Deus ex machina Editorial
Stabroek News
April 25, 2004

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It was the Government Information Agency (GINA) which last week described President Jagdeo's visit to Lichfield, West Berbice, "as the day when solutions to age-old problems were found." The report went on to say that during his cross-country visits, the head of state "where possible" had found "immediate solutions" to the problems of communities. Unintentionally, no doubt, the release did have the flavour of a description of a Maximum Leader on tour, providing instant answers to every dilemma that had ever plagued officialdom since the dawn of the bureaucratic era.

Still, it is important that the President talk to ordinary people - or more properly, listen to them; after nearly twelve years in government, those who rule in this land are very much out of touch with the voters, showing little sensitivity to their perceptions and concerns. This is more especially true of an administration which has not been reinvigorated by much new blood. As such, therefore, many of the incumbents who warm seats in the cabinet room give the appearance of believing that their names are engraved on the chairs. And at a stretch, even if they do consider they might have to relinquish a particular seat, they are confident that they will be given the one next to it instead.

Power by its very nature is seductive, and a never-changing cabinet which is part of a government in office for more than two terms, will take on some of the aspects of a tired oligarchy. A head of state and government who makes an effort to reconnect with the electorate, therefore, is not on the wrong track.

However, there is a distinction between finding out what is going on at the grass-roots level so one is not always hearing what one's advisors think one wants to hear, and operating like a deus ex machina. The downside of the President trekking around solving problems in every village, is that the relevant officials will stand back and let him do everything. A head of state cannot micro-manage an entire country. Even as things stand, the Office of the President is probably overburdened, and Mr Jagdeo and his staff will soon exhaust themselves if they are going to personally oversee the solution to every difficulty in every community.

GINA said that at an unscheduled stop at Zorg-en-Hoop, for example, the President promised that by April 21 his staff would be in the area to discuss residents' electricity problems; some 150 households were, it seems, requesting a power supply. But this kind of approach is not sustainable on a long-term basis.

What should be apparent to President Jagdeo by now, since this is not the first walkabout he has undertaken, is that the systems are not working. There is not much that can be done about local government at the village level, until elections are finally held under whatever new arrangements are agreed. As things stand, many of the Neighbour-hood Democratic Councils lack not just the resources to carry out their functions, but also the personnel. But some of the things which residents were complaining about came within the ambit of the ministries, or if not, the regional authorities - and in this case, it is the President's party which controls Region 5. It is true that GINA reported that President Jagdeo undertook to send his ministers to ensure that solutions to the problems of some Region 5 residents were found. But why only now? What have his ministers been doing all this time? Why does it take a head of state to identify problems which according to GINA are "age-old"?

In fairness to the members of the cabinet, ministers cannot be on the move constantly, or they would never have time to deal with policy and administrative matters. However, the onus is on them to ensure that there is some means of monitoring staff, so that what they are supposed to do, is actually done. And for his part the President too must insist that his ministers do what they are supposed to do. And if they do not perform, which some of them don't, then they should be required to hand in their resignations. But it is rare indeed for a minister to lose his or her job under this administration, and as a consequence, there is no great pressure on them to make an energetic, let alone an outstanding, contribution to government.

It has to be said too, that for many villagers, the regional and the national bureaucracies are virtually impenetrable. The systems are also complex, and it may be difficult for residents sometimes (although not always) to know to whom they should actually complain about a specific issue. Even if they do find the right official, they and their query are sometimes treated with scant regard. Over the years everyone has become accustomed to carrying their problems to the highest level they can reach in the system, because the perception is that nothing happens if they try to deal with it at a lower level. If they don't know some 'big one,' then they will cast around for a relative, friend or acquaintance, who can intercede for them, or introduce them to someone who is thought to have power. When a President goes into a village, therefore, it is like an unsolicited gift, and it raises the community's expectations - perhaps sometimes unreasonably - of his capacity to transform a situation.

The problem is, as indicated above, that first of all such an approach short-circuits the system, and as a consequence, the bureaucratic structures are never made to work; and secondly, since it will not usually be the President himself ensuring that whatever has been promised is implemented, he will take personal blame for any failures caused by the incapacity of his ministers or officials to deal with the problem. If it is indeed the case that more gets done when the President alone goes around solving "age-old" problems in communities, then he should save the taxpayers some money by firing several of his ministers forthwith.

If he needs the ministers - and we have more of them than ever before - then insist that they produce. In the end, effective administration will only come when the systems are made to function, however daunting a task that might seem.