A Citizens Assembly held at the Nurses Association on Saturday, February 8th attempted to provide ordinary Guyanese an opportunity to think through key issues related to oil and gas, such as who the oil belongs to and how the money it generates should be used. Additionally, should Guyana’s climate commitments be set aside in favour of oil production? While the Meeting was unanimous on two issues, namely, that all citizens have a right to a ‘citizens dividend’ and the need to cap (limit) oil production in order to protect Guyana’s climate commitment, differences emerged on most other issues. This is not surprising since ordinary Guyanese have few opportunities for structured policy discussions that influence their lives.
To help guide this Assembly, Policy Forum Guyana in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund’s programme ‘Shared Resources Joint Solutions’ invited Rahul Basu from the Goa Foundation in India to share their experience. The Goa Foundation, an environmental non-profit organization, advocates that all natural resource assets including minerals are inherited and for this reason must be passed on – intact – to the next generation. This can occur either in their original form or if sold, as assets of equal value. All receipts must go into a Fund, the interest of which belongs to the current generation and can be paid in the form of a citizens’ dividend. In contrast to this approach governments around the world treat discovery of extractive minerals and oil as something akin to winning the lottery with the obvious temptation of ill-considered spending which has produced horror stories from around the globe.
At bottom the issue is that once it is agreed in principle to allow access to the funds in exceptional circumstances, it becomes very difficult to prevent politicians from finding all kinds of other good arguments for accessing the funds. This inevitably results in the situation in which Trinidad now finds itself, having run out of oil and allowed liberal access to their Fund. Indeed, the Trinidad experience is the norm, with the likes of Norway and Botswana, isolated exceptions – countries which allowed their funds to grow to the point where they live off the dividends.
Discussion in the Assembly groups centred on the difficulty of accepting that sales of oil, gold and bauxite are strictly speaking diminishing our natural assets without replacing them either by other assets or secure investments. Treating all the money as disposable income over the past four decades has reduced the planet to a pile of filth which is close to irreversible collapse of civilization.
While participants accepted the right of future generations to inherit what our generation inherited, the idea that some of the funds could not be legitimately diverted to alleviate poverty provoked a division of opinion. Rather than how many billions Guyana is to earn from oil which dominates the headlines, the more pressing issue that emerged is how to ensure that the enormous losses (in the billions) that Guyana continues to sustain from gold and bauxite, will not be repeated with oil.
The Assembly group discussions which constitutes the bulk of the time, convinced participants that more exchanges of this nature are required. Citizens Assemblies of varying kinds are emerging in different parts of the world to enable people from all walks of life to understand complex issues impacting on them, in order to help influence political decision-makers. Similarly, the value of the visit of Rahul Basu lies primarily in providing a clear and rigorous framework of principles for policies to manage our oil, gold and all extractives assets and decisions over the point at which all of them should be capped.
Oil related discourse in Guyana is currently reactive to decisions already taken, related to contracts, local content and natural Resources Fund. Discussions will continue to be reactive until more avenues and opportunities for public discussion are created. A central mechanism for promotion of civic engagement is the proposed Public Accountability and Oversight Committee (PAOC) of the Natural Resources Act. Renewed discussion on the structure and purpose of that mechanism should become a priority, particularly for civil society organizations. The remaining weeks prior to national elections provides an opportunity for fostering a strong civic consensus on a revised structure of the PAOC, as basis of negotiation with the post-electoral government.