President David Granger: I would like to congratulate the Chamber of Commerce on its 126th anniversary. I am very happy to be here this afternoon because the Annual General Meeting comes just a few days after our Local Government Elections, which of course were held on the 18th March. For me, the elections represented more than respect for Constitutionality. The elections were a reaffirmation of our political democracy, but it was also an opportunity for economic change. The elections did restore the right of citizens to participate in decision-making in their municipalities and neighbourhoods. But they also renewed economic opportunities for innovation, for investment and for infrastructure development. The elections of our Neighbourhood Democratic Councils and municipalities paved the way for a change in the way our towns and communities are governed. They also paved the way for a reappraisal of the contribution they can make towards creating economically powerful regions.
Democratisation has been accompanied by the first major extension in municipal administration in over four decades. The Official Gazette published on 21st October last year, authorised the establishment of three new towns – Bartica in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni Region; Lethem in the Rupununi and Mabaruma in the Barima-Waini Region. Mahdia in the Potaro-Siparuni Region is still a village, but it will become a town later this year. The three new municipalities join the existing six towns: Georgetown, the national capital; New Amsterdam, Corriverton and Rose Hall in the East Berbice-Corentyne Region; Anna Regina in the Pomeroon-Supenaam Region and Linden in the Upper Demerara-Berbice Region.
Georgetown was founded in 1781 and observed its bicentenary of course in 1981. New Amsterdam’s date of foundation is taken to be 1791, and observed its bicentenary in 1991. What this means is that Georgetown and New Amsterdam have been established long before Linden, Rose Hall, Corriverton and Anna Regina.
Colonial British Guiana was divided into three counties derived from the former three Dutch colonies – Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo – and these three colonies were unified into a single colony in 1831. They became counties and those counties divided into nine districts, the boundaries of which are not dissimilar to the present-day ten regions.
Each district was placed under the direct control of a district commissioner whose principal duties were administrative rather than developmental in nature. His task was and I quote “to coordinate the activities of the various government departments in his district and to provide advice and assistance to the village communities”.
The centre of the colonial district was the government compound which was like a zone of rural tranquillity. The compound epitomised the local government system; it was slow, it was segregated from the rest of the communities and more or less disengaged from the day-to-day interests of the populace.
The government compound contained a number of buildings typically, the magistrate’s court, the police station, the post and telegraph office, the public works department and the district commissioner’s office. The maintenance of these premises and the services they provided and the salaries of the officers that superintended these services were funded by the central government, so there is little need to do more than to go to work and represent the government.
This model of an anaemic and archaic district administration has persisted almost unaltered beyond the colonial era for the last 50 years into the independence era. Local government authorities, in many places, are still infused with this compound mentality, which emphasises control rather than consultation and collaboration with the residents of the district. If you go to Mabaruma or Fort Wellington you will see what I mean.
The absence of Local Government Elections for over nineteen years perpetuated the largely dysfunctional and degenerate model of the colonial compounds. The historic Local Government Elections last Friday, however, changed the system forever. Elections have ushered in new towns at Bartica, Lethem and Mabaruma. These new towns are intended to wean local authorities off of central government dictation, domination and dependency. They will allow for a more collaborative and forward-looking model of governance.
The new model will eradicate the colonial compound mentality. It will instil a capital town mind set which emphasizes the role of towns in moving beyond providing traditional municipal services. The new emphasis should be on promoting business, driving economic development and giving leadership to our regions. Guyana will develop only if its regions are strong. Our regions must no longer be viewed as mere administrative appendages of the central government. Our regions must become motors of economic growth.
Ladies and gentlemen the potential of Guyana’s regions is indisputable, looking at the geographical size alone. The Barima-Waini Region is larger than Kuwait; the Pomeroon-Supenaam Region is larger than Trinidad and Tobago; the Essequibo Islands-West Demerara is larger than Mauritius; Demerara-Mahaica is larger than Singapore; Mahaica-Berbice is larger than Cape Verde; East Berbice-Corentyne is larger than Belgium; Cuyuni-Mazaruni is larger than The Netherlands; Potaro-Siparuni is larger than Fiji; the Rupununi is larger than Costa Rica; Upper Demerara-Berbice is larger than The Bahamas.
These are large regions but they are also rich regions. None is desert. None is tundra. None is swamp. Each region is blessed with natural and human resources, which can be exploited for the benefit of its people. Local Government Elections therefore, should lay the foundation for a new partnership between central government and local government with the aim of strengthening our regions rather perpetuating the old passive, dysfunctional system.
A ‘capital town’ will be established in every region.
Bartica will be the ‘capital town’ of the Cuyuni-Mazaruni Region. Lethem will be the capital of the Rupununi Region. Mabaruma will be the capital of Barima-Waini and so it will be. Mahdia will become a town later and will become the capital of the Potaro-Siparuni. I do not believe that we can develop these regions with compounds; we can only develop these regions if their centres are strong towns with strong municipalities.
Ladies and gentlemen I speak of Guyana’s new economic geography; a reality that will emphasise the centrality of our ‘capital towns’ in fostering economies of scale, which are essential to economic growth. Benefits of our capital towns in rural and hinterland regions will become evident through the generation of rural, non-farm employment, consumption linkages and urban-rural remittances.
Poorer folk, who always seem to predominate the rural and hinterland regions, will be able to find employment easier in the nearby ‘capital towns’ than they would have when these opportunities are located further away in our country’s sole city and its few secondary towns like Rose Hall and Corriverton. ‘Capital towns’ therefore, have an important role to play in developing the economies of our regions by encouraging growth and I highlight four factors which are necessary for growth:
• First is infrastructure – public infrastructure will reduce transportation costs, improve access to markets, increase the competitiveness of production and stimulate output.
• Second, investment – investment inflows will spur new industries and aid in overcoming competitive disadvantages and diseconomies of scale and by fostering job-creation, particularly non-agricultural jobs such as banking and engineering.
• Thirdly, innovation- ‘capital towns’ can compensate for their lack of size with big ideas, bold innovations and dynamic businesses. Innovative technologies would stimulate agro-processing and manufacturing. Towns could promote new businesses; establish industrial sites and industrial centres.
• And fourthly, information and communications technology: the playing field between rural villages and towns can be levelled by the application of information of communications technology.
So I expect that in these four ways improving infrastructure, investment, innovation and information technology, these new towns, particularly the hinterland towns Mabaruma, Bartica, Lethem and later Mahdia, could help to promote economic development in these huge regions which God has given to us.
‘Capital towns’ therefore, however small they may be at first, could grow into centres of economic vibrancy and economic diversification. They must position themselves however, at the cutting edge of our economy. ‘Capital towns’ must be firmly established and could lead the way in the development of services to our citizens. In terms of public services, they must be able to provide the full range of education, health, housing, water, energy, law enforcement, taxation, immigration, insurance and the registration of births, deaths and businesses.
Incredibly, ladies and gentlemen, if you are a businessman in Lethem you have to go to Suddie to register your business; can you believe that? If you are in businessman in Lethem you have to register your business in Suddie to show you how archaic the systems that we have is and how it is and how it hobbles business; no wonder there are so many unregistered businesses. Every businessman must be able to register his business in his region, in that ‘capital town’ of which I speak.
Education is another important public service. Our town councils must take an interest in the education of our children; we must ensure (as I am trying to do) that every child goes to school and every child stays in school because we have recently organised transportation and school meal services.
Our quest to reduce poverty and inequality rests on our ability to ensure that every child receives sound education; that is a responsibility which our new towns must share with the rest of the region. ‘Capital towns’ must provide economic services to its citizens in terms of commerce: shipping, insurance, banking, microfinance, telecommunications and manufacturing. The availability of these services will be an indicator of economic development within our regions.
The municipalities must be capable of weaning themselves off of government subvention and earn their keep. They must generate their own resources, financing and raise revenue to finance their development. In addition, all of our towns must promote the ‘green’ economy; they must encourage the exploration and exploitation of new sources of energy; recycling of waste, the adoption of environmentally sound practices and waste disposal; reduction of pollution and of course, ‘capital towns’ must address the economic plight of their economically vulnerable citizens.
They must relieve unemployment and poverty and I encourage each new town to adopt the institution which I relaunched a few weeks ago in Linden, the Linden Enterprise Network. I would like to see more M.E.Ns, (Municipal Enterprise Networks) in every new municipality; encouraging microfinance or providing microfinance to would-be entrepreneurs.
Municipalities must function like corporations. This corporate status will allow them greater autonomy and financial independence. It will expand their revenue base and allow them to invest their revenue surplus prudently. Towns must be capable of eventually financing their own infrastructure, including the construction of aerodromes, bridges, roads, wharves and sports facilities. I would like to see East Berbice-Corentyne for example, build a cricket stadium, not only in homage to the great cricketers who’ve come from Berbice, but also to give a fillip to West Indies cricket and Guyanese cricket.
These changes will allow municipalities to engage in promoting business, industries and manufacturing and thereby to create employment for their residents. A corporate model for our towns and municipalities will allow them to actively promote and partner with private investors, for example, in processing this nation’s abundant agriculture produce for local use and for export to countries which do not have the benefit of our abundant resources.
The expansion of agro-processing can become a source of employment and profit for our new municipalities. The establishment of our new towns will attract industries which tend to be located in urban areas because they can gain from access to capital, access to labour and technical support.
Towns also could provide markets for industrial products and provide access to other domestic and global markets to establish aerodromes, ports and communication networks. Even without these legal institutions enterprising Guyanese owners over the decades, have found ways of bringing and selling goods without disturbing our customs and trade administration. Municipal administration hopefully could follow a more legal path, especially with regard to the regulation of land tenure, taxation, public investment decisions and in this way our municipalities could become an important element in creating a new local government dispensation.
The best town development plan will fail unless the municipality has the capacity to execute that plan. Improvement in the municipal institutional framework therefore, would be essential. There must be additionally, better coordination and collaboration between the municipal, the regional and the central government, and I say this with some pain, because some regional administrations seem to feel obliged to separate themselves from the central government and the new municipalities, simply because they’ve been elected by a different political party than the one which administers the central government, this is the height of stupidity quite frankly.
Central government, in order to address the challenges of organisation therefore, must implement some reforms and these include: mobilising, urban financing from local and foreign investors. These resources should be efficiently and adequately allocated between central and local government projects and it should encourage the strengthening of our municipalities.
Mobilising human capital through improving access to education and healthcare services and facilities for all categories of citizens is another priority. Defining and implementing clear urban development goals, through the provision of integrated infrastructure and services that target marginalised groups, including the poor, youth, women and elderly persons; in addition we must all be able to act proactively to ensure that urban development does not fall victim to the squatting on rural settlements, which sometimes accompanies new communities. And finally, the diversification of economic activities through the creation of new economic hubs oriented towards sustainable value-added production and exportation.
Ladies and gentlemen, for me therefore, Friday 18th of March was a transformative event in Guyanese economic development. The democratisation of local government in which we participated, at least those of us who now have purple fingers will ensure that our town councillors do not become arbitrary administrators. Local Government Elections will be held as constitutionally mandated every three years as long as I am President. Councils which neglect the development of their communities are likely to find themselves being replaced by their citizens by March 2019. A right to elect and implicitly a right to remove non-performing councillors and councils, I am sure, would force elected municipal officers to be more responsive to the needs of the citizens than in the past.
The democratisation of local government is necessary for the planned economic take-off of our towns and regions. Local democratic elections as we witnessed last week Friday, will allow us to unshackle business and develop economic potential of our towns and regions. Guyana’s towns and regions are set to become new economic business frontiers and I commend them to the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which I think used to see itself as the parent for the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry [RCCI], and when I was in the Rupununi a few days ago I was able to engage with the members of the RCCI and they have some issues. I think they need some parenting, some assistance.
Our hinterland and rural landscape will be opened up for orderly development. Our towns will lead this change and in the process, create boundless opportunities for the business community in Guyana. Our aim is to modernise local government and to catapult our municipalities into the 21st century.
Our aim is to catalyse the economies of our towns, our communities and our regions. Tremendous opportunities for all will unfold as we boost the economies of our regions through the instrumentality of our capital towns. The challenges that present themselves will be dwarfed by the opportunities for economic growth that lie ahead.
With these few remarks, once again I congratulate you on your 126th Annual General Meeting, business meeting and I thank you for the opportunity to discuss some of the economic and business prospects of Guyana.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen.