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Reasons for slow economic progress; none for non-delivery of critical reforms

EditorialReasons for slow economic progress; none for non-delivery of critical reforms

There are a number of explanations for the 3-year-old PUP government’s blowout victory in last month’s municipal elections. One is that the people overwhelmingly “swear for” the way the government has carried out its mandate since taking office in November 2020. A second is that the people are very understanding of the times – so soon after the worst epidemic in a century and the subsequent turmoil brought on by big powers heaving their weight around in the interest of corralling more of the world’s assets to satisfy their people and stock their huge war arsenals. There is also the fact that the main Opposition is unprepared at this time to lead, thus the near unchallenged rule of the devil we know.

The ineffectiveness of the Opposition aside, the main measure of the present government is how well it delivers the masses from economic deprivation, and introduces reforms to put the brake on corruption. Many experts say that what is integral to the economic prosperity we all pray for and work toward are the reforms to make government more transparent and accountable, because we can’t have the former without delivering on the latter.

Starting with the latter, if we go by the opinions expressed on the popular morning talk shows, the consensus is that Belize is a very corrupt country. A fairly recent report from Freedom House says, “Belize continues to struggle with corruption, and there is little political will to address the problem.” The government doesn’t get many points for its work on the reforms it promised. Upon their election in November 2020, the 2020-2025 PUP administration bolted out of the starting gates like they were going to make up for every government that had failed the people. Early on, reform bills were introduced at almost every meeting of the House of Representatives. And then, after about a year, their energy fizzled and the “reformation” started moving along at its old turtle-like pace.

The restructuring of the Public Accounts Committee, one reform which was completed early, has not produced the results we expected, hoped for. Government after government has promised to get on with the job of thoroughly scrutinizing public spending, but when political parties attain office, they skimp on funding the Audit Department, which is tasked with compiling the financial data. On top of that, the ball gets kicked down the road because the party in power and the main Opposition can never agree on the starting point of the time period for which they will apply the forensics on past spending.

Today, every member on the government side is either a minister or a minister of state, making a farce of our parliamentary democracy system. Both parties in the House of Representatives know that redistricting of electoral divisions is in order, but that process has stalled for more than 3 years. In May 2021, the government introduced the Protected Disclosures Bill (protection of whistleblowers). If that bill became law, it was snuck through in the dead of night. The last thing the Belizean public heard about the bill is that it was being reviewed by the unions and the business organizations, the BCCI and BBB. Another reform that has languished is a campaign finance law. While legislation for “whistleblowers” made it into a bill, the proposal for campaign financing is yet to get past Cabinet.

A number of the reforms the government was “working on” were put on pause, and gave way for a full-scale review of our Constitution, an exercise which was championed by the non-partisan members of the Senate. Since the People’s Constitution Commission was launched in November 2022, commissioners have been conducting consultations countrywide to hear the views of the people, while critical governance reform has stagnated. Finalizing a new/revised Constitution is a task for giants, and while a yeoman’s effort is being put into the process, it is unlikely that anyone will say “job done” anytime soon.

The most popular promise of the present party that controls government was that if we voted for them, all of us would win, that there’d be money in our pockets. The government can claim that on the jobs front they have done very well, and bolstering the report that unemployment is at its lowest ever is the recent jobs fair held by the BCCI, where over 1,400 posts were advertised. But inflation has so eroded the value of our dollar that many of our people struggle to put food on the table. As former government minister/Leader of the Opposition Hon. Patrick Faber explained at the last House meeting, the government’s macro numbers might look good, but on the ground the people of Belize are experiencing pain.

But the government gets a high grade for trying. Education costs have been cut for those most in need of relief, and according to the Prime Minister, the National Health Insurance (NHI), the flagship program of the Musa 1998-2008 governments, will be rolled out to every corner of Belize during this present administration. The NHI rollout thus far is a significant achievement, and having every Belizean covered under the program is nothing short of monumental.

More house lots and farm plots have been handed over to Belizeans who were landless than ever before, but the cost of construction has gone through the roof, and disposable income is extremely low, so for many it’s like having a car but not the funds to buy fuel. The prayer is that new landowners can hold on to their properties until we all win, until that day when they have the cash to invest in their dream homes and farms. The government conceived the most wonderful housing program, but alas, it doesn’t have the finance to build the quantity of houses our people with marginal income desperately need. But, like NHI, it continues to try.

The present government has the tough task of carrying out fiscal restructuring to prevent bankruptcy down the road. The PUPs have accused the UDP of ballooning the public service and costs during their 12 years in office, 2008-2020. To its credit, the PUP resisted reducing the government’s workforce, even when it had the opportunity to do so during the pandemic crisis. The PUP government circumvented retrenchment by reducing salaries for a period.

Annually, the IMF “cuts and pastes” from past reports call for the government to reduce its wage bill, and restructure the pension system. In a recent budget speech, the PM said: “In 2008 when the PUP left office, the wages and pensions bill was $262 million dollars. In 12 years under the UDP the wages and pensions bill skyrocketed to $677 million dollars, an increase of 177 percent or an increase of $415 million dollars.” Encouragingly, both the ruling party and the union representing government employees have shown some willingness to address pension reform – a job no previous government was brave enough to tackle.

Whatever the explanation is for the government’s huge success in the recent municipal elections, there’s a lot of work to be done for the remainder of its mandate. Because of many troubling external factors, and local factors such as adverse weather phenomena, Belizeans might give the government some rope for the not-fast-enough progress we are making on the economic front. Understandably, the constitutional review, for the purpose of producing a modern Constitution, one with inputs from every sector of society, has slowed the government’s delivery of reforms. But there are certain critical reforms that the government must complete by the time its mandate expires in 2025.

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