My attention was drawn to an article, which recently appeared in the local press under a headline stating;
‘Guyana’s budget process has limited public engagement, insufficient transparency and weak oversight – IDB’
The article is timely and spot on in the sense that we are now in the saison preparatoire for budget 2019.
In this regard, the Minister of Finance has already held consultations with the Guyanese business community.
Consultations with the business community is unavoidable since budgets include expenditures as well as revenues.
And it is the business class that will be taxed to fund expenditures not to mention the hauling in of additional revenues as a result of taxation burdens that government has imposed on the working people due to the regime’s broadening of the tax base.
Over the years, the IDB has no doubt, witnessed the annual pilgrimage, wish list in hand, to the Ministry of Finance and has concluded that the practice is inadequate and ineffective.
In other words, Guyana’s approach to budget preparation is disharmonious with a modern, people-centered and inclusive approach.
Budget consultations at the Ministry of Finance have become routine exercises. And rather than proving to be meaningful, they are in effect meaningless.
The minister listens but he does not hear.
As the saying goes, what he is told by stakeholders passes through from one ear to the other.
It is to be recalled that prior to the presentation of the 2017 budget, the PPP/C wrote to the Minister requesting answers to a number of questions about the impending closure of a number of sugar estates. The Party requested certain basic information about future plans for the sugar industry.
The minister never responded.
Why the IDB chose at this time to chide the government for its archaic, anti- modernistic approach to budget preparation and post approbation monitoring in respect to implementation is quite obvious.
Every budget has included in it large sums of money invested either by way of loans or grants by the donor community and by the IDB itself.
These international financial and development institutions want to see their money spent more effectively and efficiently. They want value for money, more transparency, tighter oversight and rapid disbursement of resources.
A case in point is the GOG/IDB sponsored Citizen Security Programme, which is being woefully administered and poorly implemented by the Ministry of Public Security.
Without referring to this programme or any other, the IDB hit the nail on the head.
The Citizen Security Programme is anaemic when it comes to public engagement, it trails far behind insofar as transparency is concerned and is miserably weak in respect to oversight by the Ministry of Public Security.
But in a much wider context, apart from monies committed for the executing of donor funded programmes, the question is, will the Granger Administration change from the conventional modus operandi of budget preparation to a more meaningful participatory and pro-poor budgeting?
It would not be surprising if the Minister of Finance or another of his cabinet colleagues were to pose the challenge, as they are prone to do asking; ‘but why you’ meaning the PPP/C ‘didn’t do that when you were in office?’
Naturally, that would be beside the point. It shouldn’t be because the PPP/C didn’t do something that the Granger Administration shouldn’t do it.
After all, the PPP/C didn’t paint State House nor the Office of the President in the colour green nor did the PPP/C hike ministers’ salaries by 50 percent, but the APNU+AFC did it. So where’s the beef?
Tons of newsprint has been rolled out and hours of speeches made extolling the virtues and the efficacy of greater citizen participation and pro-poor budgeting and its relevance to Guyana.
This has assumed greater urgency in Guyana’s present-day context whereby thousands of sugar workers, Rusal bauxite workers, teachers, nurses, law enforcement officers, vendors, thousands of shop assistants and many others either do not see any light at the end of the tunnel or receive starvation wages and salaries.
The army of the poor and powerless is increasing in numbers on a daily basis and government seems clueless about the way out of the socio-economic morass.
Compounding the situation is the lack of engaged governance, an off-shoot of good governance meaning; responsiveness, inclusiveness, participation, integrity, accountability, fairness and above all, rule of law.
Regrettably, these key components of good governance are lacking in government’s actions and by extension, in every sphere of Guyanese life.
Increasingly, the poor lack political space to express their objective response and to influence the decision-making process in respect to the quality of pubic goods and services rendered to them by government.
In contradistinction, it is to be recalled that in the mid-1990’s during negotiations with the trade unions, President Cheddi Jagan issued instructions to the then Finance Minister to ‘open the books’ at the treasury for examination by the unions in order for them to establish how much money government had in its coffers and at its disposal to enable it to pay an increase in salaries and allowances to public servants.
When the exercise was completed the union leaders left the Ministry of Finance convinced that government could do little or nothing.
Nowadays, even the meagre sums allocated in the budget to the social sector do not reach the poorest of the poor whose priorities are survival issues such as income generation and jobs.
Because of rampant corruption, favouritism and discrimination, monies approved by parliament for social projects related for example to health and education, are whimsically frittered away because of incompetence and mismanagement with millions finding their way into the pockets of those favoured by the ruling coalition administration.
The general perception common among most Guyanese is that technocrats and the bureaucracy monopolize the entire process of budget formulation and implementation. The ordinary working man and woman and youths have absolutely no say in the process.
In fact, they are given the Oliver Twist treatment when they ask questions or request more.
Public budgeting has long been considered the exclusive preserve of the Executive and very few would argue against that. But does that mean budget formulation must resemble a Masonic lodge-type process shrouded in secrecy and that there should be little or no public engagement, insufficient transparency and weak oversight?
If Government fears that openness in budget preparation would upset financial markets, jeopardize the integrity of the measures, or taken advantage of by certain groups to advance the interests of their constituents, then by all means, find a way to manage potential negative implications that may arise from proceeding in the new innovative direction.
This social deficiency is national in character, and brings into bold relief the urgent necessity for government to embrace participatory budgeting. Such an approach must be inclusive and should include the political opposition, trade unions, indigenous communities, as well as women’s and youth organizations.
The 2019 budget therefore should reflect a renewed and revitalized poverty reduction strategic approach in light of present day socio-economic realities obtaining in Guyana where the poor is becoming poorer and the gap between rich and to Red poor is growing even wider.
While Citizen participation and pro-poor budgeting is not a panacea it is surely an alternative to the failed and outdated approach which envisages limited public engagement, insufficient transparency and weak oversight in the pre and post budget process.
Time for change; time to refocus on lifting the poor and powerless out of grinding poverty.
Clement J. Rohee
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