Dear Minister Larry Howai, it was a
darling of a budget. I have always maintained that a truly civilised
society is based on how you treat the most vulnerable amongst us.
Naturally I thought it a sweetheart of a budget. It was the biggest
ever—$64.6 billion solid and liquid dollars to be sliced up among just
1.3 million of us.
No oil-rich society can dispute your
handouts and largesse to the people who need it the most. Flawless:
extra funds for senior citizens, the tax amnesty, the personal
allowances for people aged 60 and over, the NIS umbrella for those
earning $3,000 and less, the raising of the disability grant, raising
the minimum wage (from $12.50 to $15 an hour), the $1 million grant to
the estate of soldiers killed in the line of duty, raising the public
assistance grant, keeping the Gate programme safe so thousands of our
young people can continue or start university degrees free of charge.
But after the flush of exuberance wore
off, I looked at your budget more closely, with greater unease. I became
unsure about the $500 monthly allocation for babies born to
underprivileged families, wondering if some foolish girls will decide to
have children just because of that.
Also the $410 million constituency
development fund troubles me. Is it about handouts? Will it create
gangs? How will this be managed? With what transparency? I don’t want to
be a killjoy, but Mr Minister, what happens to the massive fixed costs
to which you have committed, when oil and gas prices drop or fluctuate
What happens when the oil runs out in 20
years? I am not being alarmist. What happens to all the people who are
now fourth- and fifth-generation beneficiaries of the makework programme
when the money dries up?
I want you to think about how the
allocation of money shapes a national psyche. People “look forward’ to a
budget like a Christmas treat hamper, and not a tool or fishing line to
help ourselves. For instance, if there were cash incentives for people
who train in the tourism industry, or for Cepep workers who get a
full-time job or work towards self-employment, or for mothers whose
children get five CXCs, then I would say we are changing the way our
people think. We are teaching our people to be self-sufficient, to be
service-oriented, to be prepared for a time when the oil wells run dry.
Enough of that, Mr Minister; there is
something else. It’s the elephant in the room, Mr Howai. We have dropped
by a dramatic ten places in Transparency International’s Corruption
Perceptions Index. Our global corruption perception is rising.
I agree that the Government has a
weighty job to do, to account for such a large sum of public funds, and
that it is tiresome if you want to get anything done, to go through it.
Procurement simply means standard rules
to buying. The reason our people get nervous when we get past the
glitter of giveaways in a budget of billions is: we start wondering
about accountability. The Central Tenders Board (CTB), we all know, is
required by law to follow certain procedures in the awarding of
contracts. Its purpose is to maintain total transparency.
The PNM was practically thrown out for
disregarding this and circumvented the tiresome rules and regulations of
the CTB “in the interest of efficiency” through bodies like Udecott. We
all know what happened there. It was set up expressly for not going
through the CTB.
Sadly, the current Government is
reportedly carrying on this policy, with parallel “service” bodies
within each ministry that hand out construction projects, housing
projects, education projects. These “service” entities are not subject
to standard rules set up by the CTB. There is no process, no procedure,
no transparency in how they are handed out. There is no way to prove who
got what and under what criteria.
Although the Government’s intentions are
good, they remain opaque, lack transparency, and are not open to
The blogger Afra Raymond has been
working as head of the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) calling for the
immediate passage of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public
Property Bill. This JCC, as you know, is made up of (a) the Contractors
Association (b) the Institute of Architects (c) the Institute of
Surveyors (d) the Board of Architecture (e) the T&T Society of Planners.
Do you think you could inveigle your Cabinet to look at this, Mr
The JCC has been in the forefront of the
call for a change in policy in public procurement for contracts in
construction-related matters. But how to stem the tide? Raymond is
convinced that passing the long overdue bill “would play an important
part in greatly reducing the scope for waste and theft of public money”.
Yes, Mr Minister, a darling of a budget;
until I decided to dig deeper.
It was the usual missed opportunity to
allow us to leave poverty, lack of transparency and dependency behind,
to become First World.