Ethnic Impact Statements

Ethnic Impact Statements
Photo : Ravi Dev

Whether the PNC’s delaying tactics in the courts and in GECOM work or not, elections are on the horizon. And as such, the partisans of the PNC are hurling bitter missives on the “discriminatory” actions of the PPP when they were in office and the partisans of the PPP are responding in kind about the pre-1992 and post 2015 PNC’s actions. Unlike the past, we have made some progress in calling a spade a spade and not pretending that the discrimination isn’t felt ethnically. Whether real or not, that is the perception that has to be dealt with.         

The first thing we have to do is not to condemn the writers as “tribalists” or such like as some have done. In every society, citizens evaluate the policies and activities of their incumbent government critically. Governments after all, are elected to run the State on behalf of their citizens. This scrutiny would be even more vigilant by those who may have voted against the government.  It has become common, therefore for governments in the developed democratic countries – where public opinion is valued - to announce ahead of time what impact their policies will have on specific constituencies – be they, as in the US, labour, business, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and so on.

The more divided and polarized the society is, the more critical will be the evaluation of the government’s policies, since the premise of the government being the hand-maiden of “one side” is even more credible. One of the major bones of contention in any society is the use of the State to favour the group that has put the government into office. This fear is exacerbated in ethnically polarized societies and the perceived or real discrimination becomes the occasion, if not the cause, of many a battle.

For three decades, we have been arguing for the introduction of “Ethnic Impact Statements” by the incumbent Government before it implements any of its policies and programs. We did so consistently during the five years we were in Parliament 2001-2006 to no avail: ethnicity was too distasteful to be mentioned in public. We have now all accepted (hopefully) the need for “Environmental Impact Statements” before we embark on programs that will affect our physical environment. The policy is an acknowledgement of the fragility of our environment and the importance we place on its health and survival, for our own health and survival. I would hope we would acknowledge that our social environment is as important as our physical environment – and certainly more fragile. After all, it has been vividly demonstrated over the past decade that the destruction of our social environment is the direct destruction of “us”. One cannot get closer to home than that: with the environment, at least the effect is a bit indirect and delayed.

While we concede that the cause (and solution) of our ethnic problem goes beyond governmental actions, the fact of the matter is that we have to begin there. It is a simple matter of justice. No matter which party forms the Government, we must accept that Governmental actions have to be conducted on behalf of all the people: the State is our joint venture. Since, based on our history, we know that all governmental actions will be scrutinized by the populace through ethnic lens, what is the harm of scrutinizing the policies ahead of the implementation? The activities of the Government are part and parcel of our “national patrimony”. In fact, in Guyana - as in most of the third world - Governmental activities unfortunately comprise most of the national patrimony – and this is part of the reason why it is scrutinized so closely and emotionally.

If such “Ethnic Impact Statements” could be crafted and issued before the announcement and implementation of policies and programs, they would precipitate discussion and debate, which could be utilized to modify the policies or programs before they become political mobilizational tools. To wait for the inevitable ethnic post mortems is to ensure there will be trouble. Big trouble. The old cliché still holds: justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. An “Ethnic Impact Statement” on Governmental activities would go a long way to introducing the latter happy condition.

The APNU/AFC 2015 Manifesto included the promise to issue ethnic Impact Statements, but they never bothered to work with the Ethnic Relations Commission, which is mandated to conduct them. We hope that in the coming campaigns, this tool to address our most pressing issue will be considered.