Business Page   Postponing poverty: Don't stop the party!

Sunday, July 31st, 2005

 

Introduction:

Someone it appears did not tell the bureaucrats in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Moni-toring Unit housed in the eclectic, multi- functional Office of the President that this weekend the ruling Peoples' Progressive Party would be holding its pre-elections Congress in Essequibo. Why else would those bureaucrats have planned to hold a review of the PRS Progress Report on Friday, July 29, only to be forced to re-schedule it to Wednesday, August 3. In contrast with the theme of poverty reduction and to ensure that the poor feel at home, the event is being held at Guyana's most expensive venue, Le Meridien Pegasus.

In contrast as well to the principles of accountability and good governance - a focus of the strategy - the monitoring unit has not had much of a profile in the media, explaining and discussing the progress report and answering concerns and criticisms of the unit's performance.

What is worse, however, is that the several NGOs and individuals who from time to time have been involved with the Poverty Reduction Strategy have all confessed that they no longer have confidence or interest in a process that is now largely farcical and practically useless to civil society. Initially, the Poverty Reduction Strategy and the attendant delivery process was conceived as participatory and consultative, but everyone, including those who finance the Strategy grumbles about the incompetence, ineffectiveness and lack of inclusiveness which is now its hallmark. Hopefully, despite the last-minute postponement, Guyanese civil society from Regions One to Ten will find the time and the money to come to Georgetown in the middle day of the week to participate in the review. How insensitive that civil society must interrupt their work week so that the bureaucrats do not have to give up a few hours of their weekend! Do those bureaucrats know what it means to be poor?

Do not come:

Apart from the surreptitious and bungling manner in which the review has been advertised - it does not say that the public is invited - the parliamentary opposition has also not been notified and it is doubtful that the ruling party has either. Surely there is an advertising component to the unit but it appears unable to exceed the effectiveness of the whole. The public is clueless about the format of the review which hardly helps them to prepare any contribution or intervention they might wish to make. The few civil society persons to whom I have spoken are cynical about the objectives of the review and whether the unit is really committed to meaningful consultation. In fact I have been told that the strategy of the consultations is to limit the opportunities of 'troublemakers' who raise difficult questions and uncomfortable issues. It would be nice if the organisers had their work cut out at Wednesday's review.

Did not go:

Guyana was one of two Caribbean countries invited to attend a World Bank meeting in the Dominican Republic on Voice and Accountability in Transfer Programmes through which cash transfers contribute to poverty alleviation in communities. The otherwise ubiquitous Dr Roger Luncheon, the political head of Guyana's Poverty Reduction Strategy was too busy with Cabinet and GDF issues and did not attend, but Ms Danuta Radzik of Red Thread (the Women's Group) did. In a paper she presented on her return, Ms Radzik related the several initiatives taken by countries in the region to deal with their poverty problems. The experiences recounted and the initiatives taken across the region offer wonderful lessons for Guyana, but are we interested in learning?

It is worth reminding the public and indeed the authors of the 2005 Progress Report that the PRS is linked to the publication of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) adopted under the United Nations Millennium Declaration. The MDG represents a bold step to recognise the right of every human being in every continent to a decent life. The MDG are global targets for poverty reduction, social development and environmental regeneration and comprise seven substantive goals supported by an eighth goal dealing with international partnerships that will facilitate the achievement of the seven.

Learn does not harm:

And it is particularly in this context that Ms Radzik's recounted case studies and paper would be so useful. Here are a few examples of the initiatives taken from the region and internationally that are so relevant to Guyana.

Brazil: The Community-Driven Development is designed to empower rural communities to prepare, execute, operate and maintain their own investments and projects in communities. It achieves this by decentralising decision-making, transferring funds from central government to the communities, implementing approved community projects, encouraging the active involvement of civil society, practising transparency and accountability at the community level and using simple, explicit and verifiable poverty-targeting mechanisms.

This model along with the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre has been adapted to countries across continents including Bolivia, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Malawi and Sri Lanka.

Ecuador: The application of Citizen Report Cards. These are surveys in which people actively participate in monitoring and evaluating public services and serve as a mechanism that helps the poor and powerless to make the state accountable. The CRC was implemented by an independent NGO, with a coordinating agency supported by the World Bank and financed by grants from three countries channelled through the World Bank.

Peru: Here an independent analysis of the national budget is undertaken and its findings distributed to the general public and civil society organisations in a user-friendly format that allows for citizen participation and oversight in the budgetary process.

Honduras: A major mechanism for poverty reduction was the promotion of micro-enterprises including a roads maintenance programme involving fifty such enterprises maintaining a huge percentage of that country's network of roads.

India: A wonderfully relevant experience in a country with which we share a deep affinity. In Rajasthan and Mumbai Grass-Roots Anti-Corruption Initiatives have been launched involving a method of independently auditing government-spending practices which have exposed wastage and corruption, and in Mumbai led to large-scale protests and the passage of a Right to Information Act and the amendment of municipal legislation for "mandatory legal procedures for the investigation of corruption..."

Political theatre:

These words which are included in a recent publication of Caritas Internationalis Task Group on Debt Structural Adjustment are particularly relevant to Guyana. We seem unwilling or unable to recognise that a poverty reduction programme can only be as good as the extent to which it involves and engages the principal beneficiaries. Unless new notions of rights and responsibilities are conceived and implemented, the so-called PRSP will be no more than a tragic-comedy of epic proportions, overpaid political actors and a third-rate support cast of the technocrats barely able to read their scripts while the rest of us are merely part of that huge, faceless, poor, suffering mass of extras.

Economic Growth:

Despite substantial debt-relief matched only by further borrowings, the economy has not in any single year achieved the 4% per annum growth rate originally projected in the Poverty Reduction Strategy. This should have been easily achievable by President Jagdeo and his team of technocrats given that in the period 1992-1996, the economy grew at 7.4% per annum under lesser economic savvy Presidents. Development needs growth, a fair and balanced distribution of wealth and income, clear vision, good management, competence, commitment and hard work. Evidence of these is hard to find in the management of our economy and the efforts to address the depressing poverty from which Guyanese are daily seeking an escape route.

Conclusion:

From all accounts, the PRSP has lost its way along with any public support which it had when it was launched. Regrettably, instead of civil society forcing it back to centre-stage, its representatives have lost confidence and the will to struggle. For it to return there, government and civil society need to make some new commitments with the chief role of the far too dominant donor community being a mere facilitator.

Civil society has a major role and responsibility and all those who masquerade, parade and travel as leaders of NGOs need to take their role and responsibility to the poor and the voiceless more seriously. They themselves need to become informed, engaged and active in local and rural communities if they wish to be taken seriously by an increasingly aloof and non-accountable government. NGOs must by now have realized that left on their own, the politicians of all stripes have an agenda that is different from that of the poor.