Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Not liking it so

Whether it did not care to or lacked the capacity to do it, the Government has been unable to negotiate the competing demands of personality, politics and economics, resulting in the resignation on Monday of Dr Terrence Farrell from the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB).

Dr Farrell's dissatisfaction with the Government's management of the country's current economic trials was signalled long before Monday. Last November, he criticised Government's prioritising of a $400 million highway to Manzanilla ahead of infrastructural upgrade of Tobago's airport. The latter, he argued then, would have been a meaningful nod to economic diversification. Two months earlier he described foreign exchange shortages as “self-inflicted”, favouring an approach that allows market forces to exercise greater influence on the overvalued T&T dollar. An academic reliant on data to inform conclusions, Dr Farrell's advocacy for a statistical institute has also not yet borne fruit.

That he enjoyed the support of two senior ministers leading critical ministries—Planning and Development and Trade and Industry—but was still unable to generate timely support for a significant number of his board's recommendations is a loaded exit statement that implies a resistant Cabinet. Perhaps of greater note is Dr Farrell's depiction in his post-resignation public statement of a public service still drowning in bureaucracy and inefficiency, unable to respond to the urgencies of reform in these tough economic times.

Economists other than Dr Farrell have publicly tabled suggestions in line with some of those of the EDAB. Most of these suggestions involve State enterprises streamlined for efficiency, tougher measures that would begin to right the ship in the short term and greater policy coherence in critical areas such as diversification. The Government, chiefly through Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, has responded with meagre gratitude and general criticism that the bald economic realities must be balanced by acknowledgment of the harsh impact that austerity measures would have on the increasing vulnerabilities of large sections of the population. Dr Rowley's response to economic proposals cannot be easily dismissed, although it is easy to recognise that the impact of stern economic measures on the population will inevitably manifest in the political fortunes of the ruling party.

There are few respected economic minds in the Cabinet at a time when imaginative and respected economic thinking will aid the population's passage through dire times. In this regard, the EDAB is a good concept that this newspaper suspects will flounder or diminish in stature with the loss of Dr Farrell.

But ultimately Dr Farrell's departure is among the strongest signals that the best intentions of a government, the voluntary efforts of our finest minds and attempts at coherent socio-economic road-mapping will be defeated by old systems, behaviours, interests and personalities.

Above all, Dr Farrell's fate defines and illustrates the urgency of constitution reform.