The conflict of interest debate exposes our hypocrisy as a nation

Dear Editor,

Cases of conflict of interest have flared up in the public domain again. Several years ago, it involved Minister Ashni Singh and his wife. This time, it involves two female ministers.

Much of the debate over the issue of conflict of interest is bereft of vital considerations. It even also exposes our hypocrisy as a nation.

You would not believe that this is a country in which a major businessperson, Peter D’Aguiar, was manipulated out of the political affairs of the country in which he had built his business, which stands to this day, and which is parasitically taxed by the political descendants of those who derogatorily labelled him capitalist – the same category of people we are forced to contend with now that we have managed to produce leaders who do not even know what negotiation is. Over the years, we have schemed to beat our unions down at every turn rather than out-negotiate them. What they won by negotiation, they were cheated out of by legal artifice or state power (Timal vs GuySuCo for instance).

And now we want to prolong the stranglehold of non-businesspeople on the political leadership of the country when the perspective of businesspeople may be needed most. There is a cry for the minister to give up her business. Yeah right. Like Donald Trump did.

So now every year we hear “the private sector is the engine of growth” but no engine drivers need apply!

The focus on official status allows what is probably the majority of conflict of interest situations to fly and thrive under the radar.

Conflict of interest situations do not exist only between husband and wife and obvious blood relatives. They can exist in any case where there is an undisclosed relationship whether by blood or of a romantic nature. So, the marriage of the minister only serves as a red flag to draw attention to a relationship that should not have been allowed to persist unnoticed, once started. It is one where the functions of one of the parties involved are likely to intersect with those involving the other party and influence the outcome of transactions to the other’s benefit. This is a huge problem in Guyana.

The fixation on the date of the minister’s marriage is a magic trick being performed by those who quite possibly have their hands in our pockets even now. The marriage itself is of no consequence beyond its signaling to the public of a relationship. It is the relationship that is the problem – not the marriage ceremony.

For too long, Guyanese have ignored the fact that there are covert underground relationships between businesses, government departments and individuals which facilitate the pilfering of the nation’s resources or the manipulating of benefits to relatives and friends. The attention on marriage is therefore nothing but a red herring.

Let me give two examples. Several years ago, the police had to be called in to investigate a scheme that was discovered at a certain business. The perpetrators were a team across the managerial divide where a porter and a supervisor developed a romantic relationship. They were not married. In another company, the complaints to the HR department rose to a din when competent staff noticed that they were oftentimes ignored in favour of other people who appeared to be less qualified or poorer performers. It turned out that the favoured staff were paramours of the supervisors or managers as the case may be. (Of course, there was a weak HR function, but that is another matter)

It cannot be that the people reading the debates in the newspapers and even making accusations against the married people are not aware of these types of situations. Some of them would be perpetrators and others, beneficiaries.

Let me cite the rules of one organisation to make the case: “It is recognised that the nature and kinds of personal relationship that exist in the University are many and varied…it is recognised that there will be particular circumstances where the staff member(s) concerned will need to withdraw from certain decisions or from undertaking certain roles, in order to protect themselves and the University from any possible criticism of unfair bias.

“Wherever possible, line managers should withdraw from exercising managerial/supervisory responsibilities where a close relative/partner/friend is involved. In all cases involving line management, close relationships must be declared by the line manager to the Head of Department/Manager.

It is neither desirable nor possible to define in advance all the different types of relationship or sets of circumstance where there may be real or perceived conflicts of interest, but these will include:

decisions relating to financial matters – refer to “Conflicts of interest” in the University’s Financial Regulations

decisions relating to the recruitment, salary, terms and conditions of service, management, promotion, allocation of duties etc. of members of staff

decisions involving academic assessment and supervision

It is not possible to provide guidance on every eventuality: it is the responsibility of each member of staff to declare personal relationships to their Head of Department/Manager in order to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest.”

In Guyana, the political class came out of either dentistry or law and still does to a large extent. Mr. Granger is an anomaly. What this means is that he alone has emerged out of a background – the military (and his own business) – where the cut and thrust of organisational dynamics would have been at play. To what extent he is able to use his background is another matter, since he may be constrained by the lack of the very skills of the people he is surrounded by to the extent that they are not businesspeople. These skills are needed to deal with external multinational as well as local corporate interests.

What do I mean? It is doubtful that anyone who is a business-oriented person would have allowed themselves to be inveigled into signing either the 1999 agreement with Exxon or the 2016 agreement. Businesspeople are trained to automatically consult their team of professionals. You cannot be a businessperson at any significant level in an organisation and not automatically consult your marketing team leader, your accountant, etc, when there is a new project being embarked upon. It is apparent that a wide team of technocrats was not consulted before these agreements were signed.

Now we want to tell a minister who has a business that she should discontinue the business she labouriously built. So she can be one of those who depend on state income alone. As if the world does not continue to provide daily lessons with this type!

It is unlikely that the issue of private legitimate income never came up in all our years of independence. It has been known for decades that there were private law firms that became beneficiaries of state patronage overnight when the government changed. (The greater the hypocrisy of those now calling on the minister to give up her business!)

The minister, who has built up a business from the ground, has a right to continue her business. The opposition has a duty to flag the matter and raise it publicly- as they correctly did. The competitors of the business have a right to fair treatment, fair access to the same opportunity that was provided to the minister’s business whether it was in the pre-qualification stage or quotation stage. The public has a right to know that its government ministers are focusing their energies on the affairs of the nation. All of these competing interests can be handled with a simple formula.

Since this matter must have come up before, I can only imagine that it was deliberately left open and unattended so that it can be made a political football when the right opportunity arose. All the governments up to this one, who left this matter open, are guilty.

The simple solution is for rules to be put in place which demand that a) a minister’s business be declared, b) the award of any business opportunity be the result of public tender, c) the award process be seen to be transparent.

To the extent that this is not so, we can conclude that the status quo has persisted because of a lack of political will.

Yours faithfully,

F. Collins  

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