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?Good governance? ? Belize Governance Improvement Commission takes authorities to task over Social Security issue

First on the list of promises on ?good governance? was the pledge to ?create a robust national integrity system designed to achieve accountability and limit solutions conducive to corrupt behavior.?

At the time of the Commission?s launch just over a month ago, the Prime Minister conceded that, ?Over the years, there?s been a growing disillusionment with politics, [and] with politicians. People believe that every politician is on the take.?

The recent scandals involving the management of public funds and the risks at which Social Security?s funds have been placed?which was manifested when a former PUP politician?s loan default was met with SSB funds?have fanned the flame of public skepticism to hellish proportions?so much so that even those who shun Opposition affiliation may dare to join in the Opposition?s protest march, slated for this Saturday, August 28.

It is a situation that, no doubt, calls for a serious response from the Musa administration. Today, his newly reconstituted Cabinet meets to discuss the pressing issues of public finance and Social Security.

Notably, the meeting has come on the heels of a bold public statement from the BGIC, taking Government to task over the Social Security issue.

The points listed in the BGIC?s public statement are:

(1) The Commission expressed concern about the apparent placement of SSB funds in high-risk low-yield instruments, contrary to prudent financial management principles.

(2) The Commission supports the appeals for full and public disclosure of the investment portfolio of the SSB, in order to assure workers and employers that SSB investments are not in undue jeopardy.

(3) The Commission calls on the Senate to exercise its legal authority to investigate the investment portfolio and decision of the SSB.

(4) The Commission recommends that the rules or guidelines for investment of SSB funds are, as a matter of urgency, reviewed, revised and agreed by all members of the Board of Directors and by Cabinet, and disclosed to the public. This process should be completed before consideration is given to any further investments.

(5) The Commission also recommends that the SSB legislation should be subject to review and revision to strengthen the legal framework for transparency and accountability. In this context, an adequate firewall needs to be inserted between the investment decisions of the SSB and the fiscal and economic development policies of the Government.

(6) The Commission strongly agrees that the SSB should observe the highest principles of good corporate governance in the management of its affairs. It is of paramount importance that the Social Security Board manages the fund in a manner which is transparent and rules-based, and which recognizes that the management of the Social Security Board is accountable to its board of directors. Furthermore, the Board of Directors should at all times bear in mind the trust which has been placed in them on behalf of the contributors to the fund, and work diligently to protect that trust.

(7) The Commission believes that the need for transparency and accountability through full, detailed and timely disclosure in the use of all public funds is critical to the strategic interest of Belize, and is in keeping with the vision and mission of the Belize Governance Improvement Commission.

BGIC?s chair, Dr. Carla Barnett, told Amandala on Tuesday that the statement came out of the second meeting of the Commission, held over two consecutive days, on August 20 and 21. The inaugural meeting took place in mid-July, but was more of a familiarization meeting, she informed.

The team, she said, felt that they were taking on a big task and so had previously decided to take a two-day retreat to focus. However, it was reported that with the recent controversy over Social Security, that topic largely dominated their discussions, even though the team also talked about broader governance issues, their approach to their work, strengthening institutional oversight and dialogue with Cabinet.

Barnett, who is also the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Development, which the P.M. held until the latest Cabinet shuffle last week, had participated in a series of consultations last September with various Government officials, including those of Cabinet. She said it was out of those consultations?which spanned about a week and a half?that the idea for the Commission came.

At the time of the consultations, Government made it clear that the ?good governance? workshops were in line with its manifesto commitments. However, in view of some observers, much has happened since the March 2003 elections to call into question the administration?s seriousness about fulfilling its claimed goals?to weed out corruption and to restore public confidence in the governing authorities. Today, Barnett told Amandala that her personal view is that unless there is broad-based demand from the Belizean people for a reform in governance, the impetus will be lacking. The consultations on good governance need to be as broad-based as possible, she said, and she pledged the continued engagement of the public, through the media, if necessary.

The BGIC statement released on Monday was also transmitted directly to the Prime Minister, Dr. Barnett said.

While there had been no feedback from the administration when we last spoke to her, Dr. Barnett explained that they are yet in the early days of their work. It took many years for things to fall apart slowly, and it will take a while to build it back, she commented.

The BGIC members are: (1) Dr. Carla Barnett – Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Development; (2) Hon. Sylvia Flores ? elected Government Representative; (3) Senator Godwin Hulse; (4) Dylan Reneau ? Labor representative, president of the Public Service Union; (5) Pat Mendoza ? rep for the Public Sector Reform Council; (6) Abdalla Bedran ? private sector representative; (7) Belmopan Mayor Anthony Chanona ? municipal representative; (8) Bishop Sylvestre Romero Palma ? church rep; (9) Luz Longsworth ? rep for academia; (10) Herbert Wiltshire ? rep for youth; (11) Michael Polonio ? indigenous rep for the National Garifuna Council; (12) Pulcheria Teul ? indigenous rep for the Toledo Maya Women?s Council; and (13) Jason Price, programme director for the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR), for civil society.

According to Dr. Barnett, the Opposition has not selected a person to represent them on the Commission, even though a seat has been designated for an Opposition representative.

We note also that Commissioner Polonio is also a member of the Social Security Board?s board of directors and the SSB?s investment committee, as well the deputy chairman of the Board. He became one of four representatives for employers on the SSB?s board of directors in 2003, after the SSB Act was amended last June.

Dr. Barnett is the former Deputy Secretary General of the CARICOM Secretariat, and was attached to the Belize Ministry of Foreign Affairs before her appointment, in January, with the Ministry of National Development.

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