This Budget was a first in many ways: for Minister in the Office of the President responsible for Finance Mr. Saisnarine Kowlessar, first for the President Jagdeo’s administration, the first to be presented with a woman presiding over the sitting and the first for the century and indeed the millennium. It was presented whilst the petition challenging the 1997 Elections is making its way through the Courts, and as the country heads for another elections based on the Herdmanston Agreement time table.

The year 2000 Budget however had the fewest number of budget measures reported in a Budget Speech since the introduction of the Economic Recovery Programme. If those individuals, groups’ and organizations who participated in “the dialogue and discussions, suggestions and recommendations were flattered at having “ enriched the budget process”, they must be extremely disappointed that their recommendations did bid not find favor with the Minister for inclusion in the measures announced.

Except that it is a tax-free budget in that there are no new taxes or fines it can not be accused of being an “elections” budget. That it offers no new or radical measures is either an indication that the current policies are considered as effective or that the Government felt constrained about its capacity and freedom to act outside of the tried path.

Minister Kowlessar is the first Minister in post-independent Guyana, indeed in the post self-government era to have presented a Budget without the full authority of a Finance Minister. His predecessor now President Jagdeo had the benefit of understudying the experienced Asgar Ally for three years. On the other hand Minister Kowlessar was plucked from the Turkeyen Campus of the University of Guyana to preside over the day to day administration of the Ministry of Finance which saw a number of key staff transferred to the Office of the President. This did not allow Minister Kowlessar to stamp his authority on his first Budget.

Despite the return to growth the economy is still not buoyant and badly needs a boost -investment, incentives and encouragement. The personal allowance, last changed in 1997 and eroded by inflation needed review.

In the 1 hour 35 minute Speech there was in fact only one genuine budget measure - the wage increase for public servants. No new taxes is almost becoming a virtue - it is as though taxation is no longer considered as an important instrument of economic policy.

Again this year there was no acknowledgement to the work being done on the NDS, when it would be ready and what would be its role in the future direction of the economy. Every Guyanese must have been hoping for reassurances on the exchange rate, a vision for the country and investments so badly needed to provide jobs.

Labour participation and unemployment appear to be taboo in budget speeches and our women must be particularly disappointed at not having warranted a mention in the entire speech two weeks after the country observed International Women’s Week.

So dependent has Guyana become on the Multilateral Financial Institutions that Guyanese would be forgiven for believing that an IMF-directed and controlled economy is a permanent situation. We are left to wonder for how much longer we will have to follow IMF prescriptions which President Jagdeo only recently had cause to criticize as posing “impractical conditionalities.” 

It is now almost accepted that the Budget is presented to the National Assembly only a few days short of the constitutionally set deadline. To present a Budget three months into the year reduces its usefulness and the Minister should have offered some explanation for this continuing tardiness.

Overall there appears to be declining interest if not apathy among the populace in the annual budget. Neither the Stabroek News nor the Government-owned Chronicle contained any reference to the Budget in their Sunday or Budget day issue. The time must be fast approaching when we will have to consider whether we should not be considering abolishing this annual exercise altogether.

The cornerstone of the economic management is stability and longer term planning. The sensible running of the nation’s finance requires daily housekeeping and what is now parceled into the national Budget does not have to be there at all. Many of the measures which are saved up to make the annual Budget Speech worthy of the attention which the National Assembly still accords it are routine affairs.

Whatever its shortcomings - and there are not a few - it would be uncharitable to hold the new Minister responsible for them. The institutional arrangements for his effective functioning are just not present.