Was the opposition behaving responsibly when IAST became a victim of its ‘collateral damage’?

Dear Editor,

I write with concern and frustration regarding the outcome of the 2014 Budget deliberations in the National Assembly. At the outset, I wish to state that I believe it is healthy for governments to be held accountable by the elected opposition (as indeed by the entire populace) for their degree of spending, administration of programmes and the policies which dictate spending. In many jurisdictions around the world, the beneficiary in minority government situations are the people, for even though governing with a minority is difficult, this situation often forces elected representatives to develop the maturity to seek compromise, which normally accrues to the benefit of a wider cross section of the population. Therefore, I am not at all unhappy to see our elected opposition tasking government to defend its spending, administration and policies.

What concerns me however is the cavalier approach to what has been termed “collateral damage.” In the mature language of compromise and responsible behaviour which I firmly believe we have a right to expect of our elected officials, this phrase should be regarded as an obscenity. I direct one of the state entities which have been damaged collaterally: the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST), which is among a handful of other agencies whose entire budget has been disapproved, simply because the budgets of these agencies were aggregated together with a few state entities with which the collective opposition has significant issues. It is not my jurisdiction or intention to examine the merits or demerits of the opposition’s vexation with these agencies, as there are able and eminently more qualified individuals on both the government and opposition benches whose job it is to concern themselves with such matters of national importance.

My simple question is – does the collective opposition really believe it is responsibly acting in the interest of the Guyanese populace when “collateral damage” is not only a reality, but when there has been no utterance from these elected officials on the way forward for the stricken agencies? I meet as is unavoidable in small Guyana, and indeed am friendly with, many of the elected opposition as well as elected officials on the government side. Not a single one of these elected officials have indicated to me that they felt the IAST is underperforming. Indeed, the criticism I have received from the President is that the institute has not been doing enough to commercialize its exciting research projects, a criticism with which I concur, and we have been taking steps to address this lack, despite some of the inherent systemic barriers to research commercialization in Guyana. In fact, Mr Ramjattan has often commended me for the work that we do at the institute, and Mr Nagamootoo has in the past recommended foreign investors interested in peat gas to the institute. Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, whom I meet from time to time, also has never indicated anything but admiration for what we have been doing at the institute. This is of course not to suggest that there is no room for improvement or that we are well funded and well-staffed. But in general, our efforts have been met with approbation, particularly by those who have taken the time to actually observe first-hand what is happening at the institution.

I can therefore only conclude that the collective opposition has been gravely irresponsible in allowing entities with which they have no articulated issue, such as the IAST, to be placed in an untenable situation with respect to both their operational and capital allocations for 2014. Incidentally, the institute’s capital expenditure for 2014 was targeted at the acquisition of equipment which was crucial to one of our more important projects: the replacement of mercury in gold mining with activated carbon produced from locally sourced coconut shells (successfully practised elsewhere around the world). Given the imminent ban on mercury and the crucial role of the gold sector in the national product, is it not cavalier for this the kind of project to be relegated to the mortuary because of “collateral damage”? The IAST loses skilled labour constantly to the developed world – only a few months ago, we lost one of our PhD chemists to Israel. In the main, this is due to the uncompetitive salaries available, but I can assure you that the current uncertainty of how the institute is to meet its employment and operational expenditures has presented major challenges to staff motivation and morale, and certainly does not help the brain drain. Furthermore, it is now the end of April – for how long will we allow the follow-up negotiations to continue, whilst the collaterally damaged agencies limp along in limbo – doing nothing for the national good, losing morale, and certainly, not being efficient with the taxpayers’ dollars. It is unconscionable for functioning agencies with important mandates to be held ransom. It is also dangerous for the elected opposition to assume that they are exempt from being concerned that such agencies function – every opposition of every nation must be as concerned with good governance and effective functioning of state agencies as is the government of the day, or they effectively demonstrate that they are not fit to form a responsible government.

I am therefore calling on the elected opposition of this country to demonstrate to us that they can be mature, that they are not willing to slash and burn in a manner which engenders that obscenity – “collateral damage”, and that when this occurs, they are willing to take responsibility to suggest compromised ways in which to avoid damage to programmes important to the national fabric and national competitiveness. Why am I calling on the opposition and not the government? The opposition proposed the cuts and enforced them with their majority in the national legislature.

Yours faithfully,
Suresh Narine
Institute of Applied
Science and Technology