Ethnic Impact Statement
Ravi Dev Column
January 14, 2007
In all societies, not unreasonably, citizens evaluate the policies and activities of any incumbent government critically: governments after all, are elected to run the State on behalf of its citizens. This scrutiny would be even more watchful by those who may have voted against the government.
Especially in poor countries, where there is never enough to go around for everyone, the scrutiny would centre over whether the government was unduly favouring its own supporters. It has become common, therefore for governments in the developed democratic countries – where public opinion matters - to announce ahead of time what impact their policies will have on specific constituencies – be they, as in the US, labour, business, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and so on.
The more divided and polarised the society is, the more critical will be the evaluation of the government's policies, since the premise of the government being the hand-maiden of “one side” is even more credible. In Britain , for instance, during the Thatcher Conservative governments, it was an article of faith in the Labour party that the government's policies were “anti working class” and pro-business, and every initiative was criticised from such a perspective.
In Guyana , while the PPP Government attempts to discuss the impact of their policies on constituencies, unfortunately, their analyses are launched from a Marxist perspective, and insist on demonstrating that their policies help the “working class”. This doesn't cut any ice with the constituencies, however, which generally categorise themselves ethnically and evaluate every policy from that perspective.
The PPP has had to defend every single initiative – be it appointments and dismissals to and from the Public Service, downsizing of the bauxite sector, house-lot allocation, contract awards, against claims by the African Guyanese community, for instance, of discrimination against them and favouring Indians in the sugar industry, rice industry, gun-permits etc.
In each instance the PPP's explanation has been too little, too late for the African Guyanese.
During 2003, in the case of the Bauxite industry, for instance, with the Bauxite workers literally camped out in front of the Prime Minister's residence (he has the Bauxite Industry under his portfolio), and a contingent picketing the Parliament (illegally) the PPP was forced to finally declare in Parliament that rather than discriminating against African Bauxite workers, they had been subsidising the industry and the workers for years. They had not previously trumpeted this fact, presumably because it may have upset their Indian constituents. Too little too late.
One of the major bones of contention in any society is the possible use of the State to favour the group that has put the government into office. This fear is exacerbated in ethnically polarised societies and the perceived or real discrimination becomes the occasion, if not the cause, of many a battle.
In Guyana , when in opposition, the PPP (in 1977 during the “unity talks with the PNC) had pointed out (if a bit coyly) the racial impact of the PNC's policies and actions. Burnham retorted that, “much of the talk about unity is not based on class but on ethnicity, regardless of class. Where is the socialist content of such ‘unity'?”
Dr. Jagan was caught in his own contradictions and previous refusal to state the truth about the real nature of the political impasse and was struck dumb. This silence has become institutionalised in the PPP: how The PNC since 1992 has, in turn, consistently accused the PPP of practicing racial/ethnic discrimination against primarily its African supporters – even as it feels necessary to insist that it is not an “African party”. It is caught in the same semantic contradiction as the PPP. The charges of “marginalisation” from the African community have been a primary fuel in the ethnic conflagrations since 1998.
The agreement signed by President Jagdeo and Mr. Hoyte in 2001 and the Communiqué of 2003 between the President Jagdeo and Mr. Robert Corbin, were attempts to answer such charges. But we have seen that they simply lead to additional charges and counter-charges over implementation or non-implementation. The PPP and PNC will have to overcome their ideological reservations and deal with a spade as a spade: the division of the cook-up must not only be ethnically fair, it must be seen as ethnically fair.
For over a decade, we have been arguing for the introduction of an “Ethnic Impact Statement” by the Government before it implements any of its policies and programs. We did so consistently during the five years we were in Parliament. We have now all accepted (hopefully) the need for “Environmental Impact Statements” before we embark on programs that will affect our physical environment. The Government, for instance, had to submit one before the Skeldon expansion of GUYSUCO could begin.
The policy is an acknowledgement of the fragility of our environment and the importance we place on its health and survival, for our own health and survival. I would hope that we would acknowledge that our social environment is as important as our physical environment – and certainly more fragile.
After all, it has been vividly demonstrated over the past decade that the destruction of our social environment is the direct destruction of “us”. One cannot get closer to home than that: with the environment, at least the effect is a bit indirect and delayed.
While we know that the cause (and solution) of our ethnic problem goes beyond governmental actions, the fact of the matter is that we have to begin there. It is a simple matter of justice. No matter which party forms the Government, all accept that Governmental actions have to be conducted on behalf of all the people: the State is our joint venture.
Since, based on our history, we know that all governmental actions will be scrutinised by the populace for its ethnic impact (bridge financing for Buddy's, VAT on pigeon peas and not yellow peas and now, construction of the Berbice Bridge) what is the harm of scrutinising the policies ahead of the implementation?
The activities of the Government are part and parcel of our “national patrimony”. In fact, in Guyana - as in most of the third world - Governmental activities unfortunately comprise most of the national patrimony – and this is part of the reason why it is scrutinised so closely and emotionally.Who would deny that the national patrimony must be distributed equally to all citizens? (Excepting, as Rawls proposed, when an unequal distribution would benefit our most disadvantaged – but it remains a question of justice.)
If such “Ethnic Impact Statements” could be crafted and issued before the announcement and implementation of policies and programs, they would precipitate discussion and debate, which could be utilised to modify the policies or programs before they becomes political mobilisational tools.
It was for this reason we were critical of the Government for embarking on the Skeldon expansion without a national discussion. To wait for the inevitable ethnic post mortem is to ensure there will be trouble. Big trouble.
The old cliché still holds: justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. An “Ethnic Impact Statement” on Governmental activities would go a long way to introducing the latter happy condition.