Opposition failed to safeguard important state agencies through budget cuts and therefore owe the nation an explanation

Dear Editor,

I would be grateful for your indulgence in publishing this, my final letter on the budgetary challenges still currently faced by the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST). I am somewhat gratified to note that my recent letter to the daily newspapers in Guyana, highlighting the budgetary plight of the IAST and calling on the combined opposition to suggest a responsible, compromise solution has elicited a number of responses, especially the one from Mr. Khemraj Ramjattan in the regular AFC column in the Kaieteur News (KN 27th April, 2014). Mr. Ramjattan’s assurances that the combined opposition not only considers the IAST’s mandate to be important to national development, but that the institute should continue to receive its funding, have certainly allayed any doubts I entertained about the wisdom of airing my frustration with the budgetary situation in such a direct and public fashion.

Although resort to letters to the editor is not my preferred way of dealing with issues (in the nearly 8 years I have been the director of the IAST, I have written four or less letters to the editor, and then, only to directly respond to letters directed at my person or the institute), in this case, the approach procured a commitment from Mr. Ramjattan on behalf of the combined opposition to expeditiously approve IAST’s budget (and those of a number of other agencies similarly affected) in supplementary appropriation requests. I have no reason to doubt Mr. Ramjattan’s word and so intend to hold him and the combined opposition to this commitment.

I believe I have the right, as does any other citizen of this country, to question and challenge the Government or Opposition on matters which affects me or the general public; I also believe I have an obligation to do so objectively and politely. This is exactly what I attempted to do in my first letter and also the approach I am attempting to take in this letter. In the polarized political climate of this country, too few members of civic society feel comfortable in airing their views, exactly because of the kinds of online and printed comments that my letter also elicited – but more on this below.

My call to the combined opposition to demonstrate responsible behaviour in this matter stemmed from the knowledge that this year’s budget was presented in exactly the same format as the budget has always been presented by Finance Ministers to the National Assembly. There were no changes made to the budgetary format. Given the ruling by the Chief Justice, I also understand that the Combined Opposition’s intentions to cut the budgets of various agencies that they find problematic would require negotiation, compromise, ingenuity and mature, responsible behaviour to extract the modifications they wished to see without the “collateral damage” that has so frustrated myself and the heads of similarly affected agencies.

We have collectively as a country entrusted the opposition with a majority in parliament not because we wish to see them reduce multiple functioning and crucial state agencies to a standstill, but to ensure the Government is responsible with taxpayers’ revenue, enlightened and consultative with its approach to public policy and efficient with its administration of expenditure. I was careful to endorse and encourage this role for the combined opposition in my previous letter and I reiterate my support for this role now, with no ambiguity. I understand this role is difficult, but it is a role and mandate which our opposition political members sought from us as an electorate. It is also a role in which we afford them respect (I can certainly attest that I personally treat every elected member to the national assembly with the deference and respect their office demands) and for which our national coffers compensate them at levels well above the average compensation of a professional, including handsome pensions and duty free benefits. In other words, they signed up for this just reward and I believe the majority of them expect to be held accountable for doing it well.

Therefore, for whatever reasons, and Mr. Ramjattan proffered a number to which I think the responsibility for addressing lies with the government, they failed to safeguard the welfare of a vast number of functioning and important state agencies as a result of targeting a few, they owe the nation an explanation of why and suggestions on how the untenable situation created can be expeditiously returned to normal.

Other than to flippantly refer to the collateral damage caused, before my letter and Mr. Ramjattan’s response, the combined opposition had offered no resort for the afflicted agencies, and this is exactly why I referred to their behaviour as cavalier and irresponsible. In my personal opinion, if collateral damage is to continue to be the order of the day come budget time, Guyana’s fragile developmental trajectory cannot continue to suffer these multiple annual interruptions to its progress without irreparable damage to its competitiveness.   This is patently NOT why our electorate enfranchised the opposition with a majority.

In addition to Mr. Ramjattan’s letter, I note a letter in response to mine from Mr. Sasenarine Singh. Whilst I wish to thank Sase for his kind words, especially those directed at the institute, I also at the same time would like to encourage him to not rush to label those who comment as peddling propaganda. I do understand that Sase has chosen to be politically involved, but I would like to ask him to respect that I on the other hand have carefully chosen, over the eight years I have been Director of IAST, to remain scrupulously apolitical. And I think it is important for those who would be our political leaders of tomorrow, such as Sase, to make room for the technocracy of this country to have a say and not to rush to place them in political categories. To lose what little of that voice we have left in this country is to entertain a barren, desolate society which is too Orwellian for comfort. I welcome opinions that are opposed to mine – as a person whose entire life has been spent in the pursuit of scientific explanation of our natural world, I value different perspectives. But I do not take kindly to being accused of peddling propaganda.

And lastly, I have been exhorted by Mr. Alfred Bhulai to apologize to the opposition. I have never met Mr. Bhulai, although I know of him by reputation from students of his who later did their MSc. and Ph.D. degrees under my supervision. Unanimously, they all had glowing praise for his mentorship, and therefore by extension, I also have held Mr. Bhulai in high esteem. Despite this esteem, however, I am afraid I shall not be apologizing to the opposition. One, because I did not seek to insult them, but simply to ask them to fulfill a role which they were elected to serve, and two, because as Mr. Ramjattan’s letter clearly established no offence was taken by my letter. Mr Bhulai seems to also labour under the assumption that the IAST enjoys a privileged position because its Director expects that its staff should be paid. Until and unless the Government chooses to shut down the institute or fire its staff, then I shall tirelessly work to ensure that they are paid, dear Editor. There is no privilege in this – simply compensation for their hard work, protection for which is enshrined in our laws and codices and hard won by our country’s long years of valued trade unionism. As for capital funding which the agency has received over the years, I am happy to provide to Mr. Bhulai the very thorough justifications for funding which is provided by staff at the institute whose compensation he is willing to regard as privileged. Not only the justifications, but the many cuts and checks and balances usually a part of the process, and the sustained level of advocacy and representation that I have personally invested to convince Government of the wisdom of research and development expenditure. All my professional life I have competed for research funding and until now, have never been accused of enjoying privileges because of my funding success, despite, for example, being responsible for more than 25% of the entire research funding received by Trent University; an institution with multiple hundreds of faculty members such as myself. It is therefore somewhat odious to be so accused, but I shall not demand an apology from Mr. Bhulai. Instead, I encourage him, as I have multiple others at the University of Guyana, to continue to fulfill the pivotal roles they have provided to so many students over the years, and to partner with the IAST to provide much needed research innovation to our growing country.

 Yours faithfully,

Suresh Narine

Director, IAST



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