I listened/watched via live stream most of the sessions of the IDB/PSC Business Summit in Guyana last Wednesday and Thursday. I commend the organizers of this forum and the participants for what was for me an informative and educative exercise. It is unfortunate that some aspects of the discourse turned out be partisan political rather than analytical and solution oriented.
In a previously published letter I offered my views on certain aspects of the first day of the deliberations. In that letter I suggested, inter alia, a reassignment of Minister Dominic Gaskin to the Tourism and Civil Aviation portfolio as I proposed the creation of a Ministry of Economic Planning and Business Development. It seems that in some circles my suggestion was taken as an attack on Minister Gaskin. I don’t share that view and my intent was never to attack the Minister. Some people reminded me that he is the President’s son-in-law and I should tread lightly. Well, I made it clear to those people that I could not care less about his familial ties; he is not immune from the focus of critical thinking and analysis on the future of Guyana since he holds public office. I once had reason to say in a private conversation with the late President Burnham when I opposed the banning of wheat flour, that he ought to bear in mind that Guyana was not willed or mortgaged to him by anyone, and therefore he was not immune from criticism of his policies. And this applies to every president and political party, especially the one(s) that form the government.
I have met Minister Gaskin on several occasions and interacted with him. He is quite affable, humble, even tempered and seemingly decent and honest. He is what would be considered a nice guy. But the country’s economic development needs the competence and experience of more than a nice guy. At this critical stage of the country’s development, government’s leadership in economic planning and business development needs to be in the hands of someone with the experience and knowledge, the nimbleness of intellect that would inspire and impress the private sector, potential foreign investors and the international business community in general.
On Thursday I listened to Gail Teixeira’s presentation, the delivery of which was impressive, so much so that some non-Guyanese colleagues in the office enquired about the very “cultured” voice they were hearing. I am sure I heard her say that government needs to sit down for dialogue with stakeholders, including the political opposition, on the economy. I agree wholeheartedly. But did the PPP/C participate in the budget consultations? Not as far as I know. But I stand corrected if it did. I heard her also praise former president Hoyte (hope I heard right) for the tough decisions he took on the economy, specifically the bauxite industry. It was good to know that the PPP/C thinks that the PNC did something it could praise.
Then there was the panel on tax reform which really did not address tax reform and throw up any real recommendations. One panellist did speak of the need to balance tax credits and tax exemptions, noting that the PPP/C government granted tax exemptions that amounted to billions of dollars which did not see an equivalent or greater dollar value in new investments. He recommended lowering the taxes in certain sectors, including corporate taxes, noting that the high tax regimes encouraged tax evasion and/or requests for exemptions.
Sam Hinds said that many international agencies and foreign governments pushed his government to offer incentives, including tax exemptions to investors, including the oil companies, so as to encourage their coming into Guyana but are today saying to the new government, we need to work with you to ensure you don’t give up too much. I found that an interesting comment, coming from the immediate former prime minister.
Godfrey Statia in making it clear that the GRA does not set tax policy but rather implements and enforces it, spoke of his preference for taxing spending rather than income, with which I totally agree. I am of the view that people should be taxed on their ability to spend rather than on what they earn, which in many cases may not be a living wage.
But the most important and instructive information, for me, emanated from the representative of the banking sector on the panel that addressed access to financing. He said that local banks are very liquid and had approved loans totalling billions of dollars as far back as three years ago to private sector companies, which loans are not being utilized. He opined that the reason for non-utilization of these loans is the wait and see approach of the private sector to the plans and programmes of the new government. Is this the true reason, or are certain private business owners playing politics and withholding injecting money into the economy to spite the current government? I’m not sure. However, the government indeed needs to put its leadership of economic planning and private sector relations into the hands of experienced, self-confident and well-exposed persons with the facility to discharge their functions creditably.