Appointing international civil servant Dr Richard Van West-Charles as the new Chief Executive (CE) of the Guyana Water Inc (GWI) is another ill-advised decision by the APNU+AFC administration that immediately leads reasonable minds to question whether the coalition is truly wedded to separating itself from the debased culture of the former PPP/C government.
Dr Van West-Charles has had a historic association with the PNC now PNCR – the main component of APNU as a onetime Minister of Health and in later years, once he had re-established a connection with Guyana, he interested himself in the leadership of the PNCR. In 2011, he decided to switch support to the AFC, the other half of the coalition government and has therefore developed influential ties with the main players. He was/is a party man. So no matter how it is spun, packaged or transmogrified, the appointment of Dr Van West-Charles will be seen for what it is – another job for the boys and in this instance one that can have serious repercussions on an ailing, poorly performing, vital utility.
GWI’s press release announcing his appointment listed impressive credentials, mainly in public health. However there was nothing to suggest that Dr Van West-Charles had any experience with a utility, recently or otherwise, and more importantly a major water utility. As far as is known, his last position was as the Academic Dean of St Helen University Medical School and Health Sciences in St Lucia, not the best proving ground for his current position. When Karran Singh was reappointed as the Chief Executive Officer of GWI in 2007, the three prime international financiers of the water utility, the IDB, the World Bank and the UK’s DfID were moved to issue a joint statement which could only have been interpreted as a vote of no confidence. That statement said “Although we welcome the move to appoint a Managing Director for GWI, we neither endorsed nor contested this candidate, as those matters are the responsibility of the Board of GWI and the Government of Guyana”. One wonders if this statement may be dusted off.
How does a prime public sector position end up going to someone without the relevant experience? You don’t advertise it. This is exactly what happened here again. The governing alliance is quickly picking up a reputation for selective application of principled behaviour. Whereas the public would have expected a widely-publicised invitation for the vital post of CE of GWI it instead got what amounted to sole-sourcing. This is completely unacceptable. As in the case of Ms Rosalie Robertson for Land Registrar and others, the APNU+AFC government believes it can ride roughshod over the pre-election commitment of fairness, transparency and due diligence in all of its actions. There will inevitably be repercussions. In keeping with its stated commitment to transparency, the government through its Ministry of Communities must issue an explanation on the process used for the appointment of Dr Van West-Charles.
Given the intractable managerial difficulties that have beset GWI since its formation in 2002, encompassing the troubled tenures of Mr Singh and the management contract with Severn Trent which was eventually terminated, one would have expected that Dr Van West-Charles would be on a short-term contract or even probation so that his performance could be assessed. This should also be clarified. As things stand, GWI needs inspired performance at the top to lift it out of the financial crisis it is in and to address problems that have bedevilled it for the last few decades.
In his budget presentation this year, Finance Minister Jordan spoke frankly about GWI. He noted that it is operating at a loss. It is a quite big one. The 2013 annual report for GWI put the operating loss for the year at a whopping $3.5b. The previous year, the loss was $3.8b. In 2013, there was a $270m provision for impairment of receivables and impaired receivables were separately listed at $399m. How does the appointment of Dr Van West-Charles inspire hope that GWI can be extricated from this financial morass?
Since its founding in 2002 out of the merger of Guywa and the GS&WC, GWI has not been able to get on top of several major challenges. The most important of these is the disastrous non-revenue water loss i.e. water lost by leakage and theft. In some years this figure has been as high as 70% and in other years had ranged between 50% and 60% – clearly unsustainable. Severn Trent had failed hopelessly to attain the targets set and was eventually dismissed. Will Dr Van West-Charles be assigned a series of performance-based benchmarks?
In his budget address, Minister Jordan also proceeded to outline a series of costly projects which would be undertaken to improve the performance of the water sector. Several of these are funded by donors and it is left to be seen how these projects will perform particularly in light of the poor reports so far from the Linden Water Supply Rehabilitation Programme funded by Guyana and the IDB and which was recently exposed by Lindeners. Pumping money into these projects, oftentimes in the form of loans that have to be repaid is no guarantee of performance. Management is key and the question as of now is whether Dr Van West-Charles can deliver as CE.
A host of other challenges remains at GWI as it relates to billing, the high energy cost, handling of leaks and other complaints, the aged Water Distribution Networks – some made with asbestos cement, poor penetration of communities in the hinterland, receivables and management of the sewerage system.
Consumers want to be provided with reliable water service at a reasonable cost by a utility that is always expanding its reach, efficiently run and isn’t a financial burden on the state. These are the broad benchmarks by which both Dr Van West-Charles and the government will be evaluated.