The Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow, called a press conference on Friday to outline an economic recovery plan for Belize, and throughout the session he was upbeat, a far cry from the man who, not so long ago, at a virtual press conference, agonized for the next government and the future of the people of his beloved Belize.
There was a spring in the Prime Minister’s step on Friday, and indeed it takes bravery to go down to debtor’s prison with fight in our hearts and a joyous song on our lips, than to fade away in a whimper. Let the young people of Belize know that their ancestors did not give up when the country faced a pandemic and the worst of economic times.
The Prime Minister and his ministers didn’t have to pore long over their party’s old manifestos to make their contributions to the recovery plan. The many social partners who contributed helped fill in the gaps to produce a plan with the potential to achieve its objective, to save Belize from economic ruin. There are a few projects we would have liked to see, but we won’t complain about such today.
The Economic Recovery Plan, in its overview, calls for continued support for citizens who need help at this time, an improved business climate, improved government efficiency, more support for the main productive sectors, more support for small businesses, and the promotion of products made in Belize.
Belize has seen many good plans go to waste because the implementing bodies were fraudulent and/or incompetent. The recovery plan did not call for governance reform, to help us put a huge dent in corruption; however, if things go right we should see the introduction of “strong and enforceable regulations to reduce corruption in transactions through the formation of a private/public/labor committee”, and tougher “customs regulations to combat smuggling at all points of entry.”
We have a pretty good plan in place, and all we need to pray for now is for our leaders to be honest, capable, and inspirational, and that they can find the financial resources to fuel the programs.
Much is contingent on a successful restart of tourism, for that industry accounted for about 50% of our economy prior to the pandemic. It will help immensely if things work out in that industry in the near term, but if good times in tourism are not in the cards now, if it is that we have to postpone plans to restart the industry, we can still survive and thrive, because our country has so many other opportunities to grow. We just have to make the best choices.
About one-third of the investment the government will make to stimulate the economy revolves around infrastructure, and that is not a bad idea if we are more practical in how we spend our dollars. A prime example of bad spending of our dollars is the road that connects Mile 8 on the George Price Highway to the route of entry to the main airport on the Philip Goldson Highway. The government has not satisfactorily explained why that road was a priority.
The Prime Minister explained that the lending agencies are more willing to release funds for infrastructure projects. They have a good reason for that. Many of the materials and almost all of the machinery for road building, bridge building, and the construction of offices and roundabouts are not made in Belize; we have to go to the big countries/multinationals to buy their equipment, their cement, their steel, their asphalt, their fuel, and on top of that we have to pay interest on the money we borrow, so it’s good business for them.
A country that has all the components for building infrastructure will, obviously, get the biggest bang from it. The bang they get from building roads and constructing huge buildings is like thunder; the bang we get is like those from the large dynamite sticks that are illegally brought into Belize during Christmas time.
Apart from the utility of an infrastructure project, we get employment for a few surveyors and engineers, a number of workers, and jobs for owners of trucks and other heavy equipment. There would be even more jobs if we hired field officers to do some very necessary environmental monitoring.
When we make investments in infrastructure, persons/businesses that own sand pits and marl hills get some sales, but there is little monitoring of the excavation of materials, especially the sand islands in the rivers.
Our government issues mining licenses and depends on the licensees to do their own monitoring. In the case of the sand islands, they expect the job will be well done because when a sand island is mined sustainably the resource endures. The unfortunate story here is that our resource is put at the mercy of some miners who have no resistance to greed, or are transient, just here to plunder our resources and move on to another vulnerable country.
The planned improvements to the road to Caracol should be put on hold. If prior to the pandemic it was indeed as the government promoted it, a win-win, good for tourism and good for the generation of jobs and business activity that are derived from infrastructure building, it is now a lose-lose, because tourism will be down for some time and it is now even more critical that we get the maximum from every dollar we spend.
At this time the Caracol Road should go no farther than the seven miles needed to improve the lives of the farmers and tour operators/guesthouse owners in San Antonio, Georgeville, and Seven Miles El Progresso.
The Sarteneja Road and the Coastal Road are far more important to Belize than the Caracol Road. An improved Sartenja Road will cut the time of the journey between Sarteneja and Orange Walk Town by 40%, and an improved Coastal Road will cut the duration of a journey between Dangriga and Belize City by 30%. The shorter trips will reduce the exposure of bus passengers to Covid-19, and the value of that cannot be overlooked.
Funds earmarked for the Caracol Road should be diverted to improve the lot of our farming communities. Those funds should be invested in improving feeder roads, improving drainage systems, improving storage, and setting up proper irrigation systems.
The Economic Recovery Plan has much to offer, and with proper execution, that is with efficiency and without corruption, and if we prioritize our projects based on needs not wants, we can envisage a better day.