IT was revealed last week that Cabinet has agreed to provide $410 million in the next Budget for the operationalisation of a Constituency Development Fund which will see every Member of Parliament being allocated $10 million for the next year to provide for the needs of their constituents. It has been reported that the purpose is to empower MPs to deal with problems as they occur "on the spot" and this will go a long way to providing relief for flooding, landslips and things that occur on a daily basis (per Minister Rambachan). My question is what is the difference in terms of what the central and local government are supposed to provide?
The fact is the Ministry of Works is given a substantial allocation every year to meet with recurrent expenses and also development issues. The Ministry of Local Government has its allocation which provides for the funding of projects by the various local government bodies. What can an MP do differently or better than these ministries? There is the argument that they can deal with matters "on the spot" but what does this really mean?
It certainly cannot mean that they will hand over money without any indication beforehand what it is to be spent on. Presumably what is meant is that a person, say a flood victim, can come to the MP for assistance and the latter will go to Minister Rambachan who will okay the provision of maybe vouchers or food packages or the like. The problem with this kind of on-the-spot assistance is there is very little opportunity to verify what is told to the MP. He will have to take the person's say-so. In any event should this type of assistance not be for the Ministry of the People? It is still uncertain as to what type of assistance the Fund will provide.
Minister Rambachan on the one hand explains that "people want instant coffee-type delivery" and so the Government has to respond to satisfy the needs of the community. On the other hand the Minister says that legislation to guide the entire process will ensure accountability. His colleague Minister Prakash Ramadhar has urged that there is a need to put systems in place to protect the taxpayer's dollars. He speaks fluently of the need for transparency and accountability. My point is if there is to be a legislative process to be satisfied before the Fund can be accessed will this permit that "instant coffee-type delivery"?
It seems to be that at the end of the day the Constituency Fund will be no different from any of the other types of measures already in place to meet the needs of the public — the only difference is this will be managed/controlled by the particular MP for the area. As such, what is to prevent it becoming a partisan means of disbursing State funds?
Some years ago a scholarship fund was run by the then ministry of community and gender affairs. Many may recall that it was revealed that millions of dollars were granted to persons most of whom had connections with the then government to embark on tertiary training. It was revealed that no systems were actually in place to determine who should get the so-called "scholarships" and there was no requirement for the awardees to serve the State on completion, as is required of those persons who are awarded national scholarships. In fact all the awardees under that Ministry's fund had to prove was "need". The person/s who determined the need were unknown. It turned out that some persons who had applied for scholarships had not been granted them, although the list of recipients eventually revealed in Parliament included their names. The then minister promised that there would be an investigation into the matter and that was the last to be heard of it.
In a similar vein calls have been made as to the lack of proper accountability in the URP over the years. Reports of "ghost" gangs continued to proliferate. Many persons who had criminal convictions, who were known to be involved in criminal activity (such as the late Mark Guerra) held key positions in the programme. It was claimed that political sympathisers/supporters of the governments of the day were beneficiaries of employment in the programme. No serious checks were ever put in place in the URP, and government after government continued to pump anywhere in the region of $400 million annually into the programme.
Do we have anything to show for the years of institutionalising of the URP and other programmes like it? It is said to have been intended to provide relief for the unemployed or employment for the unemployable. What it became instead over the years was a means of payment to the "poor" for very little work done. It destroyed the work ethic and left the country poorer in many ways. Those employed in the URP never saw it as anything more than a means of easy money.
It is highly probable that the Constituency Development Fund will suffer the same fate. The usual checks will not be in operation. How can the legislature which in Parliament provides oversight for Government spending provide that oversight for spending by the legislature, the MPs?
There are no clear guidelines as to how the Fund will operate only individual statements made by ministers. I can see certain types of constituents already licking their chops, planning to access these monies from their MP to satisfy their "on the spot" or basic needs. It is also very possible that MPs will more likely entertain claims from known supporters of their party than from non-supporters.
It seems to be it is highly likely in the light of all of the above that this Constituency Fund could turn into a slush fund. One hopes that the Government reviews it after the first year.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former