When WPA Co-leader, Professor Clive Thomas, unveiled the party’s Direct Cash Transfer proposal at Buxton in August 2018 at Buxton, Opposition Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, dismissed it as an election gimmick. President Granger also dismissed it by saying he had scant knowledge of it. Since then, other members of the PNC and PPP have weighed in on the debate. PPP’s Anil Nandlall had a negative response and Finance Minister Winston Jordan and former Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge thought that it was not economic feasible.
President Granger made known his opposition to the policy proposal in very clear terms—he described it as a “handout.” Although Foreign Affairs Minister, Karen Cummings, seemed ambivalent about it, she ultimately came down on the side of her Ministerial colleagues. The AFC, for its part , has expressed support for it through statements by some of its leaders.
Then on Thursday, media reports surfaced that Jagdeo had endorsed the proposal. Immediately all hell broke loose. His announcement caught both PPP and PNC surrogates by surprise. The latter have been relentless in their opposition as they cited the positions by the President and the Finance Minister.
PPP members and supporters took their cue from their party’s opposition to anything that came from the government side. But what they all had in common was a palpable ignorance of the policy—it was obvious that they had not read any of the vast amount of literature on the subject nor had they bothered to read and study Dr. Thomas’ detailed proposal presented at a WPA symposium two weeks ago.
After reading Jagdeo’s recent comments, it was immediately clear to me that he had a sound understanding of both the economics and politics of Direct Cash Transfers. He disagreed with Thomas and the WPA on some specifics and preferred a targeted approach rather than the universal approach of all households as suggested by Thomas. He said emphatically that some form of the policy would find its way in the PPP’s manifesto and that the party has an open mind to any proposal that is aimed at reducing poverty.
Jagdeo’s stance is in stark contrast to that of leading members of the PNC, including the President. They have not thus far had an open mind to the proposal and their utterings on it come across as simplistic. Describing the proposal as “handouts” and “vouchers” and invoking the well-known proverb about “teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish” reduces the importance of a serious policy proposal, but it further suggests a lack of intellectual grasp of the economics and politics regarding it.
To begin with, Direct Cash Transfers are not handouts. Rather, they are meant as a policy to replace so-called handouts. Handouts as we know them are gifts that politicians give to citizens in need. It is a term that is usually used by conservatives in developed capitalist countries to denigrate the redistribution of wealth to the poor. It is a term and a notion that are out of place in post-plantation societies with high levels of poverty such as Guyana. These gifts from politicians often make a difference between gloom and happiness in people’s lives, even though it is temporary.
The president, for example, has been distributing bicycles, boats and busses to communities and individuals to help with the children transportation to school. Conservatives would call that initiative a handout. I don’t think the president would describe it as such. I certainly don’t, because I know better. I was born poor and lived among the poor, and I know what a difference those gifts make, and I know the stigma attached to them by those who are better off. I would never tell those recipients of the president’s gifts that it is better to teach a man how to build a boat than to give him a boat. To do so would be insensitive and demeaning to those poor people who receive the gifts.
These very politicians who talk about handouts go to communities on holidays such as Christmas and Easter and distribute gifts to citizens. I would never say it is better to teach a child how to make a kite rather than give her a kite, because I know better. I know what those kites and hampers and toys mean to poor people. The money that they would have spent on those toys could now be used to buy school clothes or food.
It bothers me that those who use the term “handouts” can be so oblivious to the double standards inherent in their stance on Direct Cash Transfers. They are comfortable giving people gifts, but uncomfortable giving them extra income to get them out of poverty. The gifts I referenced above bring temporary relief, But Direct Cash Transfers are meant to decrease the need to depend on such gifts—they are meant to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty by giving the people an extra income.
WPA’s proposal is motivated by the need to reduce and ultimately eradicate poverty and to prevent others from falling into poverty. That some of our leaders can’t grasp that boggles the mind. How can one promote education as the only means of getting out of poverty?
Education is a priceless commodity for people—it’s a means of upward mobility. But education by itself cannot and has never eradicated the level of poverty that exists in our society. Education in conjunction with other policies is what is needed. . I wonder what some leaders think when they read this excerpt from a 1917 report by the Guyana Budget and Policy Institute report.
“The level of poverty and associated levels of malnourishment will have dire consequences on the future health of the population and the potential for future economic growth in Guyana unless immediate steps are taken to address these issues. More than 36 percent of Guyanese or almost 4 in 10 people are living in poverty i.e. surviving on an income of U$1.75 per day or G$10,494 per month, according to the Guyana Poverty Reduction Strategy: 2011 – 2015. Further, 19 percent of Guyanese or almost 2 in 10 people are living in extreme poverty i.e. surviving on an income of U$1.25 per day or G$7,550 per month. People living in poverty simply do not have sufficient income to pay for enough food to meet daily caloric and nutrition intake required for proper nourishment and healthy and productive lives.”
Whatever one thinks about Jagdeo, he is a serious political person. It is that seriousness that partly allows him to get the politics and economics of Cash Transfers right. The other thing that allows him to get it is cultural. You would hardly find an Indian Guyanese leader who would tell poor Indians that Direct Cash Transfers to them is a handout. The relationship of the Indian Guyanese elites to the Indian poor is more nuanced than their African Guyanese counterparts. Indian Guyanese political leaders have more faith in the ability of their poor—they tend to be less paternalistic than their African Guyanese counterparts.
I end this column with the following comments. I will go so far as to say that issue could be the difference between winning or losing for the Coalition. It would be suicidal for the Coalition to go into an election in which the PPP endorses Cash Transfers and they don’t. With the PPP endorsing it, it becomes a top electoral issue.
I hope the president changes his stance when the parties eventually sit down to formally discuss the issue, because it is going to be a defining issue at the election; it could split the coalition’s base. It could also expose the coalition as a sham, whereby the leader of one-party overrides two partners and, in the process, goes against the wishes of the majority of his supporters. From our interactions in almost two dozen communities, the policy proposal is very popular among the base. So, the leader will have to take all of that into consideration. The WPA intends to make it a campaign issue, whether the president and his party agree or not.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper)
More of Dr. Hinds’ writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.news. Send comments to [email protected]
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