President David Granger: Professor Clive Thomas, Head of SARU; Dr. Anand Goolsarran; members of the diplomatic corps; distinguished invitees; members of the media:
I am happy and honoured to be here with you this afternoon and I’d like to join the other speakers in congratulating Dr. Goolsarran. I understand what Professor Thomas said. It seems easy to write every week you know, but then you actually discover it’s a continuous process. As soon as you finish one, you have to be thinking about the next. I have to congratulate Dr. Goolsarran in being able to maintain consistently and, of course, Professor Thomas himself is a regular writer for the Sunday paper, and he knows how difficult it is to maintain that practice.
Having been a publisher myself in an earlier incarnation, I could tell you it is very difficult to get people to write consistently and I published a magazine for 15 years; and I could tell you it could be not only a heart-breaking experience but a pocket emptying experience as well.
I think… I recall – I’m not sure if I was present at the swearing in of Dr. Goolsarran in 1990 – but I recall that he, Major General Joseph Singh and Mr. Laurie Lewis probably acceded to their respective offices in 1990. Again in an earlier incarnation, I happened to be in Office of the President temporarily while that was taking place. I was aware of his accession to office at that time in 1990 and the work that he had been doing until he was removed from centre stage in 2004. But one thing you know – when you go up you have to come down.
I myself was in that office in 1990 until I was needed elsewhere and thanked for my services. We’re examining a very important history today in this book, which is being covered by Dr Goolsarran and, again, in an earlier incarnation I came to understand that it is almost impossible for one person to be corrupt. It’s a social disease. There’s a circle and if you think you find one person who is corrupt, somebody has corrupted him or her and it normally is part of a circle or a spiral; and I think that is one of the important aspects which commentators on corruption sometimes don’t seem to grasp – that you can’t really stop corruption by punishing a person. There is normally some system or some group behind that person.
I’m interested, of course, as Head of Government, in good governance, accountability and transparency; and these three qualities emphasise the importance of (one) effective government policy; (two) of the regulatory framework; (three) of political stability and fourth, of course, representative democracy. The four go together. Corruption, of course, collides with all four.
Some people describe corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, but I think that there must be a more plastic interpretation. I do believe that the real sources of corruption are evident in other crimes: bribery, contraband smuggling, clientelism, cronyism, fraud, graft, nepotism. These are all, I think, aspects of the monster of corruption. These crimes can escape detection because of the lack of transparency and that is why some people like opaque transactions because they conceal corruption.
They can go unpunished because of a lack of accountability and they can flourish because of weak governance. It is my view that corruption in Guyana is most widespread outside of government. The crimes of tax evasion, contraband smuggling, narcotics trafficking, trafficking in persons, money laundering – all contribute to corruption. We accept that corruption is corrosive because it weakens the enforcement of the law. It weakens our democratic values. It weakens accountability and transparency.
It weakens public trust in government and the institutions of government but corruption largely discriminates against the poor and it favours the rich. It removes resources from the Government or from agencies which should be directed towards improving the quality of life; and what should be a public good is diverted into private gain. The practice of good governance, transparency and accountability are more than the antidote for corruption in government. They are also a remedy for ridding the disease of corruption in the private sector, in professional organisations, in civil society and also in international organisations.
Ladies and gentlemen, it will be hypocritical to think that corruption is a crime only a few crooked cops or revenue clerks who stretch out their hands for bribes. Bribery is a crime, indeed, and it must be prevented. It must be punished, but two big questions remain: Who really can afford to pay the bribes and why do they pay those bribes? And the second question: Where do proceeds of bribery and corruption go and how do they get there?
It is my view that corruption studies tend to ignore the seminal role of the real rogues – the people who construct vessels for the sole purpose of smuggling cheap fuel into this country. Corruption studies ignore those who conspire to import and export illegal drugs; those who smuggle gold and diamonds out of the country to avoid paying royalties across our porous borders; those who bring in illegal narcotics into unmonitored airstrips and through our numerous creeks and rivers.
Many corruption studies tend to ignore back-trackers; persons who avoid the payment of duties; the tax dodgers; people who do not pay the VAT and even the NIS contributions. I remember, in the early days after the introduction of the VAT, you would go to some stores and they ask you if you want a receipt.
So corruption is not the property of a few government clerks. There are people who bring contraband into this country by the billion dollars, billions of dollars. I remember, when in the mid-term, former President Jagdeo pointed out that the government was losing about five billion dollars in unpaid taxes on fuel alone; but in another place I was greeted by a Regional Chairman, (not in the coalition government) who told me without smuggled fuel his region would grind to a halt. But sometimes in our corruption studies you do not look at these aspects of misconduct.
I remember also a group of members of a Commission of Inquiry were in the Corentyne and the Clerk of the Commission went into a store and he came back smiling. He says, “The CDS here are cheap I got four CDs here for the price I would pay for one in Georgetown”. I said, “Wow! Well they come from Suriname back-track and they paid no tax that is why they are so cheap in Corentyne and so expensive in Georgetown.” And I’m sure the economists can tell you about Gresham’s law; eventually they smuggle so much beer from Venezuela that it is impossible for local beer to survive or compete.
So many goods have been smuggled over the last 10, 20, 30 years that the entire manufacturing sector tends to collapse because it’s impossible to compete with smuggled goods.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are not the crimes of a crooked cop in Stabroek Square. These are the crimes of people who own the vessels and the vehicles in order to take part in this grand scheme of corruption. Studies also tend to ignore the foreign destinations of dirty money.
The lords of corruption do not stack their millions in their mattresses. There are many eyebrow-raising, no-questions-asked havens for dirty money. I think within the last three months we’ve started to read of some of the havens in Central America but you know, you can examine the images on some currency notes in some jurisdictions, even in the Caribbean, and look to see whose image is on those currency notes and then you will discover where the havens are – and these are not poor, third world countries who manage these havens.
So ladies and gentlemen, I do not believe that corruption is a small man’s vocation and I do not believe that it is the plague of poor developing countries alone. We must confront corruption if people are to enjoy a good life; and it will not be easy, not in Guyana, and not even in other jurisdictions because I’m sure those persons in the banking system would know that some of the most corrupt transactions are not necessarily conducted in the most poor countries.
The Government of Guyana is committed to excising corruption, to improving transparency, and to instituting greater responsibility. Our agenda is for improved transparency and probity in public life; and I feel in order to eradicate corruption we must have very strong national institutions and, if you kick those institutions down, not only will corruption flourish but the State itself will become a rogue State and those institutions I wish to refer to are well known.
First is the Public Service Commission. Again, it is important that the Public Service Commission is in the hands of people who are not corrupt. These are persons in this commission who make appointments to public offices and who have the power to remove persons and to exercise disciplinary control over persons holding such offices. We want an unbribeable public service and the integrity of the Public Service Commission itself must be beyond question.
We’ve heard about the Public Procurement Commission. This is important and we are working to establish that Commission to allow it to function to monitor public procurement so that goods, services and works are acquired and conducted in a fair, equitable, transparent and competitive manner according to the law.
We need to have the Integrity Commission functioning again. I think we’re all aware of the games which occurred about the appointments to the Integrity Commission in the years gone by. Anyone who attempted to visit the room allocated to the Integrity Commission would understand why it failed to function. Perhaps, it was intended never to function and of course the Guyana Elections Commission, a very important commission, which from time to time is subject to some criticism.
Again we have to examine the formula: do you have a good cricket match because you appointed your own umpires? Is it a fair cricket match? Again, we inherited a formula. We have to ensure that the Guyana Elections Commission is actually made up of people who are capable of suppressing bias and behaving and making judgements in a dispassionate way. And, of course, the office of the Auditor General – and you have a former occupant of that office – you must ensure that the Auditor General himself is highly qualified and insulated from political bias.
The Office of the Ombudsman – again, one of the offices we inherited even at the time of independence; and for a long time there was no incumbent. That office was established to investigate complaints that individuals who feel that they have been treated unfairly, especially in relation to receiving poor service from government departments and other public organisations, could present their cases.
There used to be a time in bad old days when you could trace every single Ombudsman Report was submitted to parliament; and students of public administration, even in the 70s, would have a collection of Ombudsman Reports; and of course in the 70s the Ombudsman made waves and never again.
We have the Police Complaints Authority which was established to receive complaints from any person who believes that a member of the police force has been guilty of misconduct. So we have very important institutions which we need to preserve, but many of these institutions concern government. We also need the support of the private sector to remove corruption in the private sector, among businessmen, among smugglers, traffickers, gun runners, money launderers.
So merely criticising the government does not ensure the absence of corruption. Government cannot fight corruption alone. Government officials, as I attempted to point out, are not the only villains. Members of the public are also complicit in acts of corruption. Members of the private sector are also beneficiaries of corrupt practice. Offshore banks and tax havens are complicit in corruption.
Ladies and gentlemen, the public must play a part, civil society must play a part, the international community must play a part in changing public attitudes towards corruption. Efforts of government, our government, in improving accountability and transparency will be frustrated unless all of these partners play their part.
We know that planes land in the dead of night to bring cocaine into this country. We only discovered that cocaine comes into this country when people tried to get it out in the famous ‘pink suitcase’, but people know that planes are landing and it is not the government’s duty alone to know these things.
Sometimes people build huge buildings and you pass night after night and see them empty and you want to know what is the purpose of this huge building? They have to find something to do with the money. So I urge you all Guyanese to be vigilant, not only against the abuse of power by the government but also by the abuse of trust in the private sector.
Again, I would like to congratulate Dr. Goolsarran on his excellent collection of chapters which have been published as articles in the Stabroek newspaper over a long period of time; and I do congratulate him also in adding to the collection of literature in Guyana which deals with this very important threat to good governance, the question of corruption.
Thank you very much.