The recent discussions between members of the current Belize City Council are interesting from a political point of view with municipal elections in the near future. But of even more importance I believe, is that it starts a conversation about how we support the most vulnerable people in our society – a system of support called social protection.
Social protection is commonly understood as “all public and private initiatives that provide income or consumption transfers to the poor, protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalised; with the overall objective of reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups”.
The social protection system in Belize is still in its infancy, but has seen recent expansion in terms of the number of programs offered (BOOST and Food Pantry are both less than 7 years old) and the number of people covered (both programs now reach a combined total of over 6,500 households). This is good news but there is still much work to be done.
And one area that really needs focus is housing. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development has very little to offer families, and so the prospect of a city council offering any relief is at the very least welcome – if it happens! In fact there is already a scheme in place to offer reduced property tax payments – if you are a senior citizen you can receive a 25% discount, and if you pay before a certain period you can save up to 20% (Orange Walk ranges from 5 to 20%).
The latter is really not a social protection program since it does not help the vulnerable population – in fact it has the opposite effect as those least vulnerable are most likely to take advantage of these offers. But it shows that there is certainly scope for a discount scheme. The argument about whether the most vulnerable would ever be able to pay is also interesting, and it would be informative if the council would release outstanding property tax figures by valuation amount – this would show if arrears are due to people who can’t pay not paying, or those who can pay but are simply not paying. It would also show the extent of the problem – both in terms of families affected and the amount of revenue lost from the city’s coffers.
Finally, recent evaluations of social protection programs show more often than not, that giving poor and vulnerable households cash produces the biggest and best results. This is the design behind BOOST, albeit with co-responsibilities on both sides (e.g. Ministry of Education provides enough schools and places, and parent ensure their children attend). BOOST has shown promising results even this early in its implementation (two independent evaluations of BOOST provide evidence of this) and confirms this approach of trusting families to “du di rait ting”. So a property tax discount (even up to 100%) whilst not giving families money, would ensure they can spend their little money on more important areas, such as food, current, education, etc. – whatever is most important to them at that time.
Examples already exist in our service areas such as electricity (the social customer category), the non-contributory pension and the NHI (targeted by vulnerable areas rather than households).
So I’m very happy this discussion has begun, and hope that such a program starts very soon, and that this is just the start – and that a progressive housing program starts soon, providing much needed assistance to the large percentage of the population who need it.