Digital Guyana

Archive for the ‘development’ Category

After finishing the course with our final workshop last Friday and saying goodbye to Chris, who had an early morning flight on Saturday, Matt and me hit the road for our longest trip away from Georgetown yet: a four day excursion to the far south of the country.

Surama eco lodge

The Rupununi – or, the much cooler sounding Region 9 – is where Guyana’s rainforests suddenly stop, replaced by vast open plain savannas. Our first destination was Surama, an Amerindian village containing around 250 inhabitants dotted among a few square miles of open savannas which are encircled by the rainforest covered Pakaraima Mountains.

We stayed at their eco lodge – you can’t really stay anywhere else. The set-up was a bit like Arrowpoint, which I blogged about in a previous post, but more community friendly and homespun. It’s run by locals and the cost of staying there covers board, guides, food – which is locally sourced – and the bumpy 20 minute motorbike ride from the Georgetown to Lethem road (which by the time you’ve reached Iwokrama rainforest, which Surama is just south of, is a wide brown heavily potholed track – guaranteed to rock you to sleep in the wee hours of a twelve hour overnight bus journey).

The setting (see above) was pretty spectacular. And on a hike up Surama Mountain and canoe trip along the nearby Burro Burro River with our guide Milner we spotted spider monkeys, macaws and toucans. Best of all, a capuchin monkey crossed the river above our boat using the forest canopy, pausing at one point as if to say hello.

After two days at Surama we then hit the savanna proper at Annai, a 45-minute bike ride south. To save cash we slung hammocks (they don’t really do camping in Guyana due to the insects) and ate our meals at the Oasis truckstop by the main road. Due to the proximity to the border it felt much more Brazilian here, even if the local Amerinidians speak English with a Caribbean twang. As two white guys who’d chosen to stay here rather than the nearby ecotourism resort Rock View we were very much the local curiosity. But it was still a fun place to hang out and snack on Brazilian food as reggae blared out of the speakers.

Unlike Surama we didn’t need a guide to climb the nearby mountain and the views of the vast savanna landscape, with vultures circling overhead, were unforgettable. Though not quite as good as those from the 12-seater plane which flew us back to Georgetown.

Waiting to board by the Annai airstrip I got chatting about tourism with a chap called Eli who runs the nearby Rewa eco lodge, which like others in the region, models itself on Surama. As I mentioned in my Arrowpoint post, tourism in Guyana is very much in its infancy, not helped by the price of internal flights, the lack of travel options to neighbouring South American countries and the tendency to peg prices to the Caribbean. But Eli said things are definitely getting better – ten years ago you simply didn’t get travellers in this part of the country. The recently completed Takutu River Bridge which links Lethem and Bonfim in Brazil should also improve things.

Whether the eco lodge tourism model can support larger numbers of tourists is another matter. It will be interesting to see what happens in years to come. In the meantime I’m just going to enjoy that slightly selfish buzz you get when you visit an amazing place you know that few other travellers have been to before.

View from the hills near Rock View, Annai

I’m back in the UK now, getting over the jetlag. Matt is in Mexico, extending his trip away a little while longer. When he returns in September we will all meet up to evaluate the project. I’m looking forward to that and I’m sure we’ll do more posts on the subject, but right now I’m having a nap…

One thing that has struck me since I arrived in Guyana is the low levels of visible poverty compared to other developing countries I’ve been to. Georgetown doesn’t have the seemingly endless slums of Nairobi, Mumbai or Johannesburg. There are no glue-sniffing street children, no smoldering piles of rubbish and no pot holes in the streets.

But Guyana is a poor country, isn’t it?

Looking up countries by GDP per capita (according to the IMF), I see that Guyana is in 126st place, behind war-torn countries such as Sudan, Sri Lanka and Iraq and just one ahead of India. Even adjusted for purchasing power parity (GDP based on what you can actually buy, as living on a dollar a day is very different in, for example, Sri Lanka and the United States), Guyana is only two places ahead of Congo and far behind countries such as Angola and Swaziland.

Something doesn’t seem right here. Is Guyana poorer than Sudan? Are income levels really a good poverty indicator?

To get a better idea, I decided to have a look at the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI). The index, which is published every year, takes into account a range of factors other than income, such as life expectancy at birth, school enrolment, literacy, access to clean water and so on.

In the most recent Human Development Index, Guyana has a higher ranking for every single other indicator than it does for GDP per capita.

In terms of Human Poverty, Guyana is in 52nd place, in terms of access to clean water 32nd place, in terms of life expectancy at birth 37nd place and in terms of school enrolment 75th place. Its got an adult litercy rate of 99.5%, which is the same as Italy and higher than Spain, Portugal and Hungary.

Compare this with Sudan who comes in 101st place in terms of Human Poverty, in 89th place on access to clean water, 144th place on life expectancy and 168th place on school enrolment. In addition, its level of adult literacy is only 39.9%.

So Guyana is clearly doing much better than countries that had a higher GDP per capita such as Sudan. But what could cause a country to have a high GDP per capita, but score badly on a range of development indicators?

A plausible explanation could be that it has a high level of inequality – a small number of people with an extremely high income and a large number of poor people with a small income. This would be the case in oil-rich Sudan which has experienced many years of devastating civil war.

To test this, I had a look at a measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient. In this, Guyana comes in 89th place, 7 places ahead of the United States and ahead of most other South American and Latin American countries.

So Guyana is doing fairly well on a range of development indicators and also has quite an equal society (well, more equal than the US, at least). But is all well?

Unfortunately not. Despite doing well, compared to some other developing countries, in areas such as literacy, school enrolment, access to clean water and life expectancy, there is a lot of poverty in the country. This is particularly true if you look at poverty as a relative measure (it’s not the same to be poor in the UK as it is to be poor in Zambia).

According to the World Bank, 47% of the population is classified as poor (having an income of less than 47,500 Guyanese dollars a month – eight times the  international poverty line of a US dollar a day) with 29% classified as ‘extremely poor’.

Most of Guyana’s poor live in rural areas, with the majority of the ‘extremely poor’ living in the interior. I guess that would be why I’ve not seen that much of it – we’ve spent most of our time in Georgetown. But  it’s also true that the 47% ofthe population living below the Guyanese poverty line of $8 a day are not as poor in absolute terms as the slum dwellers of India or East Africa living below $1 a day with no education or access to clean water.

Compared to many African countries  Guyana is far ahead. And hopefully with higher level skills projects such as the one we are doing, we can help it even further along.

Bringing web skills to Guyana

A volunteer project from CYEC (Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council)

Guyana on Flickr