Changing perceptions of security and corruption are high on the Guyanese government’s priority list, and its multilevel five-year training programs are part of its mission to weed out negative elements in its public services. Minister of State Joseph Harmon explains what lies ahead as the government looks to inspire greater investor confidence and encourage the nation’s youth.
At the opening of the 11th Parliament, President Granger said: “The state of the nation requires visionary leadership. We have assembled a Cabinet of men and women who can provide that leadership”. He also spoke about the “fresh approach” of the new administration. Can you share your views regarding this “new Guyana”?
First of all, thank you for allowing the voice of the government of Guyana to be heard and the words to be printed internationally, so that people can see that Guyana is not only a speck on the map, but a place where you will find people who are warm, friendly and committed to developing the resources of this country, for the benefit not only of themselves but also for the future generation.
I was the first minister to be appointed and we inherited some facilities that were not, in our view, up to the standard required by a modern government. So the entire first three or four months of the administration were spent on cleaning and making the country and the government ready for the sort of take-off that was necessary.
We found there was a lot of expectation, anxiety and excitement when we took office. We knew there would be high levels of expectation of our performance; we anticipated that, but we also knew there would have to be a lot of cleansing, some physical cleansing – our surroundings – and cleansing in terms of the approach the government takes when dealing with public service. And that is the area I would like to focus on.
A country can have a lot of physical resources, but if you don’t have the people who manage those resources – the people who have to provide a service to ensure that those resources are properly harnessed, developed and marketed – what you may very well have is that people from outside of your country will come, develop and take those resources. And still, you don’t get any benefit from it.
Guyana has positioned itself as one of the fastest growing economies of Latin America and the Caribbean countries. However last October Guyana ranked 137 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s doing business report. How is the government working on providing a friendly investment environment?
The reports of doing business in Guyana find that there is a high level of perception of corruption in this country, and that has eaten away at the sinews of this country. If you check a number of international reports, that is what you will find, the idea of a place that is not good for doing business. And so that is an image, an impression, which we have to change in a hurry. We recognize that we can’t fire everybody in the public service, but what we can do is to, in a systematic way, seek to change the way public service is provided to the Guyanese public, and to the foreign investors and companies that have to deal with any government service. We have to provide a framework within which people can feel sure and secure in what they are doing so they can recognize Guyana as a place to do business.
However we still have two major problems in that regard: one, the perception, as I said, of corruption. The second is the perception that we have a bad security situation. Those are the two issues we have to deal with in a systematic way. So, we believe that if you train and pay attention to your human resources, then that is the foundation upon which all other developments will take place.
We have the example of Singapore; they became independent one year before Guyana (we gained our independence in 1966 and Singapore in 1965). We have maybe 10 times the national resources Singapore has, but the president of Singapore, immediately upon taking office, recognized that you can only move a country forward with human resources. So he decided to invest in his public service, in his human resources, and within that time, Singapore has moved from a third-world state to a first-world state.
One of the key elements to unlocking Guyana’s economic potential is to improve public service, which is the base to manage resources efficiently. How are you improving public service in Guyana?
With all the resources we have, Guyana is still languishing there in that third world. I believe you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you have good examples of how people were able to move their country from one state to the other. We know the way to do it is through public service and this is our plan for that sector: we are going to approach it on three levels. At the bottom level, the entrance to the public service, we are going to regularize the entry so that there are two intakes of public servants every year, so one in January and one in June. In that period of time we are going to establish a Public Service Staff College, in which persons who would have just gotten out of university or the public high school system will apply for a public service position. There is a criterion where you have to pass certain subjects and then there is an interviewing panel which selects about 50 or 60 applicants at a time.
What we hope to do over the next five years is, in that process, train at least 500 new entrants into the public service. This will push up and maybe out of the system the people who are engaged in bad practices, because of the introduction of fresh people who have been trained for at least six months in public service. It will be a live-in college, just like in Singapore, we are going to train them and provide all the information necessary for them to do the work. Each one of them will be provided with a laptop computer and they will have access in the college to internet, so they will be always connected. We will provide them with a safe and secure environment, the best teachers in public service management and the best practices that exist in the world today.
What about the people who are already working in the public administration, how can they also receive the specific training needed?
We are going to restructure the whole curriculum for the training of public servants that are in the system. We will subject them to fresh training that is being conducted by the Public Service Training Division. That is the middle level. At the top level, where we have department heads, permanent secretaries, the people who actually run these ministries (outside of the ministers), they are more stable; the ministers come and go but these people stay and they are the ones who actually run the departments.
So, at the level of heads of department, there is specialized training. The Canadian government has offered us training programs for these people. Currently, this training is taking place in the Caribbean, on an annual basis, and maybe one or two permanent secretaries are given access to that training. But because of the costs involved, we have asked the Canadians to bring that training here so that the other countries in the region will travel here. That way, we will be able to have more public servants exposed to the higher levels of training provided by the Canadian government.
We have to bring fresh blood into the system, we have to retrain the ones that are already in the system and get them acquainted with the best practices, we have to fight this perception of corruption and where we find people who are corrupt we will dismiss them. So, the three levels – entry, middle and senior levels – over the next five years will receive intense training.
Guyana is becoming a very attractive destination for investment. How can the public services promote FDI?
There are major investments taking place in Guyana in many sectors like gold and oil and gas, of course. So these are exciting times and we believe it is time for the young people of this country, who supported our coalition in a very big way, to be able to hope and dream as we did in 1966 when we became independent; they have to have even better reasons to want to stay in Guyana. The training that we will give them must provide them with the tools to be able to handle everything that the horizon is bringing.
Training in the new paradigm will receive significant attention, and this is what the president has been talking about. It is not something you will get an immediate return for, but long-term benefits will come. So, in a general sense, we see public service unfolding, so that when a foreign businessman comes to Guyana, he goes to an office and he is not asked for any other consideration other than the fees he has to pay for the service he is provided. We have to make sure there is certainty in the delivery of public service; we want to know that if you send a container from any part of the world to Guyana, and you are told the container will be cleared in three days, it must be cleared in that time. So, we want you to be sure of the service that you will get, even from your living room in Oslo, New York, Washington or wherever you are. So we are going to pay attention to service and to the remuneration for public service and the work conditions; we will be very serious about that.
Presently, we have a commission of enquiry into the terms and conditions of public service and we expect that out of that condition of enquiry there will come some recommendations as to what we need to do to make sure our public servants can perform in an environment which is conducive to them performing.
With the Minister of Education, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, we spoke about the importance of investing in infrastructure facilities. How is this government improving the facilities in the public service?
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking to some of the personnel officers in the public service and I was able to remark upon some of the conditions in which they work. These are people who have called me and complained about the work; for example, they have an office for five or six women with one fan. The place is hot and so the one who is pregnant gets the fan and the others are left out. There are offices that still work with typewriters, some offices where there is hardly any light. We have to change these things. We have to make people feel like when they come to Guyana they are dealing with a government that is serious, so we have spent a lot of time doing that. We want to do this for all the public servants, so that they feel confident and motivated, so that even if his conditions at home are not the best, at least when he goes to work he goes to a place where he is comfortable and feels happy to be there.
So we are going to pay attention to the conditions of service, the remuneration of our public servants and we hope that, over time, we can create a more favorable perception of Guyana as a place for doing business and that this monster called corruption has finally been tamed by an administration that is unafraid to deal with the corruption. We want to send a message that Guyana is a safe place to invest and to come here and live.
President David Granger during our interview mentioned how Guyanese qualified population tends to leave the country for better opportunities. How can this be reversed?
Our population hasn’t moved in many, many years. Since I was a little boy in school I knew Guyana’s population was 750,000; today, it is still 750.000.
We have a huge migration problem, and those who leave are people who are skilled and trained. So, President Granger would have told you that of all the graduates, 75% of them leave Guyana. So, in effect, we are training people for the world and they leave, but we keep training more. The president has written extensively on what has produced that phenomenon, and on the high dropout rate we have in public schools. So when you have a person who has survived all of that, has gotten into university and has graduated, and rather than going back to the village and region and neighborhood they came from, they go to the USA, to Canada or to the Caribbean. So we have a huge brain drain problem. Fixing this problem requires the government to intervene in a bigger way in the training of this population and in the providing of public service.
Guyana has proportionally one of the largest diasporas in the world. Why should they come back and invest in Guyana?
That is true. We have this double duty of creating that level of expectation so people will want to come back home and at the same time preparing this foundation here which will facilitate other people coming back to Guyana. This is why we believe public service and security are so important, and training and preparing them for the new millennium, for what is going to come in the future.
I spoke to the American ambassador last week. And he said that Guyana probably has a financial problem now, but with the Exxon discovery in a few years from now you wont have a financial problem, but you may have a problem on how you deal with the finances. So, what we have to do now is to put in place the structures that can facilitate an inflow of new resources that do not subsume our people and make them lazy. That is why in many different ways we are working on public infrastructure, on education, public service, natural resources management, social protection, etc., because all of these are facets of government work which require coordination and very serious management.
At the Ministry of the Presidency there is sort of an overall responsibility for many services, which the government provides. The Minister of Citizenship is part of the ministry. The Minister of Social Cohesion and the Minister of Governance are also part of this Ministry of the Presidency. So it is far-reaching, but I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that those ministers and managers and department heads are properly trained for the work they have to do and that they can perform independently of day-to-day directions from a minister.
Once a policy is determined and a direction is set, they know what they have to do; that is the point we are striving for, to ensure that the persons who are in responsible positions are trained and are given guidance, that they understand the policy directions of the government and therefore they do not require day-to-day management.
I believe we are getting there slowly, it is a hard task right now because of the great levels of expectation people have of us. We understand our people’s sensitivities, we understand they are anxious to have a better life, and we are working hard to provide that better life for them. So when they get angry and want to protest, we understand it; this thing has built up in them for many years and they now have the opportunity to let it all out. Maybe we have to encourage it, we have to get a square where people can go and protest, where you can shout and cry and laugh and let all the different emotions out.
We have a wonderful people; we love our people and this government is a government of the people and we hope that by the work that we do they recognize that we are here for them. Sometimes because they are anxious to get things done it might appear as if we are not moving fast enough, but when you are moving from a minus position to get to a plus position, you have to pull extra weight. Our ministers have to work doubly hard, because there is much cleaning to do and at the same time we have to move the country forward.
Next year, 2016, Guyana will be celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence, and it is the perfect time to celebrate and communicate all the things Guyana has achieved. How would you like the international audience to perceive Guyana?
We want to say that Guyana is on the rise. Guyana is moving. Guyana is the place to be. We want to encourage all of our people and diaspora to come back. We have enough room here for them. We want to encourage businesses to come to Guyana, because it is going to be a safe place, we are going to have trained people who are very serious about their work.
For all who want to come here, I want to say that Guyana is and will be a place, under President Granger’s administration, that will reestablish itself on the international scene as a serious country, one which has to be taken seriously and to be reckoned with on the international scene.
In Caricom I think people are taking us seriously again; relations are much better, people understand that we do not vacillate in our foreign policy, that once we make a commitment we follow it through. We are a lawful country and if we enter into an agreement or have orders of court we follow them and we understand the supremacy of the court systems, and we believe when a final court makes a decision, as a country we have to honor it.
We want to send a very clear message as a nation that if you come to Guyana or enter into an agreement with Guyana, everything will be clear and above board, and that you are guaranteed that this government will hold its end of the bargain.
Guyana is ready for business. Guyana is a wonderful place and we want to encourage the Guyanese returning home and foreign businesses to come and invest here.