Up until now, relations between the incumbent political administration and the private sector have not exactly been characterized by an abundance of warmth and eagerness to work together. Rather, the relationship between the two has been characterized by periods of quiet punctuated by discomfiting interludes of tension. In February a statement from the Private Sector Commission (PSC) regarding, among other things, government’s handling of the economy, elicited an angry response from the government in which it not only curtly dismissed the private sector’s concerns but bluntly accused the PSC of getting into bed with the political opposition to resist initiatives that were being undertaken to improve the country’s investment and business climate.
It was a pronouncement that set tongues wagging on both sides of the divide, with critics of the government’s outburst asserting the right of the private sector to voice its concerns over the state of the economy frankly and openly and without having to anticipate an official rebuke to the effect that somehow, it had an ulterior, partisan motive for the position that it took. Government, not unexpectedly, tended to stick to its guns, and while the incident, thankfully, did not descend into a sustained virulent exchange it set the tone for what one might call a season of uneasiness.
Last February was not the first time since the APNU+AFC administration has been in office that there had been a falling out between itself and the private sector. It will be recalled that a meeting between government and the private sector that had reportedly been agreed to at the highest level shortly after the government took office in May 2015 was eased to one side without any explanation, and with one government official even denying at the time that any such meeting had been agreed to in the first place. The non-convening of that initial meeting was undoubtedly a mistake, since what it meant was that the APNU+AFC administration was left without either a clear agenda that would inform its relations with the private sector or without a permanent mechanism through which it could maintain a reliable relationship with it.
After the February falling out we witnessed a more-or-less running battle between government and the Guyana Gold & Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) over a rash of issues pertaining to concessions for the gold mining sector. What was obviously on display here was a flexing of muscles by the gold mining sector arising out of what it believed was inadequate official payback for the contribution that the sector was making to the country’s economy.
Incidentally, in its February statement which had elicited so much vitriol from the government, the PSC had pointed to a number of specific issues that had put it at loggerheads with the administration. These included taxation levels, the institution of VAT on necessities, and what it said was government’s mishandling of the economy as reflected in the flight of capital and skills from Guyana, a significant reduction in investment during the period since the administration had come into office, reduced real estate values and an upsurge in property sales. “We would like to see government create the enabling environment and engage the business community much more, so that together we can facilitate the creation of employment opportunities, have wage growth and put in measures to increase the wealth of all Guyanese,” the PSC had declared in the statement that had drawn government’s caustic response.
Since that exchange the two sides have more or less kept their distance one from another, which is not to say that there have not been exchanges on matters to do with business and the economy that require the involvement of both the government and the private sector. What is certainly true is that there has not been, since the February exchange, anything resembling a move towards what one might call a rapprochement, until last month, that is, when concerns over the continual decline of the country’s manufacturing sector gave rise to a high-level forum between the government and the Guyana Manufacturers & Services Association (GMSA). This included at least two ministers (Finance and Business) and a range of senior government officials and senior executives of the Guyana Manufacturers & Services Association (GMSA), who set a broad and seemingly open ended-agenda for discourse on a range of issues that have to do with addressing some of the challenges facing the sector.
What is significant about this forum as far as this newspaper has been able to discern is that the exchange extends beyond the kind of discourse between bureaucrats that have characterized government-private sector engagements that frequently lead nowhere, into practical issue-specific discourses amongst technical people to address sector issues (we understand that agro-processing and forestry are the specific sectors being addressed by the forum at this time) with a focus on remedial outcomes.
Interestingly, when SN met with the GMSA officials last week to discuss the new forum and its agenda, it was the importance of the role of the forum in creating an environment in which government and the private sector could engage in a frank and open encounter without descending into controversy, that monopolized the exchange. One sensed on the collective part of the assembled GMSA officials (Messrs Shyam Nokta, Ramsey Ali, the President and Vice President of the GMSA, respectively, and Mr Clem Duncan, the Head of the Trade and Investment Committee) a keenness to make the point that it was the creation of a convivial environment in which discourse uncluttered by the hangover from the icy public-private sector relationship that appears to have obtained up to this time; that is perhaps the most important immediate-term objective of the forum.
Given the fact of a strong organizational overlap amongst the three major business support organizations – the PSC, the GMSA and the GCCI ‒ it is reasonable to assume that the current high-level GMSA/Government of Guyana forum has the blessings of the private sector as a whole. Dare we assume, therefore, that the ongoing discourse at the level of the Government of Guyana which has already metamorphosed into a practical joint initiative aimed at enhancing the fortunes of the agro-processing sector can metamorphose into a genuine, longer-term partnership, the impact of which can be felt in the performance of the various sectors of the country’s economy?