The Barrow administration, taking a lead from the Lord Mayor of Belize City, has embarked on a much needed infrastructure development program. This has to be greeted as good news.
Forward looking, targeted and sustainable infrastructural investments are a must if Belize is to become truly competitive. Infrastructure is both transformational and trans-generational; therefore when you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure, you must ensure two things: Firstly, that the infrastructure meets the needs of the country for the next three to five decades, and secondly, that you get value for money.
Notwithstanding modern construction techniques, the Barrow Administration decided to go the labour intensive route in the execution of the aforementioned infrastructure program. This was a political decision, not an economic one! In going the labour intensive route, the Barrow Administration sacrificed value for money but helped to ease the crushing poverty brought on by damning levels of unemployment. Some argue that this is a good tradeoff and that, if done right, this model can help stimulate long-term economic growth.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) seems to concur with this view and it is currently supporting the government of Sudan in a project called the “Creation of job opportunities for youth in Sudan through labour intensive work opportunities”. According to the UNDP the project will create “rapid employment opportunities for the unemployed, unskilled and semi-skilled youths.” This suggests to me that the labour-intensive approach to infrastructural development might be a tool in the employ of the international development agencies. The logical question that follows is, why?!
Back to Belize. The main challenge for the Barrow administration in the execution of this program has to be the issue of its sustainability. Already in Belize City, people are beginning to ask what’s next. Clearly the government of Belize cannot continue with such a program ad infinitum.
To address the issue of sustainability the government of Belize should encourage the workers to form their own small construction companies, and thereafter provide them with the necessary support, i.e. the preparation of the company documents and the funding of the registration of the companies. Through the Belize Institute of Management (or similar institutions), provide training in business management, proposal writing and financial management related to the construction industry. And finally, through the ITVET, provide practical training in modern construction techniques.
Those who successfully complete the program would then be eligible to enter the small construction market. The government should, as a matter of policy, require that at least 10% of all infrastructure works must go to such small construction companies, in order to ensure their long-term development. These small construction companies would compete amongst each other for the 10% of construction works allocated to that market.
By my estimation, the annual value of this market could easily be in the region of $5 million. In addition, the home construction market is significant, and those who commit themselves to their own personal development may be able to access the home construction market as well.
In moving such an idea forward, the government’s risk management strategy must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that the small construction market is not infiltrated by political scoundrels, through front companies. Safeguards must also be provided against criminal gangs forming such companies and thus entering the legitimate market. Such a move can have serious implications for Belize’s anti-money laundering efforts.
It must be obvious by now that the current labour-intensive model for infrastructure development provides much needed relief to unemployed and unskilled Belizeans, but that it is unsustainable. If we are serious about lifting our people out of poverty we must put in place the kinds of programs that will empower them and wean them off “official dependency”. Through the ongoing infrastructure projects we have been handing fishes to the unemployed; isn’t it about time we teach them how to fish?
To those workers who might be intimidated by the ideas that I have set forth above, let me say this: A small man, with a small mind, will remain small. Serious thing!
Major Lloyd Jones (R)