BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Sept. 24, 2020– Last month UDP Leader Elect and Minister of Education Hon. Patrick Faber announced his plans for the launch of a “distance learning” program that would shape the way children receive their education outside of the classroom due to COVID-29 restraints.
This new program boasted of providing thousands of Belizean students countrywide with devices and free data which would afford them access to their schools’ new online learning packages.
At a press conference held on August 21, 2020 Hon. Patrick Faber declared his confidence that with collaboration of the Government and other stakeholders, the Ministry of Education would be able to deliver these devices by October.
At the end of his presentation, Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow commended the Ministry for their preparations and readiness for the then upcoming school year. When these proposed expenditures made their way into the House by way of the Supplementary Appropriation Bill however, not all parties were in full support.
Several parliamentarians including Opposition Leader, Hon. John Briceño argued that spending $7.6 million on 15,500 tablets and education software without proper transparency was an unwarranted risk. Hon. Francis Fonseca, the former Minister of Education even went as far to say that tablets may not necessarily be the way to go:
“Many of the things that students need to do in terms of E-learning cannot be done properly and effectively on tablets. Students need proper laptops to carry out effective E-learning and the teachers as well. This thing has to be done properly. It has to be done effectively and so we need to know a lot of more. Like I said, how many students actually need? What type of devices are the most appropriate. Certainly as I said, not tablets, laptops and who as my colleagues have mentioned, who is purchasing these items and at what cost”
Hon. Kareem Musa also chimed in to voice his concern that agreeing to pay this large sum of money to any contractor without due justification could lead to nefarious results:
“In this day and age we cannot get away with giving multimillion dollar contracts to special individuals who cannot justify the cost of things because we know what happens to the balance of the money. We know about the kick back system that you all have been operating under for all these thirteen years. So Madam Speaker a name brand tablet like an Amazon Kindle Fire is only sixty-nine US dollars for one you know. So if you are buying seven million dollars’ worth it is my hope Minister of Education that when we learn the cost it is not just sixty-nine U.S., but rather less because you are buying in bulk”.
Despite these exchanges, the Supplementary Appropriation Bill was passed and is on its way to the Senate. In a matter of days, however, what seemed like a straight forward campaign to boost the education system and adjust to societal norms has become another scandal fraught with controversy.
On September 20, 2020 a media group known as “NBZ Live” took to social media and shared an invoice asserting that the tablets being bought by the Ministry would only cost US$1,016,180 dollars, a stark difference from the seven million approved in the appropriation bill.
The group also unleashed a barrage of allegations, naming Vishal Sabnani, owner of Cellular World Enterprise, along with Karan Sabnani, as the customer making the said purchase on behalf of the Ministry, and claiming that the full payment of BZ$7 million dollars had been wired to Sabnani’s US bank account by the Central Bank on the same day of the purchase.
The Ministry quickly responded with a press release entitled “Fabricated quotation and fake news,” deeming the post to be “grossly false and misleading”.
In its release, the Ministry stated that the project would be funded by the IDB and must go through the proper channels and protocols for approval before a contract is even awarded:
“The procurement process must satisfy both the GOB procurement requirement as set out in the Finance & Audit Reform Act, as well as the IDB’s rigorous rules and regulations as a first tier of approval.
“In addition, the contract must be reviewed and approved by the Ministry of Finance and the Contractor General prior to execution. No contract has een issued to date, therefore, there is no truth to the claim that BZ$7 million dollars has been paid by the Central Bank.”
Likewise, Cellular World Belize also published a statement saying that NBZ Live is an untrustworthy third party and that the invoice was fabricated.
Cellular World concedes that they did in fact submit a bid to the GOB and procured the tablets from Logic Mobility (the same supplier cited on the invoice) to present to the GOB.
However, they asserted that the tablets quoted for on the invoice do not match the ones they were looking to buy with regards to specifications. Cellular World then proceeded to list the specifications of the tablets they have bought in the press release.
Despite the refutation of these allegations, NBZ Live has said on their social media that they stand by their initial report. The Ministry of Education has not published any further insight on the matter. However, Cellular World has stated that they are in communication with their lawyers to seek action against the report, which they deem to be libelous.