I extend best wishes for a Happy New Year, 2015, to all of you here in Guyana and in the diaspora.
The outgoing year, 2014, was indeed very eventful and marked with both significant gains and major challenges. Many of the events that occurred in the just concluded year will impact on developments in this New Year.
I have no doubt in my mind that we will overcome the challenges, and we will continue to advance our all round gains and improve the quality of life of our people.
My optimism is grounded in the history of our country. Our people have always displayed remarkable strength and resilience in the face of major challenges. It is this history that has moulded our character.
We must now use this eternal optimism and strength that our fore parents displayed to continue to forge ahead in the face of the many challenges that are posed due to both international and local events.
It is significant that 2014 saw Guyana growing economically for the ninth successive year. This is the longest period of continuous economic growth in the recent history of our country. It is even more noteworthy that this growth was achieved in the most testing of circumstances. Over just the two and a half years to mid-year 2014, the size of our economy has increased by 25 percent to $650 billion, our country has attracted more than US$629 million in foreign direct investment, credit to the private sector has grown by 41.5 percent to $190.5 billion, and total deposits in the commercial banks has grown by 22.1 percent to $334.6 billion.
All of this was achieved despite the fact that the international environment was not favourable for some of the important sectors of our economy.
The price of gold, for instance, saw a notable fall on the international market that had, and is having an impact on our gold sector.
The price for sugar on the world market also experienced a dramatic decline by some sixty percent.
The rice industry has similarly been facing the challenges of market availability, unfavourable price movement, and late payments. That we have continued to grow in such circumstances testify that our economic base is now much broader and good governance continues to characterize our management of the economy.
My Fellow Guyanese,
There is a strong link between the performance of the economy and the gains made in the social sector.
Guyana has had much progress in the field of education. This is evidenced by the tangible improvements we have seen in infrastructure, the percentage of trained teachers, high enrolment ratios across all levels, results at national and international exams, interest and attainment in the sciences, and access to technical, vocational, and tertiary facilities.
It is boys and girls from all across Guyana who have been celebrated as the most outstanding CXC students in almost all recent years.
We intend to build on these gains, including by ensuring that we sustain the high levels of investment in the sector, with education commanding 14.7 percent of the national budget for 2014. Our citizens are going to be prepared by our schools to meet the needs of modern Guyana and to compete in the world.
In this New Year, we intend to pass a new education act that has already been laid in the National Assembly, but sadly met a hurdle in the destructive, unprogressive politics of the opposition.
In this new bold piece of legislation, the first we have endeavoured to pass in the sector since Guyana gained her independence, we shall set the tone for the future in education.
Our citizens are going to be prepared by our schools to meet the needs of modern Guyana and to compete successfully in the world of tomorrow.
Our health services too have improved both in terms of quality and quantity, despite many challenges. We now have services at a tertiary level including by-pass operations, dialysis services, improved cancer treatment and better facilities for burn victims.
In every region of our country we have built new hospitals or upgraded health facilities. Even in the most remote areas we have established and staffed health facilities.
Today our public health care system has more qualified doctors than ever before.
Our housing programme continues to provide our citizens with their own homes, giving them great comfort and security. Today, entire new communities have emerged where once the land lay wasted and unoccupied. Tens of thousands of Guyanese families have realised the dream of home ownership.
Gone are the days when this dream was out of the reach of the average hard working Guyanese.
Our housing sector has seen impressive growth over the past five years. From 2009 to 2014 the budget allocated to the sector has grown by 400%. In 2009, the Ministry was implementing 51 projects, now in 2014, there are 170 projects under implementation. The sector has been a boon for job creation, directly creating 3,500 jobs in 2014, a figure that is projected to grow to 4,250 in 2015.
We have also launched a “one thousand” home initiative for working class families. The young professionals’ pilot programme was successfully completed and a new era in urban planning is beckoning.
In addition, the feasibility study for the East Coast – East Bank bypass road has been completed and we are discussing next steps to advance this project.
This will catalyse US$65 million in investment, building 20 kilometres of roads and supporting infrastructure. Furthermore, in the first half of 2015, we will be constructing an alternative link between Diamond and Eccles that will greatly relieve traffic congestion for commuters on the East Bank of Demerara.
We have also remained attentive to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly. We have continued to lighten the burdens on our senior citizens by improving their Old Age Pension. In just the past three years we have increased it by 75 percent to $13,125. This is light years from where we came when it was a paltry few hundred dollars and our seniors were subjected to the humiliating means test.
Today we stand proud as one of the few countries in the world with a universal non-contributory pension paid to every elderly person who has met the sole eligibility criterion of attaining the qualifying age. Every month some 42,500 senior citizens benefit from this programme at a total annual cost of $6.6 billion. We also subsidize water rates and provide an electricity subsidy to old age pensioners.
In order to provide increased social and economic benefits to our citizens, we have taken innovative approaches to mobilising development financing.
Guyana is one of the very few countries in the world that is receiving compensation for the sustainable management of our forests under our Low Carbon Development Strategy and partnership with the Government of Norway. This year, Guyana received its fourth payment under this partnership, bringing the total earned so far to US$150 million. These earnings are being invested for both the social and economic betterment of all Guyanese.
In 2014, under the LCDS, 25 Amerindian communities received full disbursements for their Community Development Plans totalling $125 million. Given this success, in September, we launched the next phase of this initiative, which is supporting development in an additional 161 communities with an investment of over $1.2 billion. Under the LCDS, resources are also being dedicated to the land titling process so that more Amerindian communities can have title to their lands.
The flagship of the LCDS is the Amaila Falls Hydro power Project. I am pleased to announce that Norway has transferred earnings from our partnership of approximately US$80 million to the Inter-American Development Bank to fund part of Guyana’s equity share in the project. This is a significant accomplishment. It demonstrates that all partners have strong confidence in Amaila. The project is once again moving forward.
In 2015, we will continue to break new development ground under the LCDS. We will launch initiatives targeted at flood prevention dealing with both coastal community drainage systems and the larger conservancies. We will catalyse the ecotourism sector through several interventions so that Guyanese can more fully take advantage of our country’s natural and cultural assets. In addition, we will advance work on a Biodiversity Centre that will showcase Guyana’s unique biodiversity to the world and to our school children, some of whom have not had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the interior.
Regrettably, the great strides we have made in improving our economy and advancing the social sector were not matched in the political arena. This is most disappointing.
In my message on the occasion of the beginning of 2012, I had pointed to the great benefits that can accrue to our people by having greater cooperation of the parties in Parliament.
I had also pointed to the dangers of not doing so. Then, I warned that ‘…to try to make deals or to gang up against one partner, when we should be working for consensus, can be counter-productive for it will continue to breed suspicion and mistrust. We should be working together to find common ground in the interest of our people.’
Unfortunately, I did not find receptive ears in the Parliamentary Opposition.
At every turn attempts have been made to stymie the growth and development of our country. At no time did the opposition seek to use the one seat majority in Parliament to demand of us to do more for our people. On the contrary, they moved in every way to stop progress and to cut funds for development.
From the very first budget, even though I held extensive discussions with the opposition parties, they decided to oppose, often for the sake of opposing. In that same year, 2012, they inflicted cuts on our budget aimed at projects that have great potential to transform Guyana.
That trend continued in 2013 and in 2014. Indeed in 2014, they cut the whole capital budget from the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, including the Amerindian Development Fund. Moreover, the funds used to provide loans to students attending the University of Guyana were also cut, among many others.
The opposition also continued to promote bills in the assembly that were clearly unconstitutional, forcing the administration to resort to the court to pronounce on the measures.
In between that we have witnessed them cutting the Amaila-Falls Hydro Project, a project that would have allowed us to have cheap energy to industrialise our country and create jobs for our people.
They also want to deny our country other important infrastructure such as a new and modern airport which can contribute greatly to the building of a strong tourism sector, creating more jobs and generating income for Guyanese.
Strangely too, they are implacably opposed to the building of a Speciality Hospital that will make important medical procedures affordable to our people. Not only would this facility help to save lives, but it would also provide to all Guyanese services which are today available only to the wealthy.
The Opposition displayed remarkable recklessness and disregard for the welfare of our people by twice opposing the passage of the Anti-Money Laundering Bill in the National Assembly. In so doing they are endangering our Financial Sector, exposing it to International sanctions.
I ask how can one speak about fighting drug traffickers and money launderers, how can one speak about fighting corruption and oppose the passage of the AMF/CFT Bill.
Fellow Guyanese, on November 10th, I was forced to prorogue the National Assembly because of the attempt by the opposition to close the Assembly down.
I did this for two reasons mainly. First I had hoped, as I still do, that we can have dialogue on many important issues that I would like to see resolved by this 10th Parliament.
I have already highlighted the education and AML/CFT Bills that are pending before the Assembly. In addition to these, we have the important Telecommunications Bill which will liberalise the sector, promote competition, reduce telecom cost to consumers, create conditions for more job creation and improve our competitiveness as an investment destination.
I thought that these were important enough to get through without delay.
Secondly, it is important to note that, had the opposition proceeded with their intended No Confidence Motion, thousands of Guyanese voters would have been disenfranchised given where we were in the voter registration process.
Thus far the opposition has spurned my attempts to discuss these issues and in their customary manner have rejected my invitation to dialogue.
Clearly, we can’t continue in this way. We need a mandate to continue the progress that we have started that has brought our country such a far way from what it was two decades ago.
With an opposition that has displayed a remarkable anti-developmental tendency it is important that we regain the majority in the National Assembly to ensure continued social and economic progress.
As I have said on many previous occasions, the foundation has been laid for a brighter tomorrow for all Guyanese. With a renewed mandate, my Government pledges to sustain and build on the gains we have already made as a country. We will continue to invest heavily in the physical infrastructure that is so critical to creating jobs and improving livelihoods.
High amongst our priorities will be to ensure the achievement of more affordable and more reliable energy. For too long, Guyanese have looked forward to harnessing our country’s vast hydropower potential. The time for realizing this dream is long overdue. Unreliable and unaffordable electricity continues to be the biggest impediment to investment and job creation in Guyana. My Government will deliver the Amaila Falls Hydropower Project to the Guyanese people, along with all its attendant benefits. Within months, we expect to achieve financial close and commence construction, and this project will come into operation during our new term in office.
We will also continue to expand our roads and bridges network, including ensuring greater access to our geographic neighbours. During the next term of office, my Government will work with our partners to bridge the Corentyne River and to complete the road from Brazil along with the accompanying deep water harbour. We will also improve ease of movement within our borders by upgrading the major hinterland arteries and widening our major coastal highways. Within our towns and villages, rehabilitation and upgrading our urban and community roads will continue apace, all with the aim of improving access.
In the social sector, along with achieving universal access, my Government will focus on service quality. Every Guyanese citizen will enjoy access to world class primary health care, and our young people will receive an education that will prepare them to compete with the best of the rest of the world. Every Guyanese family will be able to afford their own home and have access to all the ancillary services that are normally available in residential communities.
We will work hard and invest heavily to ensure that our communities are safer and that our crime fighting and prevention capabilities are strengthened. Relevant initiatives will include legislative reform in support of crime fighting, upgrading of capacity in the Police Force, stronger use of technology and forensic science, and tackling the root causes of crime.
At the heart of all these developments will be our aim to improve the quality of life enjoyed by every Guyanese citizen. Opportunities will be created for every person to find gainful employment, and to acquire the skills necessary to take up those opportunities. Amongst the initiatives we will pursue, is the aim of achieving universal computer literacy, ensuring that each and every one person can assume their rightful place in the modern technology-driven world.
We will continue to improve the economic environment, working harder to make Guyana an even more attractive place for doing business, and to incentivise investors to establish and expand operations here. This will help to grow our economy, broaden our revenue base, improve our fiscal capacity to meet the needs of our people, and reinforce our economic resilience.
For all this to happen, a clear mandate will be needed. Given political conditions, I anticipate that my Guyanese brothers and sisters will be called upon in the near future to exercise the choice that will be so critical to determining the path our country will follow in the years to come. The future of our country will be decided by the manner in which that choice is made, whether our country is to continue to progress in the way it has in recent years or whether it is to regress to the dark days of the past. I have every confidence that the Guyanese people will choose the path of progress.
I wish you a happy new year and every success in 2015.