Not one pint of oil has flowed from this nation but the battle lines are already drawn as to who must have control and who must benefit. Nearly every country in the developing world has seen the benefits from oil wealth disbursed among the oil companies/shareholders, politicians, their families, friends and cohorts.
For instance, last year, the President of Angola appointed his daughter, alleged to be the world’s richest African woman, to head the state-owned oil company. In Iran, a billionaire tycoon was sentenced to death for corruption in 2016, based on conviction that his role as the middleman for the government in organising oil deals, saw him evading sanctions and accumulating personal wealth in the process.
These oil-rich countries, given the exploitation of the resource, are considered middle-income, but this wealth has not reached the masses who remain poor, living in conditions of squalor, deprived of access to basic services such as potable water, quality public education and health care. It has been the ugly tale of two cities.
The scenario, though distant in experience, is not beyond happening in Guyana if mechanisms are not put in place to ensure transparency, corruption is dealt with condignly, and the masses benefit from a resource that is equally theirs. It is important the benefit that flows from the oil wells be direct and indirect.
As government prevaricates and quietly makes decisions behind closed doors as to how the oil wealth will be treated, it needs to be reminded this resource is not theirs, it is ours. Workers/citizens would like to see the money from oil being wisely spent. We desire the building and equipping of hospitals and research facilities to realise modern and affordable health services. We want money put into schools, creating modern facilities to make education better and accessible to all. Workers want better pay and improved conditions of work.
Areas such as agriculture and manufacturing must see modernisation supported by the appropriate research and development, and providing goods and services in a healthy environment. The physical infrastructure of roads, wharves, ports and waterways, supported by appropriate airports, in each administrative region, could make transportation accessible throughout our 83,000 square miles. We need a vision and development plan, built from the widest of consultation, in determining how the wealth will be effectively managed and disbursed.
Looking at the structural and developmental path needed to travel to realise the aforesaid, experience has taught us that politicians, when not held to account, will only make promises to get into office; their stewardship won’t be about honouring commitment to embrace development for all.
And as it is said, ‘easy lesson good for dunce,’ citizens will not be waiting for the politicians to only address structural development, which is considered an indirect benefit, they also want direct development, and a disbursement plan is not outside such realm/reach.
The proposal by Professor Clive Thomas that money from oil should go directly to households or citizens has merit, and must be examined. A Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) will not realise this, for those who control it are the only ones to directly benefit from it. Looking at the Consolidated Fund, which is the people’s money, it is controlled by a specific group who decides on and presides over benefit/disbursement, and in many instances, it matters not what the people desire or need. Management of the SWF is likely to see similar treatment.
The Green Paper on Natural Resources placed in the National Assembly, last Wednesday that seeks to give control to politicians, confirms Nigel Hughes’ reservation that should oil money be given to the people it can be used as a political tool. This Bill before the House is not about protecting oil and oil wealth and getting it to the people; it is about a few having control and determining who must get what, when, where and how. It is about a devious politics whose time has come to be gotten rid of.
Our politicians are failing to take seriously the spirit and intent of the Constitution, they have sworn to uphold, as it relates to the governance of this country. Though the political system (Article 13) mandates inclusion in the management and decision-making processes of the State on matters impacting stakeholders’ well-being, the coalition sees it fitting to present a Bill that ascribes to the Minister of Finance and Leader of the Opposition, responsibility to make appointments for the management of our national resources.
To seek to abuse privileged positions to make laws where other stakeholders are excluded, ignores when such privilege is no longer held, you can be at the receiving end of the very abuse you inflicted on society.
Debunking Clive’s proposal by saying such will create parasites is offensive, but moreso highlights how some politicians see the masses. You cannot be a parasite benefiting from what belongs to you. The counter argument that direct payment will cause inflation ignores that even with its absence inflation is present. This issue is not only about the economics, it is about the history of oil, where, over the years, few have had control, and by their actions have rend asunder nation and people. The only way for citizens to have direct benefit is through some disbursement plan.
Of course, it’s expected reasonable conditionality will be set. And yes, what Thomas is speaking of is not new. The concept finds international appeal, including from USA billionaire George Soros, as a mechanism to ensure oil wealth is widely disbursed among the people, reducing income/wealth disparity, corruption and internal strife that have flown from it. Residents of Alaska, USA, receive a yearly dividend from that state’s oil wealth. Studying how this and similar projects work could aid in developing an indigenous model built on best practices.
Our neighbour, Venezuela, marks a century as an oil-producing country, accompanied by a plethora of laws to ensure its management, yet the wealth has not filtered to the masses. Efforts by the Hugo Chavez government to remove control from the elite and privileged was met with visceral reaction, internal and external, to undermine a programme geared to benefit the small man.
Guyana can learn numerous lessons and put systems in place to safeguard our sovereignty, protect our citizens, and ensure our resources are sustainably exploited for the benefit of all. Don’t shoot down Thomas’ idea without examining the motive behind his thinking, requesting clarity if the need arises, learning from others’ experiences, and seeking to avoid oil’s curse and pitfalls.
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