On entering office on May 16, President David Granger created a “vanguard of a new business culture” to engage with the diaspora and other foreign investors to build a new, more open and diversified economy. Targeting infrastructure, cheap renewable power, education of the workforce, and SMEs, Mr Granger explains how a “fresh approach” to governance is changing business in Guyana and what the world can learn from it regarding resource exploitation.
Latin America is undergoing major transformations: Cuba and the United States reopening bilateral relations, the general elections in Argentina and Guatemala, and Brazil under its worst institutional moment of the past 20 years. The IMF predicts slower growth for South America, but a recovery in Central America and the Caribbean, and wants to see further reforms in order to bring back growth rates from the period 2003-2010. What is your assessment of what South America is going through?
There are different factors affecting different zones. Guyana is part of the continent of South America, but we are also the gateway between the Caribbean and South America. We have very strong ties with Brazil. We reckon the issues in Brazil will be resolved simply because I don’t think they are systemic in nature. Some of them are driven by political concerns. Brazil is the colossus of the South, and we’re very confident in the Brazilian recovery in the middle term. As far as the other countries in the region, we have a particular interest in the development of Venezuela because we have very important commercial agreements, particularly in terms of our rice exports, and the import of Venezuelan oil.
We have had to rearrange those agreements in the sense that we’ve been selling rice to other markets now, and we have been buying petroleum from other sources. But apart from the problems in Venezuela and Brazil, the prospects are quite good. The economy of Suriname is more or less stable. Chile is very stable, Ecuador is improving, and Colombia is improving too. I do not believe that there is a danger of any sort that can make a collapse in South America. The Caribbean is slightly different because the economies of Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago are based on petroleum, and manufacturing is one of the strongest in the Anglophone Caribbean.
The outlet for Guyana depends largely on Guyana’s ability to transform its economy from a producer of primary goods, approximately for the last 70 to 100 years, Guyana’s economy has not essentially been restructured from the colonial economy we inherited; producing sugar, rice, bauxite, glue, timber and fish. We have not been able to restructure our economy.
At present, most of the commodity prices are quite low; on their own they cannot bring about the transformation in Guyana’s economy. The economic transformation depends on the rate at which it can change to processing more downstream products.
In terms of agro-processing, we could be using our raw materials: our timber to produce more furniture, more sugar by-products, or even produce more jewelry. These are the areas that will bring about a change in Guyana’s economy.
I’m very optimistic that with a degree of foreign direct investment (FDI) and with the promise of petroleum production, Guyana’s economy over the next five years will slowly become stronger, diversifying and the producing new commodities.
Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America and also enjoys a strategic geographical situation. In fact Guyana and Suriname are the only two countries that are members of both Caricom and Unasur. Under this context what opportunities do you see for Guyana? How can it serve as a bridge between Caricom and Unasur?
Guyana’s capability to function as that bridge depends on its infrastructure, and it still has room for development; we need adequate infrastructure to exploit our potential as a gateway. There is a general scheme for the integration of infrastructure in South America. Guyana is bigger than England and Scotland combined, and much of it is hinterland – about 75% of our country – and is still covered in tropical rainforest.
A major task of my administration over the next five years will be to develop a highway between Georgetown and Brazil. Bridges have already been built. That’s the major focus. The second focus will be to embark on a program to generate cheap power, particularly through hydroelectricity and solar and wind firms. We have over 100 sites that are capable of generating hydroelectric power in Guyana, but we have not been able to do that largely because of financial and infrastructural reasons.
There is potential, and we are very confident once we can get cheaper power and better infrastructure, we will move further and faster along the path of our economic diversification.
Those are the two principal elements in our transformation. A third element is the education of the workforce. Although we are an Anglophone country, we have had, I would say, weak performance in our education sector. Many of our school children have dropped out and formed part of a large number of unemployed young people. In this administration we are embarking on a program to get young people back into training schools in order to equip them for the world of work.
Apart from the infrastructure and the energy problems that we face, we have to overcome the education problem.
The election of this new government, under your leadership, represents a new era for the nation. What is your overview of this fresh “new Guyana” that will come under your leadership?
We do have a fresh approach. We need to pay attention to the level of public services, particularly education, health, and so on. To improve the quality of life and reduce poverty, we need to reduce inequality so that a greater part of our population – particularly young people – are involved in the economy. Apart from that, I would come to the things we said before. We have to improve our infrastructure so that we could exploit the resources that are located mainly in the hinterland – gold, diamonds, timber – and also generate cheap energy so that we could become more competitive.
At present we are very reliant on fossil fuels. That is part of our arrangement with Venezuela for the provision of petroleum, but if we can move more quickly into renewable energy I think we’ll be able to put our manufacturing sector on a sounder footing. Minister of Education, Dr Roopnaraine, is paying attention to social areas, and extensive social factors, and Minister of Finance, Winston Jordan, is also is looking at a new approach for our economy that will involve an emphasis on manufacturing. We can continue to produce the basic commodities that we produce – which are rice, timber, bauxite, gold and fish – but we have to become manufacturers.
In the Caribbean community there is access to the markets of the eastern Caribbean, Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados, Grenada, and the small islands – many of them have very thriving tourist industries but they do not have agricultural potential like we have. It’s a match made in heaven; they need our food and we need their markets.
Your election has also brought new hope for Guyana’s private sector. How is the relationship of this administration with them?
The private sector was inhibited because of the threat of corruption. What we have done so far is that we now have an anti money laundering law. We have a very long border with Brazil – 1,100 kilometers – and have been very vulnerable to gun running, narcotics trafficking, and people smuggling. So part of our strategy has been to make Guyana a safer place, a safer destination for FDI. We feel confident that once we overcome these problems, the private sector will feel more confident to invest.
We have a large diaspora. Our population is about three-quarters of a million. But there are about 250,000 Guyanese in Canada alone, and there are probably about some 150,000 in the United States. The diaspora is larger than the population in Guyana; there are more Guyanese living in North America than Guyanese living in South America. And all of them also welcome this new government.
The local business community feels more relieved now that they are likely to be more liberated from corruption. We want to reform our public services; we have to reform our police force so that we have civil servants that will never be bribed and public officers supervising our mines, our forests, our ports, etc. We are able to assure the private sector that Guyana will be more lawfully governed and that we will gradually roll back corruption and remove the dangers or the opportunities around laundering and contraband smuggling, and make Guyana a better-governed economy.
This is what the legitimate private sector is looking for. They have said they don’t want to have to compete against the government nor their businesses to be endangered by crime. With that return of confidence, I think in 2016 we will see a pick up. Of course that in turn depends on commodity prices – coal prices are low, sugar prices are low, rice is a very competitive market for the Asian producers, so we have to pay attention to those macro-economic problems too.
ExxonMobil Corp. has announced the discovery of a massive offshore oil and gas deposit. According to the experts, this deposit could appear to be worth more than $40 billion. This is at least 10 times the country’s GDP. How can such a discovery change the course of Guyana’s economy and how will your government work towards maximizing its benefits?
Of first concern is to create a sovereign wealth fund to make sure that we will be very prudent in the use of oil revenues. Other countries as you know have made mistakes in their sudden inflow of money.
We are now ensuring, even before the first barrel of oil is pumped, that the government fund is in place so that we don’t have a squander mania. We have already made plans to develop all energy sectors so we don’t become too reliant on petroleum and gas, of which we also have reserves. We will also develop our infrastructure and in so doing make sure that there are proper roads and bridges so we could access our other mineral resources – gold, diamond, manganese, bauxite – and at the same time build a more balanced economy and not become too reliant on petroleum. We already have great agricultural potential. We will now be able to add other sectors. Petroleum is important, but we have lived without petroleum before, and when it comes we are not going to drop what we have and rush to the new economy. It will be part of the broader-based, diversified economy.
Of course we welcome it. We have met with Exxon. I’ve promoted it myself and we are assured that it is a very large and important find. We have given them the assurance that we will deploy our diplomatic and all the resources of the State to ensure that the investment is protected.
In the last Doing Business report from the World Bank, Guyana ranked 123rd out of 189 countries. How is this government working to facilitate the entrance of FDI?
One of our main gateways was an organization called GO-Invest. When I got into office on the 16th of May, I created the Ministry of Business, which is the vanguard of a new business culture. We have started to engage the diaspora and other persons interested in FDI not only in minerals such as petroleum and gold.
We are looking at small and micro-enterprises. Using our resources, our own diaspora, we hope to build the economy. We do have an agricultural base that with investment could stimulate production, which may be small at first in global terms, but it will get more Guyanese off the streets and into employment and producing the type of commodities for which markets already exist in the eastern Caribbean.
We are, as the cricket saying goes, batting on a good wicket. On our continent it may seem to be slow steps in terms of international economic growth. But they are necessary steps if we are to build the type of economy the Guyanese hope for quicker.
This year world leaders will be meeting in Paris at the COP21 conference. Guyana has always been commended for its efforts towards CO2 emission reduction and mitigating the effects of climate change. What are your expectations of this conference? What can other countries learn from Guyana?
They can learn prudence, because we have been very prudent in the exploitation of our resources and the preservation of our forests; we have worked within the limits. We have good relations with Norway and we are quite aware of the dangers of deforestation and environmental damage.
We have an excellent tourism project in terms of ecology. We have some of the most fantastic fauna in the world. The largest eagle in the world comes from Guyana’s Amazon area, the largest freshwater fish, the largest anteater, the largest rodent, and the largest river otter. Along with other countries in the Amazon, like Brazil, we score very highly on our ecology. I will take that message to COP21.
The preservation of what we call part of the lungs of the Earth, the prudent management of our forest resources, of our trees, and relations we have developed with our indigenous population, which still largely inhabit the hinterland. It is a message from which the world can benefit.
We have also created the Iwokrama rainforest in the heart of Guyana. It was endorsed by all 53 members of the Commonwealth of Nations a quarter of a century ago. It is still an important element in teaching the world some environmental practices. It is a model. It is like a laboratory and we would like other countries to come to Guyana to see that experiment. What we do in Iwokrama, how we can live with nature, how we can harvest forest products in a sustainable manner. That is our gift to the world and it’s also a message to COP21.
With exports to the US accounting for $476 million and imports $401 million, the US is Guyana’s top trading partner. You have stated: “Cordial relations between the Caribbean and the United States are important to economic growth, stability as well as security.” What are your main priorities in respect to bilateral relations regarding the United States?
Essentially the United States is the world’s largest economy and I do not consider the volume of trade with the United States to be very large, certainly not by continental standards. Our main emphasis will continue to be in the Caribbean, but as far as the US is concerned we are very concerned about learning and importing technology, particularly information and communication technology. This is a weak area and the absence of that technology has contributed to the slow growth of Guyana.
We are going to be very soon passing new legislation to liberalize the communications sector. That is going to be the major area of contact with the United States. Many countries rush to get commodities into the United States; we are rushing to get technology.
The Guyanese diaspora is proportionately one of the largest in the world. The stable transition between ruling parties brings trust for the diaspora who may be looking to come back to the country. If you had to address that diaspora, why should they come back to Guyana?
We are going to reverse the reasons for their migration. They might have left because there were no opportunities; we assure them that we are making Guyana a safer place, a safe destination for their investment. Many of them have matured while they were away; they have accumulated funds and they would like to come back to invest their funds.
Guyana will be a safe place for them to come to. Many of them would like to come here because of the climate – they want to get away from the winter. That would also be a new frontier in terms of the fact that we do not have a very developed manufacturing sector – we will be able to bring back those skills and capital to develop the very areas of manufacturing which I said we need to develop.
I met with some of them in September and when I came back the first thing I did was send the Ministry of Business with another team to reengage with the diaspora, particularly in Toronto and to some extent in Florida. We have come up with many proposals, mostly small and medium-sized enterprises. They want safety; they want a liberal investment climate. Those are the two main concerns that they’ve articulated to me. And here they are going to be safe, and because they can make and keep their profits too.
You have dedicated almost your entire life to serving your country and now you have accomplished what most people only dream of – becoming a president. How did you feel the day of the elections, when the results came out?
I felt that I was ready for the job.
I’m 70 years old this year and I felt that everything I have done – being in the army, being an academic, being an entrepreneur, producing my own magazine – all of these professions have prepared me for what I do now. There are no surprises for me. I have a good team. I lead a six-party coalition. My experiences over the years have prepared me to manage that coalition. It’s not easy, but I have that experience.
So that’s how I felt: ready for the job. We had support even though the parliamentary support is very small. The enthusiasm with which my election was greeted has contributed to the stability and the confidence of people expressed in my administration. I look forward to a very rewarding five years. I have an experienced team. I think I’m the right man for the job.
Next year Guyana will be celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence. What would you like to send as a final message to all the readers, businessmen, and diaspora in the United States that will read this report?
My message will be Guyana is the best destination for investment in the Anglophone Caribbean. We are the biggest, we are the most beautiful, and we are the most bountiful country in the Anglophone Caribbean. Come to Guyana to have a good life.