Wednesday, January 24, 2018

$10m scheme for MPs worth a second look

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Mark Fraser

 It appears far too simplistically an open-and-shut way to dismiss the proposed Constituency Development Fund as just an opportunity for corruption. Before any elaboration, let alone precise planning or implementation of the idea, however, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley has raised fears about its consequences.

The danger of misconception, leading to misdirection, mishandling and inadequate oversight and controls, remains one to which all State programmes are vulnerable. But fear that a costly mess may be made of it is hardly a sufficient reason to rule out embarking on any initiative. 

By invoking the justifiably damned and blasted LifeSport programme, Dr Rowley has cast a dark and sinister shadow over the prospects of the Constituency Development Fund. But “Not Another LifeSport!” can hardly be justifiable as a pre-emptive discrediting of a programme that is as yet little more than an idea.

Under the bare-bones scheme announced by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, each MP would annually have access to $10 million to spend on projects in his or her constituency. That, in principle, seems to commend itself as a long-awaited empowering measure for MPs, even when also Cabinet Ministers, and even when Prime Minister, to seek to address a multiplicity of needs in their constituencies.

Such needs, it is easy to say, should be addressed through the operations of central and local government authorities. Frequently, however, for familiar reasons, those authorities fall short, with results giving rise to ever more noisy and well-publicised protests.

In various surveys, constituents have also reported dissatisfaction with the performance of their representatives. MPs are regarded as helpless, do-nothing figures, lacking clout with remote bureaucracies, the latter inescapably tied up in red tape. Those MPs, whether Cabinet Ministers or opposition, are obliged to work within budgetary and administrative systems over which they can ordinarily exert little or no influence. 

Though $10 million a year represents a relatively small sum to advance developments in any constituency, it certainly should make for more and better capacity, especially when informed by on-the-ground perspectives which MPs should gain from being in touch with constituents. By being recognised as better than empty-handed lobbyists and stakeholders, MPs’ engagement with the national and local government agencies should become more constructively effective. 

With MPs subject to recall for non-performance, it seems only fair to provide them with albeit limited means for getting things done, if only relatively minor projects in their areas. Possibilities of corruption and abuse, always present, will require a programme so designed as to enable oversight, timely exposure and legitimate punitive attention.  

As described, the Constituency Development Fund programme is hardly yet a draft. It is, however worth a rigorous second look, to the end of designing it subject to needs of efficiency, transparency, and of strict oversight and audit reviews.