“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
This is one of the first quotes you learn when trying to understand Monitoring and Evaluation. Given current realities in Trinidad and Tobago, it seems applicable.
I recently finished reviewing the National Budgets presented during the period 2006 to present—no, it is not that I have nothing to do; taking care of my two daughters with my wife and being a transparency advocate keeps me busy.
You see, for me a Budget statement must not be looked at as a singular event in time; the policy prescriptions must have evolved over a long time rather than just in the year since the last Budget statement. Hence my curiosity about what these now old statements offered.
Now these statements go through two PNM administrations, one UNC/COP administration—there never was any political party called the People’s Partnership after all—and five ministers of finance.
From looking at each of these statements, I have noted the following:
- We suck at revenue collection. In every budget statement, there is talk of leakages. Under the PNM, there is talk about the creation of a Revenue Authority; the UNC/COP talks about having consultants do a “a comprehensive review of our tax system. This review will cover the entire tax system, including tax policy, administration, and enforcement.”
- Apparently, the major areas for diversification are Agriculture, Marine/Yachting, Manufacturing, Tourism, Downstream Energy Industries, Outsourcing Financial Services, Creative Industries, Fashion and Food. Countless incentives and tax breaks have been offered but yet we are still reliant on oil and gas.
- We have spent billions every Budget on Education, National Security, Health, Housing, Public Utilities, etc; yet, crime is high, healthcare is expensive—because we have to go private—people still need houses, not everywhere gets a reliable water supply, etc. Have we seen any major impact of any of this spending?
- The reform of local government and of the public sector seems to be unachievable. Apparently it can’t be done. Wow!
- CEPEP and URP need to be more productive and assist in manufacturing and agriculture and slowly move away from Gov’t assistance. I will believe it when I see it.
- Poverty reduction is always on the cards; some may argue, though, that we do the opposite and have a Poverty Enhancement Programme.
- We love to tax things to make more money or punish bad habits (casinos) or offer tax incentives to encourage business—who, by the way, are always complaining—or reduce tax or offer tax relief to create more disposable income and so increase savings (Amazon, here I come).
- I can’t seem to figure out the Clico/CL Financial puzzle (2008 to present).
- Recycling and waste management are important to save the environment—every time it rains, we see how well that has worked.
I highlight these things to make the point that words on a piece of paper read and debated every September/October mean nothing if not backed up with real action. We as a people need to start holding our politicians and government officials to account and really demand results.
While the numbers are good, we need to move beyond them, which is when the “So what?” question becomes critical.
So what if you fixed and built 500km of roadway? So what if we now have two hospitals? So what if we trained 10,000 people in different skills? So what if we spent more money or less money this year than last year?
What difference does all of that make if sick people have to wait two days to get access to a hospital bed, working people have to take two hours to reach to work from 20 km away or qualified peopl can’t get a job with the real skills they possess?
For me, therefore, the most important document laid in this year’s Budget Statement has to be the National Performance Framework 2017-2020. Now I would admit my bias here because I am trained in Monitoring and Evaluation—though my wife is more the practitioner than I am—and I did work a bit on the Committee for the Creation of a National M&E Policy.
This NPF 2017-2020 is deliberately designed to measure Government’s implementation progress and Government’s performance in the context of their recently completed Vision 2030 National Development Strategy, which makes it a document we need to study and use to inform our questions to ministers.
The media, civil society and we, the general public, need to be less concerned with activities and outputs and more concerned with outcomes and impacts. There needs to be a concerted effort to change the focus of discussion and—by re-positioning our questions—to force Government, regardless of who is in power, to feel bound to provide reasons, data and evidence to back up what they are saying.
We live in times that are challenging but I also believe that these are also opportune times for us to also change old habits and re-focus our country to compete in the global environment of the 21st Century.
A government must be of the people, for the people and by the people. The key word is people and it is time that we the people demonstrate that there needs to be a two-way discussion in order to turn this country around.
No government or no political party is bigger or has more power than we the people united as one and willing to question and seek answers for whatever decisions they may make on our behalf.