Recently the PPP accused the APNU+AFC government of ethnic cleansing. The term ethnic cleansing was made popular by the PNC in the mid-1990s and former president Desmond Hoyte actually used the term in a letter to Stabroek News in 1996. At no time in Guyana’s history was there an ethnic cleansing. Not even the ethnic tit-for-tat killings of the early 1960s or the ethnic/extra-judicial/narco killings from 1997 to 2006 qualify as ethnic cleansing in Guyana. This term was used by pro-ethnic leaders like Hoyte and Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo to stir up fear of the other and resentments among their respective ethnic masses. Typically, this strategy of fear mongering is meant for cementing the ethnic divide and preserving pro-ethnic voting.
In Guyana there is a struggle between two dominant ethnic groups to control economic opportunities and resources. In no way does it qualify as ethnic cleansing. The ethnic elites use crass and subtle methods to keep their respective masses within the group. The masses are kept at subsistence production and in a state of ignorance and fear of the other group. This fear manifests itself at election time in polarized ethnic voting, in spite of some hopeful indications of an emerging class of swing voters. Winning the election means the ethnic elites have to reward their supporters who come mainly from one ethnic group.
The elites cannot do much for their masses as the country does not possess many natural resources (except gold) or agricultural crops that can be produced at a globally competitive price. Therefore, fear mongering is one technique to keep the masses ignorant and scared of the other side. Much of the struggle for economic opportunities plays out in the public service which has been thoroughly abused since the time of party paramountcy of the Burnham PNC. Indians were virtually non-existent in the pre-1992 public service and in prestigious semi-autonomous agencies like Bank of Guyana.
The logic of the pro-ethnic vote meant the Cheddi Jagan PPP went about to reward some of its ethnic Indian masses with public service positions. By mid-1990s the Hoyte PNC saw this as ethnic cleansing. There was no ethnic cleansing, of course, but a struggle to control economic opportunities through the domination of the state systems and public service. The Jagdeo PPP shifted up gears to a regime of elected oligarchy. A small group not only tried to control the senior positions of the public service, but also much of the private economy and the media space. While party paramountcy converted the seemingly developmental state apparatus left by Britain into a more predatory one, elected oligarchy has given a bad name to smart industrial policy – hence the complete abuse of the state apparatus and a misuse of economic policy since independence.
The indicators of marginalization are enforced by the intra-group social networks and skewed voting patterns. Is this deliberate or pre-meditated marginalization? It is not easy to prove because one would need to take into consideration self-discrimination like following through with the leader’s request not to cooperate, seek certain employment or to plant certain crops. At minimum those claiming deliberate marginalization should have some data to back up their claims. Moreover, there will have to be controls for other determinants of the systematic patterns of employment or resource allocations so as to isolate causality; in this case that the actual cause is prejudice.
We need data-driven analyses to statistically establish whether there is systematic marginalization of one ethnic group relative to another. It is the only way to scientifically cut through the crap of narrative anecdotes and cultural viewpoints. I think the Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Economics in particular, has failed the country in this regard. Economics has a collection of awesome tools – like the idea of statistical
discrimination – that can beam some scientific light on this problem.
First, there has to be another Living Standard Measurement survey. The last one was done in 1993. It helps us to understand the depth of poverty and the degree of inequality across groups. Second, a comprehensive study of the ethnic employment in the public service and semi-autonomous agencies for different time periods is needed. This study must go back to independence to get a feel for the changing ethnic employment patterns. This will help to put into perspective the relative claims of marginalization and explain to what extent intra-group networks determine the skewed employment patterns. There also has to be an account of the hiring patterns of the high level positions in the public service.
Third, the most significant incidence of land distribution took place under the PPP between 1992 and 2015. It must be easy to verify whether there was systematic discrimination in the distribution of house lots. This is not a trivial indicator since house lots and home ownership are examples of asset accumulation. Assets are important for determining the future economic success of all people. Fourth, there should be a study of access to bank credit for making new homes. Is there a pattern that one group was disadvantaged relative to another? Fifth, there also has to be a study of inequality within each group. What is the income variation and asset ownership variation within groups such as Africans, Indians, Indigenous peoples and other groups? Sixth, there has to be a study of employment patters in the private sector. It is also important to account for the ethnic distribution of the top positions in the private sector.
In conclusion, politics in Guyana is organized around most people voting for their respective ethnic parties because they perceive the best opportunity for patronage lies in their ethnic elites winning the election. This is an unfortunate inbuilt mechanism that will result in skewed hiring practices in the public service. Depending on the party in power we will see the swings in top management and the continual failure to mobilize a developmental state apparatus. It should not be like this as it is possible to create completely professional, embedded and yet autonomous public service. But this is the reality.
It will take decisive leadership to address imbalances in the public service, police force, army and private sector. While most of the masses will likely continue to vote on ethnic considerations and instincts alone, and intra-group social networks will most likely skew the hiring practices after elections, the onus is on the President to provide decisive leadership in making sure negative perceptions do not fester. The buck stops on the President’s desk! Given the nature of the APNU+AFC coalition government the Prime Minister also has a duty to show leadership.
I feel if we have more data-driven scientific studies coming from the social scientists the society can better understand the causes of skewed employment practices. The government must urgently fund data-driven studies in these areas. In the next column, I will outline how to minimize the inbuilt mechanism of ethnic marginalization – real or perceived.