Once high hopes for the David Granger administration have dissipated after a year in office, with various members of civil society expressing disappointment at the government’s performance, saying it has embraced the system it once criticised and the expected transformation has not been delivered.
“The government has begun to use the same system that it was fighting against when it was in opposition,” said Troy Thomas, the head of local transparency body, Transparency Institute of Guyana (TIGI). In a series of interviews with Stabroek News, other members of civil society expressed similar sentiments saying that much more was expected, the performance of the government is “disappointing” and it is showing signs of disconnect from the populace.
“In their public interactions and in their statements, they’re not sufficiently different from the last government. They certainly are not as different as they suggested they would be when they were campaigning,” rights activist Karen de Souza told Stabroek News. “Much was expected of this government. They certainly raised lots of hopes and I would say they have ended up disappointing a lot of those hopes that were focused on them,” she added. “There are some positions that the coalition government has taken that are disappointing. The Guyanese who voted for them would have voted with the hope that there will be changes and improvement in the governance system but I think quite early on…. they seemed to be not quite [sure] how to do this,” said rights advocate Laura George. “They made some blunders early on in their administration,” she said citing the “huge” ministerial pay hike and the justification which she said was an insult to the Guyanese nation.
“I have seen the distress of many who have voted for the coalition and who are very disappointed,” rights activist Vidyaratha Kissoon said. “National unity is as it was before May 2015. Crime continues, people who are robbed, [and are] dealing with murder and violence do not appreciate statistics. There are reports of inconsistent police response to reports of domestic violence and sexual offences. Some people get treated badly or with contempt still,” he asserted.
APNU+AFC leader David Granger was sworn in as President of Guyana on May 16 last year having won the May 11, 2015 general elections on the slimmest of margins to end 22 years of PPP/C rule. Having promised transformational “change” during and after the campaign, there were high hopes that the coalition would have moved swiftly to deliver on its promises. However, a year later, notwithstanding a few bright spots, there is a growing sentiment that it has failed to deliver on a number of fronts including inclusiveness, accountability, the economic sphere, fighting crime, among other areas.
Thomas told Stabroek News that he would give the government a “Grade C” even as some of his colleagues think this is generous. However, he said they still have some hope that they would be able to see a transformation of society. “The government has to look at transformation of society more closely,” he asserted while adding that it will be evaluated more on what it has done to transform society than on the building of infrastructure, which is an expected function of any government. Thomas and several others commended the government for several initiatives including the holding of local government elections, which he said signals commitment to local democracy development. “That sort of empowerment of the communities is a major step,” the TIGI head said. Other moves which were hailed included cleaning up the city, the enactment of anti-money laundering legislation, and moves to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative which was started under the previous PPP/C administration. However, on many fronts, the coalition failed to meet expectations. In giving a Grade C to the coalition’s performance for their first year in office, Thomas said he is not sure that he is seeing a commitment to transparency and accountability or steps being taken for anti-corruption measures. He noted that institutional trust is still relatively high at this stage but it is uncertain as to whether this is inspired by this administration or by the removal of the previous administration from office.
Thomas highlighted a number of issues including the controversial selection of the Fedders Lloyd firm for the construction of the Specialty Hospital, the little consultation on plans for D’Urban Park, and the delay in formalising a code of conduct for ministers and other government officials. “Why is there hesitation on it?” he questioned. “Why is it just sitting there and not being implemented?” The TIGI head also highlighted the series of audits done on state institutions and government’s failure to act on the recommendations which, among other things, has included the filing of criminal charges or disciplinary action against officials who have allegedly broken the law. “They need to move beyond this stage and do something about it,” he declared.
De Souza too was critical of government’s inaction in this regard. “It’s almost like playing… some kind of three-card trick or something because all these talks about audits… and the slow release of findings of problems of corruption, of unprofessional behaviour and so forth but then nothing happens so what’s the point?” she questioned.
“There is corruption. Are we going to address the corruption? Is the government planning to address the corruption or what? So the way in which information is released and the way in which the government over the year has released information and continues to release information, opens the space for suspicion, for, I don’t know, dismissal. What’s the point? You continue saying this and you’re not doing anything so just shut up already,” she asserted.
Thomas questioned what the government is doing to change the system that fosters and promotes corruption. In this light, he recalled government’s refusal to release the names of donors to the campaign while also pointing out that Minister of State Joseph Harmon had essentially admitted to patronage and was defended by the government. These actions, the TIGI head said, do not foster accountability and transparency. He noted that both of the major parties are not likely to be in favour of campaign financing legislation because it is not in their interest.
The administration, Thomas said, has not demonstrated the commitment to changing the system while it has even regarded citizens with contempt in some instances. He highlighted the case of Harmon’s “no apology” in relation to the huge raise in government ministers’ salaries last year. He recalled that it wasn’t until a month later after various defences of the salary increase by government officials that Harmon apologised. “I see that as a face-saving mechanism,” Thomas said. He also cited the alleged censorship at the state newspaper the Guyana Chronicle. The Granger administration has begun to use the same system that it was fighting against when it was in opposition, he charged.
Meantime, de Souza noted that various ministers have been doing their own assessments of their first year performance and congratulating themselves, but she does not agree that they have done well. She highlighted the inaccessibility of ministers saying that while they do not necessarily have to see everybody who wants to see them, there are too many legitimate complaints of how inaccessible the ministers are. However, she added that from her own perspective, the ministers that she and her organisation sought to engage, with have been quite open and accessible. Kissoon noted that some ministers are working better than others, and some are more responsive to public concerns than others.
Meantime, de Souza highlighted that the two budgets passed so far have not catered to the poor while there seemed to be a disconnect between words and deeds.
“I find it really disheartening because the whole campaign and in fact the force of the campaign was very working class, very grassroots, and what we’ve seen so far…is a very neo-liberal economic plan, very pro-business. In the last two budgets there has been very little for poor people, very little for grassroots people, for single mothers,” she said.
Kissoon highlighted the difficulty in finding jobs. “This week two bright young people spoke in despair about not being able to find jobs as all their applications were rejected,” he related.
“There seems to me still to be a disconnect between the President’s utterances about social cohesion and the need to work together and so forth and the expressions of other ministers and actually the practice of the government in a number of different respects…you are saying you want this but your behaviour does not imply that you want it or that you are working towards it and that is disappointing,” de Souza added.
She also highlighted that the Ministry of Social Protection has been extremely disappointing in dealing with protection of women and children. She said policy documents are still to be produced a year later and “nothing has really moved forward” on work to implement and ensure the adequate implementation of protective laws for domestic violence, sexual offences and child protection issues.
Kissoon said the administration does not seem to have any urgency in dealing with sexual offences or with domestic violence. “I would have expected the President to convene the National Task force for the Prevention of Sexual Offences,” he said.
He, George and de Souza highlighted Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence’s characterization of a situation of child abuse as being a family affair. De Souza said this is “totally unacceptable” and she does not see any way that this can be explained away. “It is an insult to the victims who have to endure the trauma, it is an injustice to them,” George declared while saying that people including children continue to suffer.
“There is a deep weakness in this particular social area,” de Souza said while pointing to several other questionable decisions. “It’s playing games with serious affairs,” she charged. “We are all looking at form, sometimes very faulty form, and the content is missing and that is not good enough,” she declared.
“These are people who’ve been in opposition for a number of years so they’ve been studying these issues or should have been so they should have entered government with a better plan for how they were going to proceed and unfortunately it is really disappointing,” she added. “All-in-all, I would say that they are not presenting as sufficiently different from the last government to satisfy my expectations,” she said.
Meantime, as it relates to crime, Kissoon observed that the police are charging some persons but said the justice system needs an overhaul. “More work has to be done on crime prevention. I do not get a sense of alternatives,” he said.
“It is alarming that in a tiny population like ours that the crime situation in Guyana seems to go unabated,” George said.
She noted that as it relates to indigenous peoples, the administration is continuing the ways of the previous administration. “It is just wrong to hear the argument that we have inherited it and we have to carry it through,” she said. The activist pointed out that current officials who once criticised the Amerindian Act are now saying that they inherited it and have to work with it. “I think there is a lack of strategic, substantial plans for indigenous peoples,” she asserted.
“I strongly believe Guyanese are disappointed with the government,” she declared, saying that people suffered as a result of corruption under the previous administration but the Granger administration seems to not be taking action.
Kissoon echoed similar sentiments as the others with whom Stabroek News spoke saying that the people, especially young people have been disappointed for various reasons. He highlighted the ministers’ salary hike and nothing or just a little for public servants, the lack of attention being paid to Lawrence and her defence of an alleged child molester, the poor treatment of the Wales Sugar Estate workers, and the poor treatment of the vendors around the Stabroek Market. He said there is a lot of “I did not vote for this” and “but is good dat de PPP gone.” He emphasised that a lot of work remains to be done.
Meantime, in terms of how the performance thus far of the government would impact its support, de Souza said that this is hard to say because of the ethnic divisions in this country. To illustrate, she cited the ministers’ pay hike which she said very few people would not see something wrong with it. “The supporters of the coalition government who disagreed with that action would not come out and publicly disagree with the action because that is to criticise the government publicly… and that’s not different from the position we had under the last government in which supporters may not like the action but they’re not coming out and say so, they’re not standing up to say so publicly because that is to, I suppose in a very backward sense, weaken the government,” she said. “So that is where we are and I think it is still true given the ethnic divisions, and given the ways in which people exercise their franchise that the behaviour of the government may be as arrogant as it is because… like the last government, they don’t see that it will have an impact on their support because the population still votes along ethnic lines,” she added.
“And it is sad, you know, particularly when we want to talk about social cohesion and unity and all kinds of things, we still have, you know, a fair bit of petulance in the face of criticism however justified the criticism might be,” de Souza added.
She said the actions of the government may have a little impact on supporters but she is not certain as to whether it will have a heavy impact. “What I’m sure about is that they’re not going to win any more friends than they have at the moment unless things change considerably,” the activist declared.