Who can doubt that in Guyana in 2018 clenched fists of the past must be opened so that hands can reach out across embattled ground for the good of the nation. The government and the opposition should deeply, seriously, once and for all consider reaching out across what divides us to grasp each other’s hand in a practical partnership to take advantage of the huge opportunities which beckon if only they can agree. For very sure, nothing that separates us as party political animals can be as important as what unites us as citizens of Guyana.

Let them lead us to a grand bargain for the nation’s enduring benefit. Of course, I sense the weary cynicism as people read these words and I hear the despairing cry “it will never happen.” But I do not see why it should not happen given the end result which, it is true, would not maximize what a few would like to get but which would extraordinarily increase the benefits which all Guyanese deserve to have. It should be a simple calculation among reasonable men and women. Why don’t the major players really try?

In the grand bargain which I like to think can happen in 2018, I believe one theme might emerge as a guiding purpose. This is to narrow the growing gap between private wealth and public squalor in the nation.

This phrase was used by the economist Kenneth Galbraith in his celebrated book The Affluent Society published in 1958. Private wealth, public squalor aptly defines a phenomenon which is more and more afflicting Guyana (other countries too but let us confine ourselves to where we have it in our power to do something decisive). As the last few years have passed you must have noticed. It is a process and the process is accelerating.

On the one hand – private wealth, rapidly turning into ostentatious luxury:

  • New buildings rising by the score glittering and gleaming as money is poured into stone and concrete and glass and steel structures generated by private investors with the objective, presumably, of generating even more private wealth.
  • New housing which certainly includes lower-income schemes but also features gated communities and palatial mansions. Extending the ownership of private housing is an excellent thing but unaccompanied by matching public infrastructure and services it spells break-down.
  • It is a heyday for private security as private wealth seeks to take refuge from burgeoning crime in the absence of adequate policing. To the extent that citizens have to guard themselves to that extent has the state relinquished one of its main responsibilities.
  • There is a tremendous increase in shopping plazas and in the variety and proliferation of retail stores. That is not a bad thing in itself – unless one loathes how ‘consumerism’ has taken hold of the world – but ‘shop until you drop’ is not a good sign in a society where a huge growth in private purchases coincides with a noticeable decline in public services.

So on the other hand – a disturbing increase in public squalor:

  • Garbage still too much chokes the drains and trenches and outfalls. Rubbish disfigures the verges of the highways and byways. Weeds and bush grow amidst the rusting cars and old stoves turned to scrap. Derelict buildings are left to rot. The lovely trees of a garden city die and fall and are not replaced. Trash triumphs over immortal diamond.
  • It is better but the rain falls hard and the city and coastland floods. The drainage infrastructure is ill-maintained and cannot match the changing climate and the increasing load. Through neglect water which should be a blessing has become a menace.
  • Historic Guyana is also neglected. The City Hall falls into ruin. That 150-year old icon, Bourda, sinks into dilapidation. With the best will in the world the National Trust cannot do one tenth of the essential work it should do because public funding is inadequate and private affluence will not come to the rescue.
  • Private cars have overwhelmed the public thoroughfares. Driving anywhere is a dangerous adventure and/or a frustrating waste of time in traffic gridlock getting worse by the week. Parking space has been completely outstripped by the huge influx of private cars. Astonishingly, there is no publicly-owned transport.
  • Crime and lawlessness are ominously on the march – public squalor in its most dangerous manifestation. “I find not safety in the bosom of the state, thus do I seek my own protection” – that way lies the road to perdition.

The lists on both sides of the ledger are not exhaustive. Take a moment’s thought and you can add to the growing evidence of private wealth and to the abundant signs of public squalor.

The ever widening gap between the two is one of our great national challenges. I cannot believe that those who hold our future in their hands cannot resolve together to begin to regain a better balance. And, in this connection, one consideration which should facilitate success is that the great majority of those who enjoy the private wealth would readily support a process which in exchange for less private good they and all their fellow citizens get to enjoy greater public good. The reasonable man will always forego some part of personal luxury to participate in a safer, better and more and more caring society.