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Transparency is a system

Published: 
Thursday, November 16, 2017

Given the extent of our current economic perils, it should be clear that the State on its own cannot navigate these challenges and it requires all of us in T&T to collectively step up to the plate.

A big hurdle towards the meaningful participation required by the national community, as a whole, surrounds the issue of transparency, accountability and trust.

In fact, I would suggest that those three words should permanently replace our watchwords of discipline, tolerance and production. The existing watchwords are more likely to be relevant in the context of an environment that promotes transparency, accepts the need for accountability and overall engenders trust.

In August 2010, before the People’s Partnership administration presented its first national budget, I made the following comment:

“Hand in hand with a flexible economy is one that also values transparency. This issue has become a political hot potato over the past few months and for good reason. However let me caution that at every change of Government for the past twenty years there has come a promise of greater transparency which has faded over time. Let me suggest that sunlight is the best natural disinfectant so there can be no argument with transparency and bringing matters related to the public purse into the light of day however doing so consistently over time is the real challenge.”

We all know how that story ended.

A new story began in September 2015 with more or less the same promise. I submit to you now as I did back in August 2010 that:

“transparency and accountability is not a political tool to be used especially by those in opposition as they seek office. If nothing else it should be clear to all and sundry that transparency and accountability is not achieved after the fact, nor do the numerous reviews and commissions of enquiry that clutters our landscape over the past decades achieve it. Transparency and accountability comes about through institutions designed to produce such a result and unless we harness and develop such institutions we will continue to be found wanting.”

We have, as a nation, called for transparency and accountability many times. It is even more important now that we no longer have the buffers of significant oil and gas revenues.

It should be clear, therefore, that if the energy windfall is over then the politics associated with that energy windfall has to change.

If we were to change the nature of our “they did it too” politicking and stop relying on the integrity of politicians in order to achieve accountability and transparency, then we may get somewhere.

What we need is a system that results in transparency. Without such a system neither the private sector nor the general public will display the inventiveness or the desire required to get us out of our current morass.

We need to provide the institutional strengthening that the current complexities of our economy demands and worse our existing systems have been dismantled, neglected or brought into disrepute over the past decades.

I have long advocated that the best system of transparency and accountability comes from the development and use of market forces. This effectively means people acting in their own enlightened self interest using information at their disposal in order to make and take economic and financial decisions. I repeat: neither politicians nor political parties provide guarantees of accountability and transparency.

Transparent processes

During the discussions on the 2013 budget under the headline “Crisis of the Political Economy” I made the following point:

“There is no good reason why today one cannot be able to review all the funds that have been expended by the State and its Agencies and see who are the recipients of those funds. From disbursements to CEPEP contractors to GATE to road infrastructure and project financing arrangements—all should be subject to public disclosure and scrutiny. Anything less and we remain in crisis”.

In 2013 under the headline “Shared sacrifice”—and referencing specifically the construction sector—I suggested the following:

“How much of the 2013 Budget is going to be spent on construction activities designed to stimulate the economy? Is the intent only to create a few short term jobs? If we are seeking something more sustainable then there must be transparency and accountability associated with this stimulus package otherwise there will be little to show in two years time.”

Four years on, consider if there were incentives for and preference given to contractors who were publicly listed on the T&T Stock Exchange when bidding for large projects. This automatically deals with issues of proper accounting, taxes and establishes a regulatory framework to govern the activities of said companies.

All the back and forth accusations of big rigging and cartel behaviour will belong to the past as companies are bound by public disclosures and securities regulations. This would likely operate far better than any after-the-fact commission of enquiry or civil or criminal suit years after.

To go further, take the example of road paving. It is common for road paving to be undertaken around election time. It is also a well-established rumour that contractors would be expected to finance political campaigns in exchange for paving and construction contracts. We are again promised campaign finance reform but we don’t seem to recognise that the issue can’t be addressed in isolation.

The Prime Minister has suggested that we should govern with proper data. I fully agree but I will add that proper data is also necessary for accountability as well. On the topic of road paving do we know what are the standards inputs of bitumen and asphalt for road paving in this country and what is actually used?

From these disclosures one can assess how public funds are being spent and whether there is value for money.

We should be seeking to expand not limit access to information under the Freedom of Information Act. We should also allow for things like Cabinet Minutes to be publicly accessible after a period of 15 to 20 years. The idea that something can see the light of day at some point in time results in a system that lends itself to transparency and accountability. Overall depending on politicians to “buss a mark” is not a system.

The oil and gas money is over. It’s time for an era of transparency and accountability to begin.

Ian Narine can be contacted at [email protected]

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