Budget 2019 again neglected the rice industry and rice farmers. The A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) is clueless and heartless. There are no provisions for better access roads and better paddy prices, no indication that increased taxes, lease and drainage and irrigation fess will be reversed, but the Finance Minister dreamed of rice farmers using drones to seed their paddy fields. In fact, Minister Winston Jordan who cannot promise rice farmers better access dams, insists Region Five (Mahaica-Berbice) farmers are already using drones. I cannot find any of those farmers.In spite of their hostility to the truth, even the APNU/AFC no longer deny Guyana’s economy has been spiralling downwards, faster than any other economy in the Caribbean Community (Caricom). Every sector has contracted in the period since 2015. In this gloomy milieu, the rice industry has been one bright spot for APNU/AFC. Rice farmers, in spite of many challenges and a tone-deaf Government, have succeeded in maintaining record production reached in 2014. A sensible Government would have ensured maximum support for the one industry most responsible for Guyana still reporting a positive Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. Instead, by its policies and by its actions, the APNU/AFC has done everything to stifle the growth of the rice industry, and, therefore, creating hardships for the economy as a whole.In 2014, production had reached 637,000 tons of rice (more than 1,000,000 tons of paddy). The target for 2015 was 700,000 tons and for 2020, 1,000,000 tons of rice. While the 2018 production is still not complete, we know that Guyana will fall short by a significant amount from reaching 700,000 tons of rice. After the first crop in 2015 reached more than 398,000 tons of rice, expectation was high for the 700,000 tons milestone. But APNU/AFC immediately made poor decisions which led to a drop in the second crop production. Guyana fell below 300,000 tons for that crop, failing to reach the annual target of 700,000 tons in 2015. Guyana failed again in 2016 and 2017 also.The reasons for Guyana not being able to build on the sound 2014 rice platform are several. The loss of the Venezuelan export market – which accounted for between 200,000 to 250,000 tons of rice – is one of the major reasons why the upward trajectory for production stalled. That market not only accounted for a large amount of the national production, but paid a price that provided farmers with a descent profit margin. The farmers, therefore, looked to cultivate every inch of available land. The loss of the Venezuelan market could not be compensated for by the Mexican market, which is purely a paddy market and which pays price per ton of paddy on the low end.There were other equally significant reasons. The APNU/AFC took a hands-off approach, claiming that the rice industry is a Private Sector business and Government has no role to play in pay disputes between farmers and millers. Farmers have been forced to take low prices for their paddy, in spite of the APNU/AFC’s pre-2015 election promise guaranteeing farmers $9000 per bag. Adding salt to the wound, farmers have been forced to wait an unreasonably long period for their payments. The APNU/AFC abandoned the practice of Central Government intervening with bridge payment to the farmers. Making matters worse, rice farmers have been forced to pay significant increases in lease and drainage and irrigation fees, while dealing with increased paddy bug and other problems without any meaningful assistance from Government. During this crop, farmers in Region Two had to abandon and burn more than 1000 areas of pest-infested rice fields. During poor weather conditions, such as flooding and prolonged dry spells, the Government has been essentially missing in action (MIA). Rice farmers have repeatedly cried out for relief from the deplorable conditions of many access dams. On top of all of this, vital support such as duty-free fuel and equipment have been removed.The APNU/AFC has struggled to maintain the growth of Guyana’s economy which before 2015 had grown for nine successive years at an average GDP growth rate of about five per cent. Guyana’s growth rate for the decade before 2015 ranked as Caricom’s economy with the best overall growth. The APNU/AFC squandered the opportunity to further elevate Guyana’s economy. The growth of the previous decade had seen Guyana moving from a Least/Low Developing Country (LDC) and a Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) to a Middle Income Country, according to the categorisation of the World Bank. Instead, under APNU/AFC, since 2016, the economy has stagnated with little to no growth, other than that pushed by rice. Yet, APNU/AFC’s Budget 2019 has heartlessly neglected rice, again.
According to the United Nations, investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. Women make enormous contributions to economies, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs, or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home. But, according to the UN, women also remain disproportionately affected by poverty, discrimination and exploitation. Gender discrimination means women often end up in insecure, low-wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions. It curtails access to economic assets such as land and loans. It also limits participation in shaping economic and social policies.Here in Guyana, there has always been much talk by policy makers and political parties about creating opportunities for women’s empowerment. There have indeed been some steps taken to ensure that women are better off, but by and large, most would agree that there is still a far way to go— both in terms of policy-making and actual implementation of programmes to ensure that women have full access to resources and opportunities that would enable them to develop themselves. For example, our single-parent mothers have over the years found it very difficult to make ends meet. Many of them have found themselves in a position where they work from month to month and there seems to be no end to the financial hardships they experience. In some cases, they lack the necessary skills and qualifications required to get suitable, well-paid jobs so that they can earn enough to provide for themselves and their children.For some who would like to venture out into establishing their own small business, etc, the strict criteria set by banks and other lending institutions makes it difficult to access the necessary loans. There are a few institutions which give grants and other forms of support, but they are on a limited scale and most of them are Georgetown-based, making it a bit difficult for rural women to have easy access.The previous administration had recognised that single-parent women are a vulnerable group and had created several mechanisms for them to be lifted out of poverty and elevate themselves so that they would be better off. For example, the then PPP Government had collaborated with the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI) to introduce the Women of Worth (WOW) project. Under this programme, single-parent women could have access to as much as $250,000 to start up a business or expand an already established business. This facility was of tremendous help to women as they were able to establish their own small business and, hence, some of them were able to improve their financial situations. In addition, they were able to build their self-esteem and learn new business skills.The WOW programme was in addition to other initiatives which were implemented towards improving the living conditions of women across the country. For example, in 2008, a national exercise was carried out in order to finalise a Single Parent Register, which the authorities had used to provide financial and other forms of support to single parents, most of them being women. Hundreds of single parents were registered and benefitted from different forms of assistance— including technical and vocational training.There is need for more similar programmes to be replicated in communities across Guyana. Such initiatives cannot be one-off, they must be year-round and carried out with the support of the private sector and other community and civil society groups.Regarding the upcoming elections, voters – especially females— should closely examine the policies and programmes of the various political parties to see which one of them offers the most attractive ‘package’ in terms of women’s economic empowerment; meaning better paid jobs, better access to and control over resources, and greater security, including protection from domestic and other forms of violence.Many international commitments support women’s economic empowerment, including the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and a series of International Labour Organisation conventions on gender equality. Whichever government is in power, therefore, has an obligation to ensure that policies are designed and implemented geared towards ensuring the economic and social advancement of women all across Guyana.