Fast-tracking Guyana’s development: The first 100 days of PPP/C Govt

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L-R: Attorney General Anil Nandlall, Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo, President Irfaan Ali, Prime Minister Mark Phillips, and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance, Gail Teixeira

Today (November 10th) marks the first 100 days since President Dr Irfaan Ali was sworn in as President on August 2 2020, after a tumultuous five months where concerted efforts were made to deny him the presidency.

Now comes a look at President Ali’s first 100 days in office, a time which saw groundbreaking achievements made with the stroke of a pen and a vision for Guyana’s future outlined by the President and his Cabinet.

The 100-day review is a feature of democracies around the world, where it gives the public a chance to see for themselves the trajectory a newly-elected President has set for his Administration. Often, it is a harbinger of things to come.

Liberalisation

Perhaps one of the People’s Progressive Party’s (PPP) signature achievements after coming to office, is that it took them less than 90 days to liberalise the telecommunications sector and bring an end to the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company’s (GTT) 30-year monopoly in Guyana.

Chief Executive Officer of Digicel, Gregory Dean receiving his licence from Prime Minister, Mark Phillips

This allowed for other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to receive the requisite licenses, paving the way for them to expand, ushering in a new age of telecoms competition. Over 25 other companies have since expressed an interest in Guyana.

Oil and gas

The PPP entered Government with ExxonMobil’s US$9 billion investment in Payara offshore Guyana perched in a precarious position. The former Government had contracted British firm Bayphase to conduct an assessment of the Payara Field Development Plan (FDP), but that was since 2019. The project had not moved past assessment and Exxon was getting restless.

The Government, soon after it took office, proceeded to turn the situation around by negotiating a Payara licence that contained environmental safeguards and provisions for natural gas that would tie in with the Government’s long-term vision for a gas-to-shore project. This was all done before Exxon’s September month-end deadline to make a Final Investment Decision.

Anand Gohil of CNOOC Petroleum Guyana Limited, Exxon Country President Alistair Routledge, Natural Resources Minister Vickram Bharrat, and Timothy Christian, Director and Vice President of Hess Guyana Exploration display copies of the signed petroleum permit

A comparison with the Payara licence and the licence for Liza Field 1 and 2 will show that the PPP Government was able to secure far improved terms compared to the now Opposition APNU/AFC.

Improvements include stiffer fines for flaring, requiring Exxon to supply daily, disaggregated production statements for both oil and gas and the requirement for Exxon to submit its development and operating cost estimates for the Payara field within 90 days from the date the licence is issued.

The licence also includes provisions for safety and compliance audits paid for by Exxon, which will evaluate Exxon’s management of waste. Exxon has to provide US$400,000 annually for these audits.

Another new provision is the requirement for Exxon to use a capping stack, within a specified period, in case there is a well blowout. A capping stack is a large-scale piece of sub-sea equipment which oil companies keep onshore, ready to deploy to essentially plug the leak of oil.

Perhaps the largest scale and most transformative project the PPP has on its agenda is the gas-to-shore project, which would see gas pipes from Exxon’s offshore Liza field being brought onshore and used to process natural gas for local energy consumption. The Government has set up an advisory committee for this project within the 100 days, while also setting itself a target of 2023 to make the project a reality.

Likewise, the PPP Government has assembled a high-level team of experts to advise the Irfaan Ali-led Government on the formulation of a strong Local Content Policy that will ensure all citizens benefit from the country’s lucrative oil and gas sector.

Developmental projects

In the Government’s first 100 days, there was also a clear focus on infrastructure. The Government was able to negotiate and jump-start several projects which were stagnating under the former Government.

One such project is the Diamond/Ogle bypass road. Originally, Guyana had signed a US$50 million loan with the Indian Exim Bank in 2016 for the project. By 2019, that price had shot up to US$175 million and the Exim bank was reluctant to fund it.

The PPP Government was able to reconfigure the project back into the US$50 million bracket within the first 100 days and the contract for that project is likely to be awarded by this year-end.

President Ali touring the Nandy Park, East Bank Demerara site

The contract for the new Demerara River bridge is another project the PPP jumpstarted. After site visits by the President and a team of officials, the Government settled on plans to construct a four-lane, high-span fixed bridge from Nandy Park, East Bank Demerara, to La Grange, West Bank Demerara.

As of October, over 40 companies from around the world have submitted Expressions of Interest to design and construct the bridge. The Government is also aiming at building the bridge by 2024.

Under the former Government, 2300 house lots were awarded, with no access to necessary infrastructure such as roads. In just a matter of months after taking office, the PPP Government has set out to correct this, awarding 40 contracts to the tune of over $1 billion to 22 companies for infrastructural upgrades to these areas.

The contracts include road upgrades in Eccles, Herstelling, La Parfait Harmonie, Great Diamond, as well as works on access roads in La Bonne Intention (LBI), Ordinance, Williamsburg and Experiment. Works will also be done on a number of internal roads, including in Mon Repos, Prospect and Providence.

This is part of the $3 billion that has been set aside for the housing sector.

Additionally, $2 billion has been set aside for the Guyana Water Incorporated.

Additionally, hundreds of persons have since received their land titles that were languishing under the previous Government.

With an expected completion date set for April 2021, generators have arrived in Guyana for the new Garden of Eden dual firepower plant on the East Bank of Demerara – which is currently under construction by Finnish company, Wartsila.

Relief measures/social assistance

One of the major concerns persons had with the former President David Granger Administration was the increase in the tax burden on the ordinary man. President Ali, in the 2020 Emergency Budget, prepared in a record 29 days, made sure to roll back these measures.

Making good on an issue it campaigned on and criticised the former APNU/AFC Government for, the President Dr Irfaan Ali-led Government rolled back the imposition of Value Added Tax (VAT) and duties on mining equipment.

VAT was also removed from exports, cell phones, medical supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE) and building and construction materials, as well as pesticides and agricultural chemicals. VAT was also removed from the importation of stones as the construction sector sets up for a boom.

The Government also rolled back VAT on electricity and water; a measure that ensured everyone could benefit from VAT reductions.

Corporate tax was also removed from private healthcare and education, thereby clearing the way for foreign and local institutions to invest in Guyana. The Government also rolled back the restriction on the importation of used vehicles older than eight years, a policy expected to open the doors for thousands to own their own vehicles. Likewise, used tyres can now also be imported, easing the burden on vehicle owners.

Guyana’s Minister of Education Priya Manickchand during an outreach to an indigenous community in Region One (Barima-Waini)

Pensioners, school children and COVID-19 frontline workers were also catered for by the budget. Pensioners were provided with free water in addition to an increase in pension. They will receive $25,000 per month. Parents will also receive a $15,000 cash grant for each of their school-aged child in addition to a $4000 uniform allowance for each child.

$800 million has been set aside for the Amerindian Development Fund. This will provide funding to support the socio-economic development of Indigenous communities and villages, through the implementation of Community Development Plans (CDPs) the Indigenous communities themselves picked.

In the field of education, $52 billion has been given to the education sector including $1.7 billion for construction and rehabilitation of schools.

Minister Sukhai interacting with the agents conducting the cash grant distribution exercise in Mocobie

One of the major social assistance offered to Guyanese as the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic is the $25,000 cash grant to each family. Since taking office, the PPP Government has significantly increased COVID-19 testing, imported numerous equipment, made substantial donations and improved the health sector’s ability to combat the virus.

Investment/jobs

Besides taxes, another chronic complaint against the former APNU/AFC Government was the loss of jobs. This was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of measures from the former Government. It’s a situation the PPP set out to address in its emergency budget, with private sector friendly measures intended to keep businesses afloat and preserve jobs.

Agriculture Minister, Zulfikar Mustapha’s tour to the Skeldon and Rose Hall Estates. Minister Mustapha is currently accompanying Indian High Commissioner to Guyana, H.E. Dr. K. J. Srinivasa on an assessment tour of the estates in Regions 5 and 6.

The Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) and the sugar sector was perhaps the worst-hit industry under the former APNU/AFC Government, which closed down the Rose Hall, Skeldon, Wales and Enmore sugar estates and threw thousands of former workers on the breadline.

US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo and his delegation are welcomed by Government of Guyana officials including Prime Minister Brigadier (Ret’d) Mark Phillips  ,Vice President, Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo, and Attorney General Anil Nandlall

The PPP has since rehired over 200 sugar workers, while committing to rehiring over 400 by year-end. The Government has also started the process to reopen the closed sugar estates, which it says will be fully functional by 2024.

Other than sugar, the Government recently granted 100 contracts to small and new contractors, who are tasked with work ranging from cleaning the road to sea defence. It is estimated that the spin-off from this initiative will see at least 500 people being hired. This was all done within 100 days and the Government is moreover looking at repeating the initiative next year.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Ministry announced that there are investors who are seeking to develop the Tarakuli bauxite deposit near the Orealla-Siparuta community. This will now pave the way for hundreds of persons living in that community to gain employment.

Major mining companies – Aurora Gold Mine and Omai – are set to restart operations in Guyana.

Already also, Head of the United States (US) Development Finance Corporation (DFC), Adam Boehler, who visited Guyana, has revealed that the United States is eyeing opportunities in a number of sectors, including energy, agriculture and infrastructure.

Mr Adam Boehler meets President Dr Irfaan Ali

Shortly after the PPP took office, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Guyana and signed a Framework Agreement to strengthen cooperation in various sectors including energy and infrastructure, under the umbrella of the Growth in the Americas Initiative, with Foreign Affairs Minister Hugh Todd.

President Ali has since explained that this agreement will not only pave the way for the US private sector to expand its investment portfolio here but also partner with the Guyanese Private Sector.

Secretary Pompeo had stated that the US will do all it can to help American companies have access to investment opportunities in places such as Guyana. But at the same time, he impressed that this has to be done in a fair and transparent manner as the US is equally interested in seeing the wealth that is created from these opportunities benefit Guyanese.

Land fees

Back in 2017, the former Government had increased land rentals for rice farmers from $1000 to $7000 and drainage and irrigation fees from $2500 to $8000. In addition, rent for cattle pastures went from $487 to $2500 and fees for other pastures to $1400.

The situation led rice farmers to protest the increase and the then PPP Opposition had moved a motion calling for the reversal of the fees back in 2017, although it was ultimately defeated. The new Government has since reversed these oppressive measures, within their first 100 days.

The Payara licence, complete with improved terms over the Liza field licence, was signed within two months in office

Connecting with Guyanese

In his first month in office, it was immediately impressed on Guyanese that this was a Government intent on visiting as many communities as possible and hearing from the people themselves what their concerns are.

Leading in this regard has been the President himself. On August 30, 2020, President Ali, in partnership with several civil society groups, paid a visit to Tiger bay in Georgetown, where hampers were distributed and the concerns of residents were listened to.

His other visits included a visit to Canal Number 1, West Bank Demerara, where he did a walkabout that attracted scores of residents. Housing and Water Ministers Collin Croal and Susan Rodrigues also used the first month to visit communities across Guyana, where attention was paid to concerns over adequate housing and water. Other Ministers who did visits across the country include Education Minister Priya Manickchand, Agriculture Minister Zulfikar Mustapha; Public Works Ministers, Juan Edghill and Deodat Indar; Local Government Minister, Nigel Dharamlall; Amerindian Affairs Minister Pauline Sukhai among others who hosted several outreaches.