Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Go into the garden, darling. Mummy wants to clean your room.

Mummy wants to check what "little Johnnie" has been hiding under his bed; or see what "sweet Caroline" has tucked into her clothes drawers; or, if "bright Bobby" is lucky enough to have his own computer, where he might have been surfing or to whom he has been sending messages. Cleaning house? Yes, but she wants to assure herself that her household is as good as she thinks it is.

One aspect of democracy that I like is that by having changes of government the level of transpareny should rise. How so? When I worked in the financial sector in London, I was always fascinated by the requirement to take at least two weeks holiday every year. Thanks, I thought. My employer really cares for my welfare. Not so. The reason was that research over the years had shown that an absence of that length would usually expose any "unusual" activities, though if there was collusion between employees in the same institution this could still remain under covers. With that in mind, I remain skeptical about what really went on at Societe Generale that allowed a "rogue" trader to generate positions to create a Euro 5 billion loss for the bank.

A similar principle can apply to governments. In most democratic countries, the flavour of the government does not change the permanent civil service much. Governments have their programs and the public servants charged with implementing them can usually rest assured that as the winds change they do not have to be blown in or out of work; they may not like where the winds blow them but they "grin and bear it". However, changes of government allow for a thorough review of what the previous administration did. These reviews often show "misuse of public money".

Usually most government business is well documented so if there are underhand deeds they will usually be found eventually. Some ministers and public servants guard against that to a degree with "private files" but they can usually be scrutinized too, either through internal auditing (like with a Public Accounts Committee). Documentation is often more extensive in the electronic age, where many records are kept on computers. E-mails, for example, can provide a wealth of incriminiting evidence because they usually remain archived even though the sender/receiver has erased them. As I often say to people, if what you put in an e-mail message should not see the light of day, don't put it in the message. Make you sweat more than when you wukkin up?

We have seen that Jamaica's new government has found many issues not to its and the public's liking: the "Cuban light bulb scandal" (and alleged corruption of a former junior minister), and the "Trafigura affair" (where bribery allegations are coming to the surface again with Dutch investigations into the transfer of J$ 31 million from Trafigura to an account controlled by the People's National Party's then general secretary, Colin Campbell, see report), to cite just two.

So, the new Democratic Labour Party adminstration in Barbados is going about its review business and finding things done by the preceding Barbados Labour Party (BLP) administration that it does not like. It appears to be a quest to unearth "waste of public money" or ways in which public money could be used better to serve the needs of the people.

So far the review has shown a dislike for the state of affairs at St. Joseph's Hospital, which had been left idle and is now delapidated (see report and picture). [The hospital seems to have been a political football. It was once run by a Roman Catholic order, was opened in 1966 and closed in 1986, after it became unprofitable. The Democratic Labour Party (DLP) government bought it, refurbished it and reopened it, but in 1995 the Barbados Labour Party administration closed it, charging financial wrongdoing had occurred under the DLP's stewardship.]

A list of "consultants" employed by the BLP government and their salaries [which combined to more than B$ 1/2 million annually] was recently published, and many of these consultants have recently been dismissed. The new PM has noted that he is not on any witch hunt. The former PM has indicated that he is on the warpath over this development, saying that he sees the firing of most (highly-paid) consultants as a "reign of terror". (Some of this "sabre rattling" strikes me as a little odd because it appears that the former PM felt some kind of obligation to "help people out"--a noble sentiment--but was doing so with public rather than private funds.)We economists prefergovernment "subsidies" to be visible (these were not) and well-targeted (hmm?). Political commentator Peter Wickham wrote today [electronic version of article not yet available] that any embarrassment caused by this set of firings and "loss of livelihood" for the consultants is the fault of the former PM for not having indicated sooner who the people were and what they were doing. I tend to agree. Use of public money should be publicly known, except in those rare cases that truly involve national security, and should be properly justified.

Capital expenditure is being reviewed, particularly the project concerning the "ABC Highway". Just yesterday, the DLP govenment said it would not put more money into the controversial Greenland Landfill Project, on which B$ 50 million had already been spent, thus saving a reported B$45 million (see picture). The PM has also promised an "urgent" audit into Hardwood Housing Factory Inc. and its substantial funding by the Enterprise Growth Fund Ltd., which now needs capital to continue financing small businesses (see report).

Further north in the region, the Bahamian Prime Minister, Hubert Ingraham, was reported in The Tribune on February 28 to have said the equivalent of "enough to hiding spending" (see report):

"Fundamental decisions must be made about loss-making public sector enterprises such as Bahamasair, Water and Sewerage Corporation and the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas. At least 20 per cent of the monies borrowed by the Bahamas government under the disguise of capital expenditure will continue to be transferred and pumped into these entities to pay operational expenses, such as salaries, office supplies and gasoline, diesel and whatever other recurrent expenses...And then we burden the taxpayers of the Bahamas for 20-30 years to pay that money back. In respect of these items that can't be seen, can't be felt, anything....Just consumed, it disappears. Generations after generations have to pay it back. Fundamental decisions have to be made..."

He reportedly added that the government will be changing the system to budget up-front the exact money that will be allocated for the year, and the entities will have to make do. This is a bold admission and if he is serious it will mark another good page for transparency.

None of this is to say that the moves by the new governments are not politically motivated, or will stop them doing things which we and their successors will later find hard to justify or understand. But "stuff comes out". There are lessons for the electorate and for politicians in these processes.

America has a citizens' watchdog group (Citizens Against Government Waste), who have an annual Pork Barrel Report. It is fascinating reading. There is a trend towards this sort of pressure group reporting to keep government on the straight track. I wonder if in the Caribbean we are ready for that.


Carson C. Cadogan said...

Very good article.

Interested reader said...

I like your musings.