Guyana: Interview with Winston Jordan

Winston Jordan

Ministry of Finance (N/A)

Winston Jordan

After 20 consecutive years of operating under the previous regime and now that the government has recently changed, Guyana is undergoing a number of exciting transformations that will surely have a profound impact on the country’s future. The proposed changes certainly show promise for Guyana, but what do you think Guyana still needs to do in order to achieve its full potential?  

Guyana needs to look at its education system and move towards harnessing its human resources. We used to be a country known for its literacy, which hovered in the high 90´s, but over the years our education system has declined, which has led to a high rate of unemployment among our youth.

The development of our country has been very lopsided. Most of our people live on the coast and most of the development has occurred in this area, but most of our wealth resides in the hinterland and there are no links between these two locations – the coast and the hinterland. Investment tends to be high risk and it´s hard for investors to go into the far-flung areas. The investments tend to concentrate on mining, bauxite, gold, other minerals and forestry. We retain most of our forest in a pristine state, but this has been changing in recent times with large concessions granted to foreign investors. We also have a deal with Norway which manages that forest in exchange of USD 250 million over 5 years. This deal ends in 2015.
Linking the coast with the hinterland will transform our people since they will have access to activities of social and human development. It will diversify our economy, moving it away from the traditional bauxite, sugar and rice to other manufacturing services. This will put the economy on a more stable path.
To lift people out of poverty, they will need sustainable income over the long term. So these are some of the challenges we face right now.

This is the second governmental change in 50 years, how do you see this paradigm as a Guyanese citizen?

We have to mature as a society, since we have had a history of racism and it has divided our people. We are a nation of six races and only two of them are predominant. While for the most part, these races have co-existed peacefully. Conflicts have only flared from time to time – typically during elections. People tend to vote along ethnical lines, which has affected our democracy. Changing a government should be based substantially on the policies and programs that are being, or to be, implemented. This scenario has made it difficult for frequent changes of governmental. But now, with the shifting nature of the population, heavy migration, decline in the birthrate of mostly the Indian segment of the population, our society is entering into a new phase where government will be chosen on other criteria other than race.

These are exciting times. Hopefully, we can now change our government regularly, as is done in democracies. And we can renew government every five to ten years as the normal ways instead of having these long periods of governance, that breed allegations of corruption, nepotism, discrimination and so on.

We see the 50th year of Independence as a milestone. In the last 50 years, big countries like Malaysia and Singapore, have blossomed. This is reflected in the huge growth in their per capita incomes. We are still languishing at the bottom of the table in our social, human and economic development indicators. This is due to the governance framework that we have had over nearly 50 years of our existence as an independent nation. But, again, these are exciting times, and we have promised sweeping changes to the constitution.

A current thought is that a country’s insecurity could hinder otherwise ensured foreign investments. Now that the Alliance for Change governs Guyana, and A Partnership for National Unity is still playing an important role, what do you believe could be done to make Guyana’s policies and market more attractive to foreign investors?

A stable government is one of the elements investors seek in a country and we need to entrench democracy and transparency in our governance. Also, we need to review our investment laws and codes, since investors don’t want to come to a place where the rules of the game are not predictable, transparent and well-known.
We need to address other challenges like infrastructure and social and human development if we are to attract investments in other areas and locations of the country. We want to avoid lopsided development like the development that we have had until now.

Since the economy of Guyana is growing so quickly, one of the country’s main goals is to position itself as the gateway to South America and the Caribbean. As Minister of Finance, what policies are you implementing in order to strengthen Guyana’s relationship with other countries in the region?

We are part of the CARICOM and have economic trading agreements with the member countries that need to be utilized. We have good relations with Suriname and Brazil. With respect to Brazil, we already have a bridge that links the border towns of our two countries.  We want to build a road from Georgetown to Lethem as it would significantly increase trade. It would allow us to bring our goods into the continent and Brazil would have an entry into the Atlantic.

We have some difficulties with Venezuela regarding a controversy that has developed over the land and sea border.  We have had good relations in terms of trade but in the last few months, this relation has declined and has made us diversify into new markets to avoid being affected economically.

We are also developing links with other South American countries by being members of groups such as MERCOSUR and UNASUR. They provide the diplomatic opening for us to establish bilateral relations that can lead to new economic, trade and investment opportunities.

The date for the national budget presentation to the national assembly is around the end of August 2015. What do you expect from this process? Which is your strategy in order to make the country’s economy continuing grow strongly?

Normally, the budget approval process doesn’t go beyond April 30th.  However, since the elections were in May, the 2015 budget will have to be laid in the Parliament by September 10th.  

The first strategy is to harness our domestic resources as to grow our economy. We will need to put in place policies to facilitate greater private sector involvement in the economy. This includes building a strong, yet not big government, in order for enough resources to be available for the private sector to invest. For foreign investors to come, we need to make ourselves attractive; that’s why we are improving our tax laws, among other initiatives.

How are you going to distribute this budget?

The distribution of resources will be consistent with Vision 2020, which is based on how we see our country in the next five years, which would be the end of our present term in government.

A substantial portion of the budget will be dedicated to social sector spending, particularly health, education, housing, water and sanitation. We aim to lift people out of poverty so they can enjoy a good life.

Again, we are looking to create a link into the hinterland, so another part of the budget will be destined for development of infrastructure such as road, water, and air links. For us not to be dependent on the traditional economic areas, we will allocate a part of our budget towards diversification of our economy, develop the manufacturing, service and agricultural sectors that can absorb a lot of the unemployment that we have at the moment.

The oil for rice barter under Petro Caribe bill – what measures are you taking to confront this situation?

This is a very delicate situation and there are two measures we can take. The first measure is diplomatic, that is by trying to defuse the situation so that the trade links can continue. The second measure is to seek new markets and diversify our market in a way that means it will be less dependant on our neighbours. We are searching for alternative markets in Asia, Africa, and Brazil. We need to improve our infrastructure and logistics to be able to develop the trade with South America and other locations.

As the current Minister of Finance in Guyana and after having an extensive experience in some banks such as GAIBANK or the World Bank Group, which companies would you consider to be true “economic developers” in Guyana due to their outstanding economic growth?

Each company contributes in one way or another; we cannot single out one company. Small business associations are making huge contributions since they are diversifying, adding value to their products and employing people. Companies in Guyana are much diversified in terms of production and some are more traditional, others are innovative and libertarian but we should let all ideas contend.

The advances Guyana has made over the years are, no doubt, a manifestation of the hard work and dedication policy-makers have invested into the country. In terms of Finance, what policy would you propose that hasn’t been implemented yet?

There are several policies at the banking level to promote investment in real and tangible assets. Our banks adopt a conservative stance when lending for investment; they depend on the presentation of assets such as land and buildings as collateral to lend money. This practice eliminates a large number of people who make a have a sound business plan but no property to back their loans.  We want to develop our capital market and have successful entrepreneurs. We are pushing to have credit information available as a basis for lending.  We are also moving to enhance the use of credit card, create venture capital institutions, and modernize our banking system. We need a macro economic framework which provides economic stability and permits resources to move into productive ventures that will create employment.   

Much of your higher-level education has been conducted in the UK and USA; Economics at University of Warwick, Penn State University and last but not least, Harvard University. What, from your studies abroad, can you apply to your current position as Minister of Finance?

I can apply both the academic experience and the accumulated work experience in various sectors. This has led me to understand the economy conceptually and adopt a visionary framework for its growth and development. I can use my experience in management, in planning, and my international experience to engage and attract investments.

“I believe leadership can make an impact in people´s lives and if my being here can make a difference in how we manage our resources and put them to work for the betterment of our people, and if we can lift people out of poverty at least 1%, I would have been successful.”

You have been granted the Humphrey fellowship among others honors. From all your experience Mr. Jordan, what are you most proud of?

I have never paid for education since my hard work has allowed me to compete successfully in these arenas. I am proud that I have been able to apply my academic achievements into my broad public service experience. I believe leadership can make an impact in people´s lives and if my being here can make a difference in how we manage our resources and put them to work for the betterment of our people, and if we can lift people out of poverty at least 1%, I would have been successful. My passion is to assist in the eradication of poverty and to continuously question how we can do things better. I enjoin others to have a similar approach on how they see things.

Which advice would you give to someone who intends to invest in Guyana and wants to be successful?

Even though profit is a motivation, the country has a level of attractiveness that makes the investment more worthwhile. We speak English, we are close to a huge neighbor, and we have a pristine forest. We offer a lot of tourism attractions that lend themselves easily to the promotion of eco-tourism. We are truly the El Dorado of South America – an undiscovered paradise.