As this column has noted before, it was the dreaded Cardinal Richelieu who claimed, ‘If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.’ In an extensive interview in the Guyana Review (SN: 02/10/2018), President David Granger and his interlocutor gave us many more lines, and, therefore, perhaps it should not be surprising that if some commentators are to be believed, both parties are destined for the gallows! After all, what are we to make of the interviewer’s assertion, ‘Excellency, it occurs to me that you are now the leading presidential expert on coalition governments; I do not think anybody comes close to you in terms of managing coalition governments in Guyana’? This, after the autocratic instincts of the president and his party have successfully wrecked even the miniscule chance the Alliance For Change (AFC) had of becoming an authentic national partner in the nation’s long but elusive quest for national unity. In any case, although confronted by a more principled and formidable foe, did Forbes Burnham not succeed in doing a similar wrecking job?

Requested to give two or three objectives that his government is determined to achieve within its current five-year term, the president said that he would like to see the elimination of extreme poverty and a reduction of inequality. With only about two years remaining of his term, the president agreed that he was being somewhat over ambitious and proceeded to plug his various programmes that provide transportation to help children to get to school as being at the core of his vision of ending poverty. ‘I feel we need to move the entire population out of poverty and although people do not pay much attention to it, one of the first things I did from 2015 is to provide boats to enable children to go to school and provide buses for children to go to school; to provide bicycles for children to go to school. Most of my critics do not talk about these things. They regard it as some side show.’ The emphasis on ending poverty and the above interventions are indeed admirable, but the latter could hardly be considered much more than a side shows in any policy that intends ‘to move the entire population out of poverty’.

The first of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), adopted in 2015, implore states to ‘eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere …[and to] create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions’ by 2030. The latter is fundamental to achieving the former and, so far as I am aware, the government is yet to establish and properly communicate a comprehensive antipoverty strategy. However, it appears to me that two recent interventions that would more substantially clothe the regime’s anti-poverty ambitions raise a core issue. 

In a Washington Post article, ‘Development aid isn’t reaching the poorest…,’ professor Ryan Briggs, whose research focuses on poverty alleviation, stated that while global poverty is falling, it is getting harder to reach the world’s poorest, most of whom live in rural areas. According to him, while generally poorer countries receive more aid than richer ones, aid from donors like the World Bank does not reach the poorest and tends to gravitate to places that hold ‘more of the country’s richest 40 percent, are more urban, have more light at night (a proxy for development levels), have lower estimated rates of child malnutrition, [and] have lower estimated rates of infant mortality.’

He argued that to be effective, some category of aid, such as the development of ports that benefit the entire country, must go to relatively wealthy coastal cities but that aid that fund schools, roads, electrification, improved sanitation, housing, health clinics and other targets should be directed to poorer places. ‘If donors want to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce inequality, they will need to shift more of their resources to the places where the extremely poor live.’

With a US$30 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA) intends to utilise US$16 million to provide badly needed infrastructure on government housing schemes and US$10 million to build and allocate 250 houses, costing about $4 million each to poor Guyanese citizens, 18 years of age and over who are working for less than $75,000 per month, already have a plot of land and can raise G$100,000, as well as to provide 2,000 other families with about $500,000 each to do structural upgrades to their home.

So far as I am concerned, this is a good idea but will it, in a cost effective manner, uplift the poorest? For example, at the extreme consider the possibility of all the houses being given to supposedly single 18 year olds who live in urban areas and work for $70,000. What criteria exist to prevent this kind of deformation and are these and the process of their applications going to be made public?  From the published sketch in the media, the houses appear overpriced. Indeed, with the corruption usually associated with the construction industry, why is the CH&PA getting into building and not contracting an institution such as the New Building Society to manage this programme, much as it does its own loan portfolio? By itself, the kind of policy configuration outlined above does not appear to favour the poorest if, as he says he wishes, the president is to equitably eliminate poverty.

I am one of those who subscribes to the view that the overwhelming majority of poor people expend their resources in a responsible manner and that as far as possible development assistance should, therefore, be given directly to the people (SN: 30/08/2017 and 22/08/2018).  Thus, when at a ceremony to mark the 49th anniversary of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), Minister of Finance Winston Jordan requested that the National Insurance Board consider paying unemployment benefits, he has my wholehearted support. I assume that the beneficiaries will be those who are registered with NIS and this would most likely have the added benefit of helping to broaden its financial base by incentivising many more self-employed persons to join. 

Leader of the Opposition Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo was quick to point out what many of us are quite aware of, namely that NIS finances are too precariously poised to be able to afford the payment of meaningful unemployment benefits. Not forgetting former president Jagdeo’s own contribution to its present ‘dire condition’ or the teachers’ task force fiasco, I find it difficult to believe that a Finance Minister would make such a suggestion without first acquainting himself with the various NIS actuarial reports. The minister cannot be making these kinds of suggestions out of his hat and must have some reasonable idea of how the resources to fund the benefit will be found. Indeed, Mr. Jagdeo himself suggested that if the government is less profligate, it will be possible to find monies from existing resources to improve NIS’s financial health (GT: 05/10/2018).  I therefore give the minister the benefit of the doubt, and Mr. Jagdeo should do likewise, if only because thousands of his followers might qualify and badly require such a benefit. 

These projects are but drops in the bucket and it appears to me that neither of them is designed to get to the poorest: many of the thousands in structural unemployment, on social security and the impoverished aged. Though laudable, President Granger needs to allow his poverty agenda more time; some of which should be utilised to construct a comprehensive antipoverty plan.  

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