The Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights (DRG) Assessment released yesterday, August 19, 2016 by the United States Embassy has recommended that development agencies move swiftly to support reform efforts in Guyana to deepen democratic development.
In particular, the DRG assessment recommends that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provide “immediate assistance to support the constitutional reform process, bring balance to Guyana’s governance, and strengthen local government and its first elected local governments in 23 years.”
This, the assessment says should be followed by a bilateral DRG programme for the medium- to long-term that could help institutionalize the reforms and ensure their consolidation.
It points out that “the coalition government faces deep-seated legacies of single party domination; politically driven ethnic divisions; and a centralized patron-clientelist system with weak, unaccountable, and unresponsive government institutions.”
In this regard, it cites that changing this system will not be easy, especially for what is being described as a tenuous political coalition, “inexperienced in governing and confronted by an entrenched opposition and a frustrated population with unrealistically high expectations.”
According to the report it was too soon to tell how this transition will end during the assessment and whether Guyana’s past demonstrates that these windows do not remain open for long as engrained practices take over and the government assumes the attributes of the past.
KEY CHALLENGES TO DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
The assessment found problems in all five elements of democracy, human rights, and governance. The most critical were in the areas of competition and political accountability and government responsiveness and effectiveness.
- Consensus. The Guyanese have a shared political culture and the belief that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, but long-standing acrimony between the PPP/C and PNC/R makes achieving consensus on policies, committee appointments, and constitutional reform priorities difficult at the national level. However, social capital and the shared desire for change facilitate consensus building at the regional and local levels.
- Inclusion. No group is legally excluded or formally disenfranchised. However, there is perceived and real ethnic exclusion from the political processes and social discrimination based on race, gender, socio-economics, and sexual orientation. There is also de facto discrimination of indigenous people and those who live in the periphery in terms of access to social services and economic development.
- Competition and political accountability. Historically, political competition has been dominated by two main parties aligned largely along ethnic lines. Elections incite and exacerbate ethnic tensions as the de facto winner-take-all system promotes one-party rule. Power is centralized in the executive and the formal check and balance system is marginalized by ineffective/nonfunctioning institutions, patron-client relationships, and corruption. Success of the multi-party coalition in the 2015 elections may signal a shift toward more issue-based politics, but it faces stiff opposition from the losing party. The introduction of single member seats in the March 2016 local elections offers an opportunity for change.
- Rule of law and human rights. Guyana’s legal framework provides for the rule of law and protection of human rights but implementation is problematic. Citizen access to justice and quality of services depends on physical location and personal situation. National human rights institutions are not fully established or effective and criminality and violence are prevalent. Gender-based violence (GBV) is a major problem as is trafficking in persons and drugs.
- Government responsiveness and effectiveness. The state is well formed, established, and functioning, but heavily centralized with cumbersome procedures and institutional arrangements. Too-few resources are used for public good. Rural and hinterland communities are disproportionately affected. Institutions that should promote service delivery and accountability are weak or nonfunctional. There is no real devolution of authority to local government and even the most localized decisions are taken by the central government.
The assessment team recommends USAID focus on a two-tiered strategy. “In the near term, focus on the reform processes, key oversight mechanisms, information flow, and newly elected local authorities. In the medium to long term, reinstate a DRG programme that can make a more substantive contribution to strengthening Guyana’s democratic institutions and system.”
However, it does not recommend political party assistance in the near term as the parties are internally regrouping and intending to work out their own issues and are not open to assistance at this time. As a result, the recommended DRG objective is more accountable, responsive, and balanced governance in Guyana.
Recommended programmatic priorities are:
- Constitutional reform through support for the current reform process and the implementation of previous constitutional reforms. These can help balance the power of the executive, address the winner-takes-all nature of the political and electoral systems, and devolve power to local government. Near-term priorities are reform content and consultations, constitutional referendum (if held), and constitutional commission appointments. Mid- to long-term priorities are the implementation of the new constitutional reforms and strengthening the Human Rights and Integrity Commissions that provide oversight and citizen protection.
- Strengthened checks and balances through strengthening key institutions and increasing access to information and evidence-based decision making. This can help increase accountability; balance the dominance of the executive; address issues of cronyism, impunity, and corruption; and ensure the rule of law is applicable to all. Near-term priorities are assessments in the key areas of rule of law, electoral system, and economic governance and consideration for a small flexible fund to support quick-impact, low-cost changes within key institutions. Mid- to long-term priorities include parliamentary oversight and outreach.
- Strengthened local governance through support for the devolution process; capacity building for local institutions; and increasing citizen engagement to ensure local government has the authority, resources, and capacity required to be responsive to its communities, serve their needs, and counter the top-down, overly centralized nature of government. Near-term priorities are the Local Government Commission, newly elected local officials, and constituency engagement. Mid- to longterm priorities include supporting the training curricula for local officials, constituency engagement, and information on and monitoring of the 2019 local elections.
OTHER KEY FINDINGS
The assessment shows that Civil society is dynamic and engaged at all levels nationwide. “They serve on many government boards. Few however, consistently and actively engage in DRG.”
The media is pluralistic and politicized, with the state media having the only nationwide reach. Self-censorship is common as previous governments retaliated against critical coverage. The state media provided pro-state coverage in the past.
The private sector is dependent on government favors and patronage and hopes the current government will provide a more accessible business environment.
Most indigenous people live in the hinterland areas and receive support from the Ministry of Indigenous People’s Affairs, often bypassing regular development processes and institutions, such as the elected RDCs. Guyana’s Indigenous people have issues of land/mineral rights and limited services because of their remoteness.
Other peripheral populations also face limited services and high levels of unemployment as bauxite mines closed and the sugar industry plummeted. Guyana has a large Diaspora population with remittances making up more than 15 percent of GDP.
The international community plays an influential role, even under the previous governments. The ABCE Group of America, Britain, Canada and the European Union is active along with United Nations (UN) agencies and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which is Guyana’s largest donor.
Historically, political competition has been dominated by two parties aligned largely along ethnic lines. “Elections incite and exacerbate ethnic tensions as the de facto winner-takes-all system promotes one-party rule.”
According to the assessment report, power is centralized in the executive and the formal check and balance system is marginalized by ineffective/nonfunctioning institutions, client-patron relationships, and corruption. “Success of the multiparty coalition in the May 2015 general elections may signal a shift toward more issue-based politics, but it faces stiff opposition from the losing party.”
The experts cited that the introduction of single-member seats in the upcoming local elections offers an opportunity for change noting that Civil society and the media are active and provide a diversity of views.
Economic competition is constrained by centralized control and clientielism.
Despite a proportional system of representation, political competition in Guyana is a zero-sum game. In elections, presidential candidates lead closed party lists made up of party loyalists. Minority governments are highly uncommon and party leaders rely on recall legislation to discourage dissent by members of Parliament (MPs).
It was highlighted that the lack of effective accountability mechanisms thus leaves a winner-takes-all system that marginalizes the losers, encourages disloyal opposition, and renders the party in power virtually unchecked until the next election.
“Guyana does not require a quota of women and generally records over 30 percent MPs being women. There are no women’s caucuses in the National Assembly; previous efforts to establish them were blocked by one of the most important PPP/C members, also a woman. In general, women are present in the public and private sectors, but not often in positions of decision making.”
As it related to the political and governmental system, the report says it is dominated by the presidency under the constitution. “The opposition parties contest this concentration of power while in opposition but find it convenient when they are in power. ”
Constitutional reforms in 2001 provided for a series of constitutional bodies to be created to ensure integrity in public service and equality for all Guyanese. Most of these commissions are not functioning as the National Assembly has disagreed on nominees and other aspects of the work of the Commissions.
Interestingly the assessment surmised that the National Assembly itself does not play an effective oversight role. Since MPs are answerable to their parties and not to voters, given the use of party lists for elections, MPs toe the party line. “Ministers of Government are also required to be MPs, further reducing the separation of powers and undermining checks and balances. Thus, the Assembly is often referred to as a rubber stamp. An effective opposition veto of government legislation as well as the president’s non-assent to opposition-initiated legislation during the 2011–2014 Assembly created a political impasse that was not surmountable through 18 United Nations Development Programme. (2012). ”