In late 1975, in an article – The colonial model facilitating co-operative underdevelopment in Guyana –published in the Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics (Belgium. October 1975), I said that ‘In 1973 there were 1237 registered [cooperative] societies with a membership totaling 105,900 and a share capital of $10m. This is reasonable development in a country of about ¾ million people, where in 1970 the figures were as follows: 967 societies, 76,436 members and $6.5m share capital. But the face value of these statistics gives a false picture. Share capital is only on paper: many societies are either in debt or bordering thereupon. Bureaucratic manipulation is rife, while many members only join or form societies to exploit others. These, added to the other difficulties made co-operative development, to say the least, difficult.’
I was at the time employed in the Planning Unit of the Ministry of Co-operatives and Nationalization Mobilization, and Senior Minister Hamilton Green summoned me to his office and accused me of publishing without permission an article abroad that was critical of the co-operative movement in Guyana. As I understood it, the public service rules at the time stated that I had to send any paper I intended to publish to the permanent secretary and the minister and give them sufficient time to respond, and I pointed out to the minister that I had submitted the paper to him and given sufficient time for a response. To his credit, he did not deny that I had done so, but proceeded to inform me that it was clear that I did not understand Guyana (I had remigrated from England in 1994) and should take some time to travel around the country at the government’s expense to better acquaint myself with what was taking place.
Today is Emancipation Day and there is again much talk about reviving the co-operative movement, so it would do no harm to recall that it was in 1961, when still in opposition, that Forbes Burnham committed the People’s National Congress to utilising co-operatives to transform Guyana and emancipate the small man. ‘One of the most important instruments of the People’s National Congress plans to develop Guyana now and to give social size to the little man is the co-operative….The co-operative will be for all, not for one group or race, but for all Guyanese’ (Birth of the Co-operative Republic. 1970).
Maybe contemplating upon that commitment, two decades later in 1981, when I was the principal of Kuru Kuru Co-operative College, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham invited me to meet with him at his Belfield residence one Sunday afternoon. He wanted to talk about an idea to restructure state-owned industries into what were then known as ‘cooperative corporations’, in which the legal ownership and management of state enterprises was to be distributed in equitable shares to the government, the workers and the consumers of the products and/or the communities in which the organisations existed. Burnham thought there should be a small pilot project and arranged for me to work with the management of the Guyana Radio and Electrical Company (GRECO), which was led by managing director Herbert Harper and had been established in 1975 at Victoria, not far down the road from Burnham’s Belfield residence.
At the end of the meeting, Burnham said ‘you were perfectly correct about the colonial model and co-operatives in Guyana’ but by this time ‘boat had already gane a falls.’ In the article mentioned above, I quoted Ernest Poisson’s (Cooperative Republic, 1929) observation that ‘co-operatives are usually at the same level of development as the societies in which they are found’, and that was (and still is) precisely the situation in Guyana, where the movement also suffered from other well-intentioned politically orchestrated disabilities. For instance, without the necessary intellectual accoutrements, the co-operatives idea was lumbered with carrying the national ideological responsibility that was being hotly contested in a deeply divided society. Quite apart from those who were capitalist-orientated and viewed as dubious and even dangerous the socialist designation of what is really a private sector arrangement, those of the more internationally recognised Marxist/Leninist ilk claimed that co-operation was utopian socialism and was doomed. Of course, little did they know that their Marxism/Leninism would suffer a similar if not worse fate.
The undemocratic nature of the PNC government added to the burden, for the PPP had a fundamental interest in the failure of most of what the PNC did and between 1975, when the article was published, and 1983, the economy had already fallen by some 65% (Bank of Guyana Report, 1983). Furthermore, notwithstanding the establishment of various co-operative banks, a co-operative college, co-operative ministries, co-operative insurance, etc., co-operatives were being formed and run in a laissez-faire fashion by people who had no idea about business, but then with failure there was much talk about the co-mingling and stealing of funds, incompetence, etc., as if we did not know that for similar reasons by some accounts 80% of small private sector start-ups usually fail in the first 18 months. (https://fitsmallbusiness.com/small-business-failure-rates/).
Today, nearly six decades after Burnham’s first commitment, the only thing that has changed is that the co-operative sector has become even more decrepit, and indications are that its future will be just as bleak. For example, after outlining the possibilities and successes of co-operatives abroad, Stabroek News could claim ‘in Guyana not even the state-run oversight machinery can honestly deny that, for the most part, cooperatives have been synonymous with competence deficits and consequential mismanagement and corrupt practices, which, one suspects, is precisely the reason why the Ministry of Social Protection, the state agency responsible for overseeing cooperatives is yet to make public a progress report (or any reliable information, for that matter) on the state of the cooperative movement in Guyana that includes individual performance updates on cooperatives’ (SN: 22/06/2018).
However, for at least three reasons, the national environment for co-operative development has improved even if the ethno/political divide is today as great as ever and some still harbour the view that co-operativism can be useful as an aspirational tool of nation building. Firstly, co-operatives no longer have to carry the weight of a holistic ideological instrument of one political party. Secondly, so far, the democratic deficit of the earlier PNC government has been mitigated. Thirdly, I venture to say that unless those who direct the sector bring it upon themselves – as they appear intent upon doing – given a more instrumentalist outlook, not even the undemocratic nature of future governments should affect co-operative development more than it would the private sector.
However, there are definite signs that there are those in co-operative administration who cannot see this danger and believe that it is their duty to defend the regime rather than focus upon building co-operatives. Thus, in response to those who question the suitability of co-operatives given a specific historical context they ask, ‘what empirical evidence does he possess that laid-off sugar workers are facing abject, poverty and starvation? What evidence does he possess that Co-operative Societies would fail again?’(SN: 11/07/2018) What other empirical evidence can there be but the decades-long failure of the movement and the non-existence of a known adequate strategy for its development?
Norway, the largest oil producer in Europe, believes that fossil fuels have another good twenty years. This is not a long time if we consider that the PPP/C was in power for twenty-three. If more direct and sensible interventions are not made to improve the access and capacities of the small man, I wager that at the end of those two decades the vast majority of the oil wealth will be in the pockets of those with capital and business acumen (perhaps too some corrupt politicians and their associates), and the comparative position of the poor and powerless will have deteriorated. I shall argue next week that co-operatives can contribute to the required mix of positive efforts to aid in the emancipation of the working people.