Last week, 7News reported that the Minister of Human Development, Families and Indigenous People’s Affairs, Hon. Dolores Balderamos Garcia, said that the government looks forward to the day when it won’t have to give out any grocery bags, which is a great objective, because that means no Belizean would be poor. She said the government would like to help more people, but at this time it can only help those who need it most, “the poorest of the poor,” and that the government is committed to continuing the program until the end of March.
Balderamos Garcia did not say the food assistance program would end in March, and we are as certain as we are about the sun coming up tomorrow that it won’t, but her words are a definite call for Belizeans on the program to make a greater effort to fend for themselves.
It’s no news that the present government, run by the People’s United Party (PUP), is strapped for cash. The previous administration, of the United Democratic Party (UDP), borrowed heavily to provide for “the poorest of the poor” through their “Boost” and “Pantry” programs, and gave monthly stipends to Belizeans who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic. When the PUP took over on November 11, they found the Treasury bare.
On coming to office, Hon. Balderamos Garcia’s ministry expanded the food assistance program in rural communities and weeded out persons who she said were not deserving, persons she said were on the program solely because they were affiliates of the UDP. The new government has merged the food assistance programs, and if our reports are right, needy families are not receiving as much food in their basket as they did before.
The UDP government borrowed heavily to run the food assistance programs, but did very little to prepare us for a prolonged pandemic. The UDP government made low-interest loans available for people in the tourism industry, but gave no assistance/did not get directly involved in helping Belizeans on the margins to feed themselves or learn new skills so that they were less dependent on the government for their survival.
When the PUP came into office, they found a listing ship with many holes, and in their first seventy-five days they have not been able to get us sailing again. To their credit, the PUP have put together an economic team to help chart the way forward, they have fought to find markets for Belizean producers whose goods were stagnating during the last administration, and they have begun the process of finding land for Belizeans who don’t have any, but they seem as dry on initiatives to help desperate Belizeans address their immediate needs as their predecessors were.
There’s been an economic crisis in Belize for decades, and the pandemic has made things a lot worse. The clear message we draw from Hon. Dolores’s words, and from how she has handled the food assistance program, is that those of us who are dependent on government assistance have to tighten our belts even more, because she doesn’t know how much longer so many of us can rely on the government’s food program.
Our school system has prepared our people to be waiters and tour guides, to work in an industry which both parties that have controlled government agree is where we have our greatest competitive advantage. Belize does have abundant flora and fauna, Mayan temples and the second largest reef system in the world, but these sights and experiences are not putting food on tables in Belize today.
Minister Balderamos Garcia’s counsel is sound, necessary; we do have to try harder to fend for ourselves. However, the new government cannot stand by like the previous one did. The new government must be directly involved; it must give direct support to our marginalized masses. Our people need their government to unleash its arsenal of technical skills and whatever financial resources it can find.
Our government can’t tell displaced Belizeans to earn their living through fishing, because the sea has been zoned off to accommodate more than 2,500 fishers who make their livelihoods mostly in the relatively shallow waters within the reef system. The government can’t tell displaced Belizeans to go to sea and fish, because they have no boats or fishing equipment, and many of them don’t know how. The government can, however, help us to get involved in small-scale fish and shrimp farming.
Because of the pandemic, more than fifty percent of our people can’t pay for the goods in the stores, and many of us, because our education system didn’t prepare us properly, don’t have the skills to produce goods that are competitive. Our people in the food business can’t do it alone against confectionary and foods that are manufactured by foreigners using perfected recipes under the strictest quality control.
It’s a terrible time to be out of a job. For years the cheapest quality food in Belize was bananas, sold at eight per dollar everywhere, but since the pandemic the price went up, to six per dollar. The price of many locally produced foods have gone up, the price for most imported goods are going up, and while the government is right to invest in Belizeans who were very productive before the pandemic, an arm of government must be devoted to serve those who are perennially marginalized.
Four decades ago our governments gave in to privatization, and abandoned small farmers. We must go back to those days when the government invested in heavy equipment to prepare land for farmers at heavily subsidized rates. The dry season is here; this is the time to send equipment to Harmonyville and other cooperative communities to clear and drain land, in preparation for planting.
The government must acquire small agricultural equipment from Taiwan and Japan, and rent them to small farmers at heavily subsidized rates. We need greater emphasis on backyard gardening.
The uniforms of our Police and BDF and Coast Guard will soon be in tatters. We need to buy heavy- duty sewing machines for our seamstresses and tailors, so that they can make uniforms. There’re so many things our government can do to help our people take care of themselves. The Belizeans who have the wherewithal must buy Belizean and, Minister, those of us who don’t have the wherewithal must be supported so we can produce enough to help us through these hard times.