THE state of unreadiness for the advent of ‘first oil’ in Guyana, in both technical and political terms, is a matter of major concern. While a range of factors have contributed to the lack of technical readiness, the source of political unreadiness is readily located in the absence of a bi-partisan political culture, following decades of dysfunctional politics. Policy Forum Guyana (PFG) is encouraging a broad-based civic initiative to address this pressing issue.
The urgency of civic action was underlined by the announcement that ‘first oil’ is scheduled to start flowing at the end of December 2019, with the Public Accountability and Oversight Committee (PAOC) yet to be created. The Ministry of Finance is to be credited for making a Sovereign Wealth Fund the centrepiece of its fiscal structure with respect to management of oil revenues, accompanied by the PAOC to monitor its performance, both set out in the Natural Resources Fund Act (NRF). Technically, both elements are generally sound, but politically wanting. Parliamentary approval of the NRF Act took place without the presence of the Opposition, doing little for bi-partisanship, and even less for a sense of urgency around ‘first oil’. Moreover, the proposed PAOC process reflects excessive control on the part of the Ministry, thereby weakening interest from significant sectors of civil society.
We are, therefore, faced with the urgent need to find a formula which will encourage civic and business, as well as political energies, to both preserve the progressive intentions of the NRF Act and have at least an interim arrangement in place by the time ‘first oil’ comes on stream. In more normal circumstances, the deficiencies of the Act could be addressed by amendments to the Act in Parliament, a route ruled out by Parliament currently being in an electoral recess.
Over the past two years, civil society has been addressing the ‘political’ dimensions of oil and gas, namely, how decision-making on the funding of oil-and-gas priorities should be addressed. These activities have included a series of ‘Open-Space’ meetings around the country, and a series of round-table discussions. Private sector organisations in Guyana have also conducted similar exercises for their memberships, as have trade unions. A combined civic initiative, building on these previous efforts is now required. Intensified political polarisation, fostered by the upcoming election, rules out political bi-partisanship at the level of political actors. Any unifying momentum will have to come from the civic sector, understood as embracing the NGO community, the private sector, faith-based agencies, trade unions, professional bodies and Indigenous organisations. Involvement of the Regional Democratic Councils and regional Chambers of Commerce must also be factored into such an initiative.
Against this background, the goal of the initiative must be to generate a broad national consensus around the importance of and support for a modern, fair, transparent and inclusive oversight mechanism for oil & gas decision-making. The challenge facing such an initiative is two-fold:
i) Firstly, this goal necessitates an interim mechanism to oversee the decision-making process with respect to oil and gas since the full-fledged PAOC cannot be fully achieved prior to elections
ii) Recognising the historical and current price being paid for the failure of bi-partisan politics in the past, particular care must be paid to developing collective forms of decision-making in both the interim and substantive mechanisms.
Any attempt to implement the legal provisions of the Act in their current form with respect to the PAOC risks alienation of a significant sector of the business, civic and political sectors. However, at a recent meeting senior members of the Ministry were in favour of a proposal that an interim arrangement would be superior to having nothing in place. We understand this to mean the Act could be viewed as aspirational rather than be legally binding and approached flexibly in the interim period. This approach in the opinion of the Policy Forum Guyana is realistic and should be pursued.
The difficulty in creating a successful interim public interest and oversight mechanism in an electoral atmosphere should not be under-estimated. At the same time, that same electoral context provides space for to seek public endorsements of a national civic consensus from contending parties.
Policy Forum Guyana (PFG)
Amerindian peoples Association (APA)