Is a 50% ministerial pay increase really the best way to address corruption?

I originally wrote this article as a sample to be submitted to an editor. I decided to publish it today because there are some questions which must not be allowed to sleep for too long. If you would like a copy of the original article complete with references feel free to reach out to me either by commenting here, email or Facebook.

“I believe it is justifiable. You cannot have a situation like in the PPP where they were prepared to accept low salaries because they were thiefing money all over the place. We are not going to do that…and so we have to pay people well if you want them to perform.” Joseph Harmon, Minister of State, Stabroek News, October 7, 2015.


When Minister of State Joseph Harmon announced the 50% salary increase for Government ministers last year, many Guyanese expressed outrage for two reasons. They were angry because the move was perceived as a violation of the principles on which the APNU+AFC Coalition campaigned earlier that year and they believed that it expressed gross insensitivity to public servants at the lower end of the hierarchy.

On the day Harmon made the announcement, he was reported by Stabroek News and other major media outlets as saying that he believed the pay increase was justifiable because “You cannot have a situation like in the PPP where they were prepared to accept low salaries because they were thiefing money all over the place”.

Harmon’s statement alludes to the existence of a link between low pay of senior government officials and corruption. The World Bank has (since 1997) defined corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain. By “thiefing money”, as the Minister of State so eloquently alleged, the former PPP government officials were using their office or position of power for personal gain; they were engaging in corruption.

This corruption, as Harmon’s statement suggests, was due – not primarily to the lack in morality of his predecessors – but to the fact that they were willing to accept low pay. Within this context, the exorbitant salary increase appears to be a method for addressing corruption by way of prevention and for ensuring that senior government officials perform.

The most distressing thing about this statement is that it stands in stark contrast to the stance the APNU+AFC Coalition took while in opposition and on the campaign trail in 2015. These same PPP salaries, which Harmon now describes as “low” enough to be a cause for corruption were once represented in his and his peers’ rhetoric as being exceedingly high and for the “fat cats”.

In the interest of diplomacy, we can say that Harmon and the Coalition’s position on the matter has changed. However, since diplomacy has never been the best language for truth, the only thing left to say is that the campaigners of change have lied to the people.

But even in light of this most distasteful fact, Harmon is correct in presuming that an increase in pay for senior government officials is one way to tackle the corruption problem. Whether this is the best move that Guyana can make currently is another issue. Would it have made more sense to offer public servants lower down the hierarchy a salary increase in order to curb corruption?

In the absence of scientific data, some amount of introspection is necessary to support the statement which immediately follows. Petty corruption – as it exists at the lower level of the public service ladder – is now cultural. When a police man pulls over a driver, the former will most likely ask for money, the latter will willingly pass “a lil raise” and perhaps neither will fully grasp that they are engaging in an act of corruption.

Similarly, the practice by citizens who go to any government office is to hand over a “lunch money” in order to get efficient service. The rampant practice of corruption by lower to mid-level public servants has been linked by studies to wages that are too low.

Employees, Augusto Lopez-Claros writes in “Six Strategies to Fight Corruption”, may find themselves under pressure to supplement their incomes in “unofficial” ways. Lopez-Claros further refers to the popular study by Van Rijckeghem and Weder which shows there is an inverse relationship between the level of public sector wages and the incidence of corruption.

Increasing the pay of public servants across the board has been part of a national strategy that Singapore has successfully used for years. Singapore is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. One of the reasons Singapore has been so successful in fighting corruption is because it keeps the salaries of its politicians and civil servants high in order to prevent brain drain and to stamp out the economic incentive for engaging in corrupt activity.

The important point to note here is that Singapore did not just give hefty salaries to its politicians and top government officials but to public servants throughout the hierarchy. Hong Kong has since followed this example.

Will the Government of Guyana be doing the same? And if we assume that the ministerial pay increase is just the beginning, why did they decide to begin the increase at the top, was it really the best decision and when can public servants expect their salary increases?

Statements made by Minister of Finance Winston Jordan in “Don’t expect an elaborate increase” – an article published in the March 17, 2016 edition of the Kaieteur News – provides some of the answers. According to the article, Jordan warned that “the expectations for handsome increases need to be tempered” and public servants can expect only a “top-up” to their salaries.

The finance minister justified this “top-up” approach to the salary increase of low and mid-level public servants by agreeing with a recently released report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF mission, which was recently in Guyana, suggested “moderating the growth of wages, as well as reforming public enterprises with a view to reduce their reliance on government support.” Jordan agrees.

It is clear that public servants lower down the hierarchy will not be receiving the same treatment as the Coalition ministers.

Signature 2

To Dr. Roger F. Luncheon – On the LEAD Project

Dear Dr. Roger F. Luncheon,

First, I must express my most sincere gratitude to you, and by extension the Government of Guyana, for responding to my concerns regarding democracy, trust and tragedy in our nation. I hope that our interaction will inspire generations to come. I hope it serves as evidence that our leaders, our politicians, like you, are not unreachable or unwilling to engage with our people. I hope that it serves as an example of the rational manner in which such discussions must be conducted.

I have noted your recommendation that I do not “confuse opinions with facts” as it regards the USAID Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) project. As a matter of fact Dr. Luncheon, I arrived at my current position on the issue after examining your public disclosures and those of US Ambassador Brent Hardt. I have since perused a set of correspondence between Government and US officials on the LEAD project and this only strengthens my position.

I still do not believe that Government’s concern about the alleged high handed manner of the US is the only reason behind refusing LEAD. Note that I am not dismissing Government’s concern. But I am saying that based on the data I have examined it is simply not possible, not logical that this can be the only reason. Now we shall proceed to examine some facts, truths, evidence if you prefer that term.

It is fact that on October 18, 2012 US Ambassador Brent Hardt wrote to President Donald Ramotar informing him that “USAID is planning to implement an initiative to enhance democratic processes and governance institutions in Guyana by strengthening the capacity of political parties in Parliament”. In the same correspondence Ambassador Hardt noted that he was “writing to solicit (Government’s) support in coordinating a meeting with appropriate leaders within (the PPP/C) to hear your insights”.

Dr. Luncheon, it is also fact that on October 29, 2012 President Ramotar met with Ambassador Hardt and USAID representatives. On November 29, 2012 Ambassador Hardt wrote to President Ramotar thanking him for the meeting. In this letter, Ambassador Hardt was very clear that “the information [Government] provided was very helpful in allowing us to finalize the scope of work USAID will be supporting in its planned Democracy and Governance activity for Guyana”.

Based on these facts, it is clear that as early as October 2012 the US had been consulting Government about a “planned Democracy and Governance activity for Guyana” and that Government was willingly participating. At this point, there is no indication that the US has said to the Government of Guyana “Here is the LEAD project, you must sign it and you must participate in it”. Where is the fait accompli?

Further Dr. Luncheon, it is also fact that more than a year after Government had first began discussions with the US about what would become the LEAD project Cabinet disapproved it. It is fact that from the beginning you have been contending that Government refused the project due to concerns about the lack of consultation.

It is clear from the correspondence released by the US Embassy (the letters I have quoted above) that consultation has indeed been taking place. Or is it Dr. Luncheon, that there is a misunderstanding between us? Have we interpreted “consultation” to mean different things? Is the process of formally meeting with US officials and discussing the project (which has been taking place since October 2012) not to be interpreted as “consultation”?

In your recent letter to me you again state: “The details I provided publicly clearly established that the United States designed, funded the project and contracted a firm to implement the project before bringing it to the attention of the Government of Guyana.” So Dr. Luncheon, your contention, I take it, is not that the Government was never consulted but that consultation took place after all of these things occurred?

As a matter of fact, Ambassador Hardt wrote to you on May 20, 2013 about the firm that had been awarded the contract for the project. In his letter he informed you that following “earlier consultations on the USAID/Guyana Elections and Political Processes Fund Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) Project, USAID has made an award to the International Republican Institute (IRI) for implementation of the Leadership and Democracy project”.

Clearly, Government had been involved in “consultations” with the US before the contract was awarded to IRI for the LEAD project. Ambassador Hardt’s words to you suggest that the issue of awarding the project contract had come up in “earlier consultations”. So what exactly is Government’s contention here Dr. Luncheon? Is it that Government is saying it should have enjoyed closer involvement in the process that saw the awarding of a contract by the USAID for a US funded project?

In all of this Dr. Luncheon, where is the US’s alleged high-handed manner? It is primarily the information available in these correspondences, and not merely my opinion or belief on the matter, which seems to all but dismiss this concern about US high-handedness. So Dr. Luncheon, how can this be the only or central reason for refusing to participate in LEAD when it has been so weakened?

I hope that now you are less perplexed about my position. The things I have presented thus far are facts, truths, evidence. In order to dismantle the merit of the data I have relied upon, you are left with two options: you can either contend that the correspondence released by the US embassy has been fabricated or is false, untrue, misconstrued (whichever term is preferable) or you can contend that it is limited in that it only presents one side of the conversation (that is only those letters the US would have sent to Government).

The first option would be a diplomatic disaster and I would be left with no choice but to ask you: where is your evidence that the US is lying or misconstruing information? If it is the second option then the solution would be simple: the Government can release its side of the correspondence so that a more holistic view of what has been taking place can be gained.

Further, I have also cited your own words as published in the Stabroek News and on Demerara Waves (the online publication). So unless, we accuse them of misconstruing your position on the LEAD project then the data that has been available to me as it regards your stance is also fact, truth, or evidence. So it would seem, Dr. Luncheon that my position on the matter has indeed been based upon facts, truth or evidence.

Finally, allow me to briefly address this issue regarding what you have described as an attack on our sovereignty and Ambassador Hardt’s “apparent contempt for the Government of Guyana”. I agree that no foreign entity has the right to come into our country and conduct business at will. The fact that I thirst for the democratic opportunities that LEAD promises does not mean I support an attack on our sovereignty. Such a notion would be ridiculous.

However, as you are well aware Dr. Luncheon, Ambassador Hardt’s alleged display of contempt came after Cabinet’s disapproval of LEAD. The issue is and remains Government’s refusal of the LEAD project prior to the ambassador’s alleged conduct. It is sad that matters of sovereignty have arisen but our debate is not about this and this has not been Government’s cited reason for disapproving LEAD.

You asked me “Where in the world of international law and relationships would a foreign government openly behave so outrageously?” I believe that as it concerns the disapproval of LEAD the question we should be asking ourselves is: Where in the world of diplomatic relations does a government publicly accuse a member of the diplomatic community in such a manner? Would it not have been more in keeping with diplomacy for Government to meet with Ambassador Hardt and attempt to sort out this matter?

On January 8, 2014 Demerara Waves (in an article headlined “No negotiation of US-funded democracy project under duress-Luncheon”) reported you as saying “We ain’t negotiating under duress. We are not discussing a project and its implementation whilst it’s being implemented”. I felt some hope when I read this Dr. Luncheon because I interpreted it as meaning that Government is willing to renegotiate if US stalls LEAD implementation. Has Government made this clear to the US officials? Is there a possibility that some agreement can be reached so that Guyanese, especially those of my generation, can benefit from LEAD?

I am sure, Dr. Luncheon, you have recognized that I am not attacking our Government but rather I am exercising my democratic right to question the actions taken by them for the greater good of our nation. I do not believe that denying Guyana the LEAD project is for the greater good of our country, of our people. If we do not examine every available side, if we do not question endlessly and reassess our position on these matters then how else will we arrive at truth? How else will Guyana progress?

For our people and country

Without Wax,

Sara Bharrat.

The Abuse of Guyana – A Culture of Fear and Silence

Not so many years ago, I was an abused woman. Ever since I freed myself, Guyana has not looked the same. I think that once you’ve broken the chains of any type of oppression it sharpens your vision. So now when I look at our country I recognize a certain pattern, a pattern of psychological abuse.

I failed the first time I tried to tell someone about my suffering. Fear strangled me. I could not find the words. And so I suffered in my silence and as my suffering increased I became ashamed that I could not speak because of fear. I lived silently in fear feeling that the only way to live was to endure it alone.

When I finally found the courage to break my silence, I was asked to be quiet, to be quiet for the well being of my family. And so, once again I remained silent. This time I thought silence was my duty; duty to family, duty to protect them.

But to stay silent is a hard, hard thing. One day, you just cannot hide the horrors anymore or endure the pain to protect the people who should have been protecting you. This time I tried to tell someone who was not family and they said that I simply could not be serious.

Having been intimately acquainted with horrors, I know that there are those things which the imagination simply cannot create. There are those things so miserably vile that unless we have experienced them then there simply is no imagining the way they have been or could be.

What makes you so different from me?

The journey of my freedom began when several someones decided that they would not sit and witness my suffering. I will forever be grateful to those who lent me their voices when I could not speak for myself.

It is this same cycle, this same culture, of fear and silence which imprisons the Guyanese psyche. We have all been afraid. Many of us are still afraid. We remain silent because we believe that we are protecting our well being, our family, our children, our means to make a living, our chance at becoming something, anything, in this country we call home. We remain silent because we are convinced that no one else thinks or feels the same way.

And where does the fear come from? It comes from the sinister political machinery. It comes from the powers that be, from the powers that should be protecting us. The truth is that some of us are afraid of our Government. And the rest of us are afraid of the Opposition. We are afraid of them for different reasons. We are afraid of our leaders, our protectors. We are afraid of the powers that we have given them to wield. These are truths we all think but truths we seldom speak.

We have been victims of our political system. We have let it imprison us in a culture of fear and silence. It is not an easy thing to live in fear. What is this if not mass abuse of a nation, of our nation, of you, of our people? What gives them the right to lock us in a prison built of fear? And where are those voices which should rise to defend us?

To sit silently in fear and be victims is not what we will do, not so long as I am. Having found my voice, I will speak for you until you speak for yourself, until you break the chains of your oppression. Silence does not protect anyone. Silence steals our peace and condemns our children to the same fate or perhaps, a worse fate. Silence steals our hope.

These days I write letters and I sign them “Until Death and Without Wax”. It is a declaration that I have conquered fear and that I did it only with truth. I believe that even you can do this, why else would I write these words?