least a preliminary verdict. That is understandable since we need to be sure that once the project gets underway (and the quicker the better) that the political administration is positioned at a safe distance from day-to-day execution, allowing the experts to get on with their jobs. If it behaves to the contrary then it cannot expect the project to secure the kind of widespread public approval which, presumably, it hopes for.

Much thought should be given to how we build on such accomplishments as the billion-dollar effort might realize. That would mean having to work over a longer period with citizens, some of whom are simply not used to living in well-ordered communities. Over time, indifference to good order becomes an ingrained habit and corrective initiatives cannot be confined solely to threats of prosecution.

The best chance for change reposes in engagements with communities that go beyond the physical implementation of the billion-dollar project and which are driven by planned, sustained public education programmes that focus on the nexus between  better-ordered communities and the welfare of its residents. Since people are likely to buy into the idea of a transformation only if they are made to see the benefits that are likely to accrue to them, ill thought-out community centre gatherings where citizens listen and officials speak and where no real stakeholder involvement ensues are likely to be no more effective than hoped-for compliance with good garbage disposal practices that depends solely on the threat of prosecution.

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