When Irfaan Ali was finally sworn in as Guyana’s president in August 2020, he said the Guyanese people “must join together to peacefully transition our country to a pathway of economic and social development”. 

After fractious drawn-out legal battles over a disputed general election held five months earlier, his words struck a unifying tone for the country of 800,000 people.

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Yet the stakes of his message are high for another reason. Irfaan Ali is not only Guyana’s first ever Muslim head of state, but the 41-year-old is overseeing the windfall from the world’s biggest offshore oil discoveries in recent years. 

A consortium led by US oil major ExxonMobil has already confirmed reserves off the coast of Guyana equivalent to at least 10bn barrels of oil, which already put the country in third place in Latin America, behind only neighbouring Venezuela and Brazil in terms of proven oil reserves. Further discoveries in the same offshore blocks this year will add to the total.

In 2020, Guyana attracted a record $1.83bn of foreign direct investment (FDI), Unctad figures show. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 43.5% to reach $5.47bn that same year, followed by another expansion of 20.4% in 2021, according to the IMF. 

President Ali speaks to fDi about Guyana’s pandemic response, the need to rethink development financing and his plans to use the oil windfall to achieve strategic priorities in areas such as food production, infrastructure, health and education. 

Q: Could you briefly outline Guyana’s response to the pandemic?

A: When the pandemic started, there were difficulties for developing countries to get vaccines. We now have almost all the vaccines available in Guyana: Johnson & Johnson, Sputnik, Sinopharm, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Now we’re dealing with a second component of the challenge: vaccine hesitancy. 

We have been aggressive on the vaccination programme and were able to get a high percentage of the population inoculated with the first vaccine — around 52.5% in February 2022. Our objective from the beginning was to ensure we built infrastructure to deal with hospitalisation and create a balanced approach to the management of Covid-19.

We brought in financial measures to cushion the effect of all of these exogenous and endogenous factors on the population and businesses. We also invested heavily on the education side.

Q: The IMF estimates Guyana's GDP will grow by 48.7% in 2022, the highest of any country in the world. What are your economic development priorities in this expansionary environment?

A: We are working on an aggressive development framework. Oil and gas will bring much needed resources to expand the economy, strengthen traditional sectors and make us more competitive globally. We are investing in healthcare, education and other social services that will improve the living conditions of our people and our competitiveness.

We are aware that for other sectors to take off, there are some essential transformative projects that need to come first. We are investing heavily using our natural potential — building 175 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity, and investing in solar energy and a natural gas plant. The goal is to have renewable, more efficient and reliable energy, and reduce the cost of power by at least 50% by 2025.

We are also investing heavily in creating efficient transport infrastructure, and have a target of creating 50,000 new house lots for low- and middle-income families, and young professionals. In terms of food security, we are supporting farmers to increase their production, become fully self-sufficient and create the environment for Guyana to be a main food supplier in the Caribbean Community (Caricom) region. Caricom aims to reduce agri-food imports from outside the region by 25% by 2025. 

Q: What are the most attractive sectors for foreign investors in Guyana?

A: Tourism and hospitality, in which we have six new hotels that are currently under construction. Education and health services are other exciting areas — we are giving a lot of incentives to private investment in these fields.

We are also building a new city called Silica City — a sustainable and modern city that incorporates a lot of renewable energy concepts. With tremendous investment into bringing down the cost of energy, there will be huge potential in agro-processing. 

The world has little interest in developing countries, but when oil and gas are found, there is suddenly a sea of interest. 

Q: How will you balance Guyana’s extractive sectors with greater environmental safeguards?

A: Our low-carbon development strategy, natural beauty, and the value of our forests and human resources existed long before we found oil. However, very little of the global community or international media paid attention to Guyana.

The world has little interest in developing countries, but when oil and gas are found, there is suddenly a sea of interest. 

We now have the responsibility of managing this international attention towards Guyana’s holistic sustainable development agenda. The oil and gas sector is only a means for us to accomplish more strategic priorities in food production; development of human resources; transformation of the country’s infrastructure; better social services; healthcare; education; housing and sanitation. 

There is no conflict in the development of the oil and gas sector. We have to utilise the new positioning of Guyana that the sector brings to create the framework and avenues for investment in the other sectors. In terms of the environment, we’re not changing any of our policies or reducing our advocacy. We have 80% of our geographic space covered in standing forests and know the enormous role it plays in storing carbon.

Q: How will you ensure the oil and gas benefits trickle down to the Guyanese population and local businesses?

A: There’s already a clear formula on how the resources will be used, with a breakdown of how much money will go to saving, investment and the parliamentary approval system for the improvement of the country.

There is local content legislation identifying specific areas. Certain services have full capacity and will see 100% local content, such as logistics, brokerage, transportation and insurance services. Other aspects are at 20% and 50%, as we don’t have the capacity to manage them right now. Over time, that schedule will change as the country builds capacity in every aspect of managing the oil and gas sector. 

We are now working on building a national training college for oil and gas, and are investing in every area required for the management of the sector and spin-offs such as industrial development, manufacturing and the hospitality sector.

Q: How are you engaging with China for Guyana’s development?

A: We are open to every single bilateral and multilateral partner. We have very strong relationships with the UK, EU and the US. We value those relationships deeply. 

Similarly, we value our relationship with China. We have a development trajectory that requires financing. All the transformative projects — such as a new bridge across the Demerara River or the hydro power plan — went out to national, regional and international tender. Everyone had an equal opportunity to put in a proposal that comes with financing.

Developing countries require financing for the transformative agenda in building and expanding their economies. Many people look at it from the narrow perspective that Chinese financing is playing a dominant role in the region. This is not a battle of one against the other.

A lot of the international private sector investment would not have been coming to Guyana if oil and gas were not found. The developed world has to step back and take a different look at the developing world and its needs. China is not being given, as some would want to contextualise it, preferential treatment in the region.

The cost of financing is becoming more and more competitive wherever you take it from. We have to be realistic about what we want to achieve from the funding agency and country perspective. We have to find that balance that would allow a win–win situation for everyone.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Guyana is open for investment, but the outlook is far beyond oil and gas. We have tremendous opportunities in agriculture, tourism, the new Silica city, infrastructure transformation, manufacturing, industrial development and agro processing.

Irfaan Ali has served as the 10th president of Guyana since August 2020. He is the country's first Muslim head of state and is leader of the centre-left People's Progressive Party/Civic.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here