Features — 14 August 2015 — by Adele Ramos
GOB and private sector tackle roadblocks to economic growth

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 13, 2015–While it is the business of both the private and the public sector to grow the Belizean economy, the two sides are often at odds in the way things are done, and one common area of schism between these two sectors is taxation.

Mike Singh, chair of the Economic Development Council, told journalists today at the conclusion of the Private-Public Sector Business Forum 2015, that while the dialogue on both sides has been very rich, there is a sharp difference of opinion on taxation, with the private sector feeling that it is overtaxed but the public sector believing that businesses are underpaying.

Mike-Singh

As a result of this dialogue, which began back in 2011, the parties have since teamed up to look at the best tax reform mechanism that can work for both sides—one that is efficient but also more conducive to business.

“Nobody wants to live in a country where the government is dictating, but nobody wants to live in a country where it’s a free for all, and I think having this partnership really helps us to strengthen this governance,” Singh told the press.

As a part of the public-private dialogue, over 150 persons met today at the Best Western Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel in Belize City for talks on “Defining the Road Toward Growth and Prosperity.”

Among them was Beth Clifford, manager of Beltway Investment Group and proprietor of Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye. Clifford, the guest speaker for the event, told Amandala that she has invested over $15 million in Belize over the last 12 years, primarily in tourism.

She said that she chose Belize to invest in because it is an emerging economy with great opportunities and great people, and she believes that the government is open to business and new opportunities. She was also encouraged by the fact that Belize is an English-speaking country, very close to the US, with great natural resource assets.

During the forum, it was revealed that Belize received $396 million dollars in foreign direct investment in 2014, and for 2015, there are applications in the pipeline for a further $218.5 million in investments under the fiscal incentives program.

Private sector representative, Kay Menzies, co-chair of the Economic Development Council, told journalists that during the panel discussions held today, the private sector shared information about new technology, but also discussed the constraints that businesses generally encounter in trying to fulfill their role in growing the economy.

Kay-Menzies

They also discussed the latest developments in the banking sector, including the impact on the private sector of the decision by Bank of America to cut off correspondent banking relations with some banks in Belize. (See more on this in a separate article appearing in this issue.)

The forum participants also discussed the shortage of employment in some areas, the cost of and access to communication, as well as access to finance. Menzies said that although one of the good things which have come out of the dialogue is better interest rates at the bank, this does not mean that everyone who wants a loan can get one, and so they are also looking at alternate financing.

We asked her whether she could point to any breakthroughs made over the years, since the dialogue began, and she noted that there have been direct interventions by Government as a result of people saying how expensive Internet access/usage is.

There are other works in progress, she said, pointing to tax reform and a mass transportation study to address the movement of cargo and people by land, sea and air.

“It’s going to take a while to get the breakthroughs we want, but at least the process has begun,” she told us.

Menzies also said that all around, Belizeans have experienced reductions in utility costs as well, but “other aspects [are] still up in the air…”

“One private sector [representative] spoke today to the fact that, while fuel prices are dropping worldwide, they are not dropping as fast here and that is an issue that has to be looked at,” Menzies recalled.

Amparo Masson, executive director of the Economic Development Council (EDC), a unit which is housed under the Office of Prime Minister Dean Barrow, said the discussions today have been candid.

Amparo-Masson

Masson noted that today’s forum was in response to a request from the private sector at the Prime Minister’s forum, for more time to dialogue on the issues.

She said that they reinforced the issues brought up last year, and going into the Prime Minister’s forum, due to be held on October 8, they will be able to crystalize what the challenges are.

At the last forum, the private sector had asked the EDC to come up with a score card to indicate the progress made on the reforms being sought – where they are and where they need to go, she explained.

According to Singh, today was a precursor for the October forum with the Prime Minister. He said that they have been spending time fleshing out the issues so that when they meet with Prime Minister Barrow in the next two months, the dialogue can be more focused and fruitful.

Singh said that they plan to introduce legislation to formalize the EDC, while expanding its reach to cover all sectors of the economy.

He said that after today’s dialogue, the EDC members will summarize the main issues raised and, if needed, reprioritize them.

Singh noted that there are more initiatives underway, including the revision of the country’s immigration policy, which goes back to the 1980s.

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