ONCE upon a time, national Guyana budgets were (almost) more about figures than facts, governments stretching numbers the widest, utilising the best mathematics to do the most with little or less, expenditure dependent essentially on rice and sugar earnings and sales and taxes on other major exports, finance ministers sharpening pencils, erasing stats and drawing new lines as things change and costs rise faster than money comes in.
Back in those 20th Century days when reference to Guyana was prefixed by reference to ‘the second poorest country in the Hemisphere’ or ‘the poorest CARICOM member-state’, the Guyana dollar was considered not worth a cent, external factors influenced constant low prices for major exports and the republic’s debt payback record was never the best.
Budgeting by governments was always a migraine headache; but not anymore.
Finance ministers’ headaches at the start of the third decade of Century 21 have had less to do with revenues than expenditure, more to do with how-much-more to do without going overboard, how best to balance expenditure between capital and social projects, create more jobs, make people’s lives better, reduce poverty and increase opportunities, reduce foreign and national debt by spending more of new earnings – and deciding which election promises to keep first.
The official press release announcing Wednesday’s 2022 Budget Presentation included some brand-new elements for the third since 2020 elections, among them ‘a continuation of the fast-paced development path’ started with the $383 Billion 2021 Budget; and the 2022 Estimates of Revenue and expenditure will be the first to be partly-financed by the country’s oil-and-gas earnings, now standing at US $607 million in ready cash.
This time, there’s enough money to go-around well-enough without engaging in wild spending as if oil prices will never dip and there’ll always be money for-ever-and-ever.
The projects mentioned in curtain-raising statements all sound promising and worth lookingforward to.
This year’s debate will be the usual legally-formatted parliamentary presentations and debates, inquiries and explanations, allegations and rebuttals, as the two sides again discuss and exchange on figures and projects and argue about exclusions and inclusions – all with the usual interchangeable partisan and national, Government vs Opposition narratives and accompanying drama tones.
At the end of the day, after the talking is over and the votes are counted, the government’s proposals will be approved – unless the unexpected happens in a National Assembly where the whole world has learned, especially of late, to always expect the unexpected.
Unfortunately, the process of presenting and passing budgets in Caribbean parliaments is still steeped in Westminster approaches that ensure guaranteed overall opposition to or disagreement with any and/or all major government proposals by the parliamentary Opposition.
In the Guyana context today, though, although the parliamentary and political Opposition have both had the experience of budgeting during the oil era, barring announcement of unexpected or surprising developments within the next two days, there’ll most likely be reason to pay as much attention to the parliamentary opposition’s presentations, if only to measure the extent to which they may reflect the thinking of the new leadership of the major extra-parliamentary opposition unit, the PNC/R.
But apart from the usual attention to budgetary proposals with a high degree of skepticism and doubt among many that Government and Opposition will agree on anything, budget presentations are also followed by people with expectations that some of the goodies promised will flow into their communities and homes, stomachs and pockets.
Communities that feel ignored or not considered in national planning over decades will also lend an ear, as will minorities and other sectors traditionally underrepresented or hardly consulted ahead of budget preparations — especially in these oil-and-gas times.
One of the problems facing Caribbean nations that still belong to the British Commonwealth in the post-colonial era is their apparent unwillingness or inability to seek the backing for at home and implement those constitutional changes that will allow for fundamental changes –like (in this case) a wider participation of the budgeting process.
As things stand now, Finance Ministries engage in months of preparatory consultations with government ministries and departments, private and public sectors and other traditional ‘special interests’ and ‘stakeholders’, but there’s hardly a direct line to people in communities and at their homes or workplaces.
Fact is: Budgets are about people, documents with ingredient facts and figures gathered and prepared by politicians and technocrats to fit the day’s discussion of the government’s proposed menu for the next year’s breakfast, lunch and dinner for all.
It’s also, in great part, on voters’ assessment of how annual budgets impact them that most cast their ballots every five years (or whenever elections come) to keep or kick-out the government of the day.
But budgets are more than just yardsticks for measurement of government performance, as they will eventually affect every single person across the nation – indeed, all Guyanese at home and abroad.
Nothing wrong and all right, therefore, to take the annual budget proposals directly to the people to whom they matter most: The Voters and their families – and everyone else!