A new book critically exposes the destruction of Burnham’s “cooperative socialism”

Dear Editor,
Economic policy preferences and political power are inextricably linked. Post-World War 2 leaders of newly-independent states are hard-pressed to strike a balance between the two to ensure the viability of the state. In the case of Guyana, the economic and political impact of the Forbes Burnham/PNC control of Guyanese society since independence remains an area that has generally been understudied by scholars.
A new study undertaken by Dr Ramesh Gampat, and appropriately titled Guyana’s Great Economic Downswing, 1977-1990, takes readers deep into the Forbes Burnham/PNC years, and critically examines Burnham’s bold attempt to mould a new Guyanese society with the imposition of an economic model consistent with his socialist ideology.
Dr Ramesh Gampat, a Guyana-born economist who worked for three decades with the United Nations Development Programme, has lived through the era in question. This important study falls within his “primary domain of training and expertise”. His ability to present a reader-friendly data-driven study on Guyana’s economic development exposes the PNC government’s failure on two levels during a crucial period during the young nation’s development: the need to establish a functioning democracy following independence, and the experiment to transform the capitalist-oriented Guyanese economy into a socialist one.
This research creates an opportunity to compare the characteristics of the Guyanese economy before, during and after the consolidation of the PNC dictatorship. Readers are compelled to note that the data provided as supporting evidence for claims made by the author is quite convincing, revealing and reliable.
More specifically, Dr Gampat’s study focuses on Guyana’s political and economic development from 1977 to 1990, a 14-year period which saw the two major transformative developments in Guyana, the construction of a political dictatorship and the experiment in Cooperative Socialist economic development that was designed to “make the small man a real man”. The construction of the political dictatorship was facilitated by “party paramountcy” under Forbes Burnham and his ruling People’s National Congress.
The other key aspect of the downswing was a bold move to nationalise and control the economy under the guise of “cooperative socialism”. Both plans were designed to expand the role of the state and its institutions.
The effect was that both of these transformations, occurring almost simultaneously, led to the strengthening of a political dictatorship and economic disaster for Guyana. It is this “dark” period in Guyana’s development that has led to what Dr Gampat appropriately terms “The Great Economic Downswing,” a 14-year period during which the economy got smaller by 2.7 percent annually.
The strength of the book lies in its marshalling of reliable data to produce a comparative analysis that convincingly supports a central theme, namely that Burnham’s economic experiment was a colossal failure, especially when measured against economic indicators before 1977 and after 1990. This downswing is synonymous with the slide into dictatorship, decline of state functions, and the inability of the state to deliver necessary resources to its population.
Alternatively, when these factors are used as measurements before and after the downswing, the author notes that Guyana’s economy shows economic growth. During these years, Guyana witnessed out migration, a brain drain, and growing corruption. One glaring fact tells the picture clearly: “Poverty rose from 30 percent of the population in 1971 to 86 percent in 1989. For the 14 years preceding, during and after the Great Downswing, the gain in life expectancy at birth was 1.4 years, 1 year and 3 years respectively”. Guyana was on its way to becoming a failed state, competing with Haiti to be recognized as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The 14 years that represent the Great Downswing to which Dr Gampat referred were identified by a number of specific discernible characteristics of the Guyanese political economy. They include:
• Government ownership and control of about 80 percent of the economy by the early 1980s, leading to an over-sized public sector, with the cooperative sector as the third plank of a tri-sectoral economy
• An annual mean contraction of the economy by 2.7 percent throughout the Great Downswing
• Massive build-up of Government deficit, which averaged 44.2 percent of GDP
• Extraordinary deterioration of the physical infrastructure, including roads, drainage and irrigation canals, sea defence, school and health facilities, leading to inefficient use of prime agricultural lands
• Steep decline in educational achievement and health care
• African-dominated institutions, denial of free and fair elections, and entrenched racism
Aside from the destruction of the economy, Burnham’s cooperative socialism had reduced the “size” of the small man, whose life span became shorter and body-mass index (BMI) smaller via sheer malnutrition and the sheer psychological stress of insecurity and impoverishment.
Dr Gampat’s study can serve as a lesson to Guyanese leaders about what type of policies are bound to produce negative growth or unwanted economic decline. The conclusions of the study are even more revealing. The author identifies a number of important lessons that can be learnt since independence, particularly from the Great Downswing. They include, among others:
• Economic growth is not the solution to the country’s long-standing and bitter ethnic problem. In Guyana, growth averaged 3.4 percent since 1991, but ethnic conflict still continues to increase
• Corruption is inextricably linked to ethnic conflict (tribalism) and political power
• Discrimination, marginalisation and victimisation of Indians were hallmarks of the failed PNC experiment, and ethnic conflict is still a factor in Guyanese politics today.
Written with great clarity and supporting evidence, without the usual economic models that often confuse the layman, this book provides a clear understanding of an understudied period in Guyana’s history, particularly the failed experiment to introduce cooperative socialism under the Burnham dictatorship.
Dictatorship is definitely not a solution to Guyana’s ethnic problem and its economic underdevelopment.

Baytoram Ramharack