The structured report from the government on February 15th 2005 titled Government Response to Flood Situation read like the strategy of genius.
Guyana was under siege by natural disaster and the Jagdeo Administration was governing. This leader, economist, politician and general factotum, was showing us his business acumen and his ability as commander in chief to commandeer the country’s civil defense. The report was a chronological relay of what his administration was doing – food, water, donor support, shelter, information – the works.
Impressive, fails to give the credit to the efficiency, the organization, the swiftness with which president Jagdeo responded.
But while we were reveling, relieved that this president was doing all that he could to maintain normalcy amidst the natural disaster, we were still noting with requisite caution, that he had allocated 20 million dollars for flood relief on January 17th 2005 and on January 19th raised that amount by 10% to 200 million. Indeed, natural disasters are unpredictable and often uncontainable but the difference between 20 and 200 is 180 million of public funds so, just in case they got lost in their efficient dispensation of public money, there was need for somebody to do some accounting.
With natural disasters people tend to look at the occurrence with magnitude because it is unusual and assign dollar figures to the magnitude they see. A 180 million uptick may have seemed reasonable under the circumstances.
There were reports of deaths, leptospirosis and all the catastrophic occurrences that follow flooding and we were grateful for the doxycycline tablets and other over the counter drugs that the Ministry of Health was delivering to flood victims. We know that Pan American Health Organization made a donation of some of the critical medication but we were concerned about the amounts made available by New Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation and at what cost, especially since he had the monopoly on the provision of drugs to the consumer market, having won the bid over multiple bidders.
By this time, a further 85 million was allocated for the Health Response phase of the Flood Relief and later on, as the weather patterns continued to produce unusual volumes of rainfall, allocation was made in the 2006 budget to focus on the drainage and irrigation needs of the country.
By 2007 and 2008 more monies were being budgeted and allocated for flood and drainage relief and though former Agriculture Minister Leslie Ramsammy hastens to tell us the “facts” about the duration of the construction that was budgeted for and funded since 2005, the facts do not delineate how the monies were actually disbursed.
Maybe, the project was initiated in 2004 as he says but we know of no fund allocation in that year so we won’t be distracted and though we understand that a number of feasibility studies, public consultations and technical considerations had to take place, we just won’t accept that it cost billions of dollars without a line item accounting.
In 2009, when President Jagdeo said that the project was going to cost 3 billion, that a one month study was needed and that the project was going to be completed by the following year, we wondered at this new price tag because public funds were being budgeted and allocated since 2005 and the plan remained in its formative stages. In every budget after 2005 there were warnings about cuts to “budgetary allocations to roads and other schemes” as roads remained nonexistent, in disrepair or just underdone.
By 2010, five years after the first budgeting and allocation of public funds, the project required more of everything, as the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers presented a cheaper alternative. It involved a system that included both draining and irrigation. That same year Minister Robert Persaud told tax payers that by that time there were seven different missions from Japan looking at the situation which meant that the project remained under construction and the tax payers were yet to get an accounting of the use of public funds which were comprised of taxes, grants or loans.
By November 28th 2011, Robert Persaud was replaced by Dr. Leslie Ramsammy as Minister of Agriculture and by February 20th 2012 he, Ramsammy, begun making media rounds with publications offering “facts versus misrepresentations” of the Hope Canal Project assured the nation that, in his professional opinion, the project would have been completed in 2013.
In the interest of not making this too lengthy a read, we will say that Leslie Ramsammy gave his professional opinion as the holder of a PHD in microbiology, not as a trained engineer or agriculture expert.
We will also say that the lack of structure and the fact this massive project was being conducted over time, with monies being budgeted and allocated without line item reference, the fact that it remains undone and what is done is ineffective demands one of this forensic audits that is now prescription for verification of financial transactions over the past twenty three years.
During the floods, millions of dollars were disbursed as compensation to those who allegedly lost crops or cattle or property. Tax payers need to see an accounting of this because there have been reports that many who were not eligible were compensated.
There is also concern about the source of the funding for this project which was never completed under the PPP. The government said that the drainage and irrigation job was going to be funded through the Conservancy Adaptation Project Funds provided by the World Bank but that was contradicted when Minister Leslie Ramsammy said that funding for the project came from Norway funds and a few years later construction was ascribed to Petro Caribe Funding.
In February 2015, we saw then President Ramotar take the symbolic walk across the Hope Canal Bridge. This was, reportedly, constructed at a cost of another$349.00 million.
By simply adding the amounts each official declared during his turn to tell the public how their money was being spent to contain, drain and irrigate their lands, we are at $4.4 billion dollars, just a small billion more than Jagdeo declared in 2009.
We are not saying that the monies were misappropriated but we just don’t know how they were appropriated.
What we do know is the Hope Canal, the Cunha Canal, the drainage and irrigation for Black Bush Polder, and other areas that were supposed to be completed, with a conservative estimate, in year 2009, remain a work in progress. We know that the construction of pumps and pumping stations were blocked by, then, Minister of Agriculture, Robert Persaud, even though the funder, International Development Bank, had given it a favorable nod but we were never told why.
We know that farmers remain upset because they have been paying heavy taxes for drainage and irrigation they are yet to receive. We know that they have taken matters into their own hands multiple times by using farm equipment to block and redirect water flow to drain and irrigate where they feel the government has failed, especially because, as of 2010, their collective bill was $164 million in service fees that included $71 million in repossession and reallocation fees because of payment defaults.
We don’t have nearly as much information as we need as citizens to follow this drainage and irrigation investment that is now seven years post estimated conclusion but we have snippets, news paper articles, talk show conversations and State addresses of information that has been constructively crafted and calculatedly dispensed, tweaked for venue, rearranged for audience, cut and pasted as needed.
Often, when this happens, it is to mask accounting disclosure violations and failure to properly report transactions involving the use of public funds. It is the kind of communications pattern that is associated with siphoning public funds into private hands.
The administration that is guilty of giving the country this partially constructed, functionally incomplete, drainage and irrigation system continues to declare that it has nothing to hide.
Having nothing to hide is not mutually exclusive of having quite a lot to fear.