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AV Room: e-CON-omics 101: Budgeting should be from bottom up, not top down

So the Finance Minister’s budget presentation is over; we all now know the major highlights. I make no apologies for not offering any red or yellow-tinted responses or comments or analyses. I want to break with the sterile ‘This was good’ and ‘That was bad’ tradition and discuss instead what should be the objectives of our fiscal packages and the process by which we arrive at them.

In the last year, even though the price of Super gasoline only increased by 15%, my actual bill for the month almost doubled—despite minimal variation in my commute.

Photo: A motorist hangs up a gas pump.
(Copyright Africa TVC News)

It was obvious that traffic had increased and this was not helped by the roadworks on the CRH or by tinkering with the timing of the traffic lights between the Tumpuna and Piarco intersections. Some days were worse than others with almost 45 to 60 minutes added to my daily commute time in some instances.

I am seeking here to make the point that it is naïve to look at the impact of fiscal adjustments in a linear way. In other words, an adjustment in one area will inevitably have an impact on several other areas and every area can be impacted by unforeseen variables.

To begin, then, I want to make the point that the economists who are given an ear and airtime are completely disconnected from the communities on whose behalf they want to articulate policy. Here’s a hypothetical question:

Would these economists articulate a policy which would make their own existence redundant and place them on the breadline or a policy which would see their personal income so eroded that they lose all motivation to even go to their jobs?

We have to find a way to have national budgeting involve people where they live. In the initial stages, it will be tedious and there will be teething issues. However, the technocrats need to move from the abstract concepts of the society and the community to a position where they know Mrs Paul or Mr Rampaul, and both see their faces and know their reality. First-hand!

Photo: A resident speaks during a town meeting in Arima.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

They cannot see this in the Hyatt or the Hilton; it can only be done in the community. The ministers and the technocrats have to drive in the ordinary citizens’ traffic, slalom around their potholes, sit in their community centres and put a name and face to the ordinary young man or woman who won’t access GATE or who lost his job because it was a “prudent business decision.”

Over time, it is my considered view, engagement of that sort will stop the technocrats from theorising and making policy in a vacuum.

We must have a serious discussion on the role of government as well as on what really is a national budget. It seems to me that the latter also ought to answer some fundamental developmental questions. As far as the former is concerned, when did we disconnect the well-being of the people from the State? When did the people stop being the responsibility of the State?

Many have argued—incorrectly, in my view—that this encourages movement towards a welfare state; it is not just my instincts that tell me they are wrong.

While we exist as individuals, we also need one another as customers, as employees or as employers and we co-operate in this regard. We also recreate and there are many other things to be established here.

Photo: Trinbago Knight Riders fans cheer their team on during 2017 CPL action against the St Kitts and Nevis Patriots at the Brian Lara Stadium in Tarouba on 5 September 2017.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

Furthermore, as a collective, we agree to be part of a society and this has implications. Among other things, there are personal responsibilities which we shift on to the structures which govern this society, of which the government is the custodian.

For example, you depend on someone else to provide you with potable water and food. Government policy determines the framework in which this is done. As far as food is concerned, it is government policy which creates a perceived need for imported food at the expense of domestic production and provokes the resultant shifts in our preferred tastes.

In my view, this has often happened as a result of government accommodating narrow business interests.

Finally, we cannot disconnect our colonial history from our development agenda. Our history is replete with examples of groups who joined the fight against oppression and then, the victory won, found favour with the oppressor to defend new-found privileges.

So as you preferably critique or defend or attack the budget, I want to suggest that it is okay to be selfish and consider how it affects you on a personal level. And consider as well whether everyone else is affected, in your view, in the same way.

Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert.
(Copyright i95.5FM)

I also urge you to consider the extent to which the views that you are articulating actually reflect your reality or whether you are in fact fighting a battle which is not yours to fight.

About Akins Vidale

Akins Vidale
Akins Vidale lectures at the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies and is a UWI graduate with a B.A. in History. He has served as the president of the Trinidad Youth Council and is the General Secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN). Read his blog: http://akinsvidale.wordpress.com/

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14 comments

  1. Participatory Budgeting has been part of the social Agenda for more than a decade now, I will probably take a next Decade before T&T catch on to the Benefits of this bottom up approach.

  2. This was such a great piece eh. Imagine the government which seems to be disconnected from the communities, developing a national budget that is then criticized or endorsed by economists etc who are also disconnected from the communities. …communities make up societies….societies make up a nation. What national budget?

  3. Rowley said the biggest problems in TT is CORRUPTIONS but not a word on how it will be addressed.
    Imbert said in the 2017/2018 Budget the Office of the Procurement Regulation would open next year.
    The PNM Gov’t continue kicking the can down the road on the ”proclamation” on the Procurement Bill while FINANCIERS getting contracts under the table.
    Do you as a thinking TT citizen understand now why the PNM sabotaged Procurement Legislation in Opposition, amended it very early in government to water down the powers of the Procurement Regulator, tried to hijack the recruitment process for the Procurement Regulator from his Excellency the President and up to now, “25 months in Gov’t” has made little progress on proclamation of the Procurement law “passed in January 2015”.?
    Talk, smoke and mirrors, distraction, no action for development, no care for the ordinary TT citizen and a feeling now in the country that CORRUPTION could not be worse.

  4. Look the Arima Town Hall and Burgess

  5. We does really have to wonder when listening to their pontifications

  6. Earl Best

    I am sure you know it but I will say it anyway: in our system, the people who become ministers of government and so on are rarely capable of walking with kings and yet retaining the common touch. One example: if Minister Sinanan’s intention were really to help Dominicans, would he have announced in the way he did that he is donating his whole month’s salary to the cause? That, in my view, was really about atoning for the seabridge fiasco and burnishing the Sinanan brand. Watch what happens when the mark about the Curepe interchange buss.