The furore surrounding the unfortunate comments by Miss World T&T contestant Jeanine Brandt is warranted as it shows that, at best, she has no idea of T&T’s poverty levels, its institutions and the billions of taxpayers dollars spent to protect the most vulnerable in the society.
I am happy she has apologised after facing mounting pressure from citizens who could not countenance the country she described; one of thousands of children not knowing where their next meal was coming from, or who are sleeping on cold floors and had no access to healthcare.
She appeared to forget that public healthcare in T&T does not come with a cost to the user and children are always considered a priority in the healthcare system.
More than that, there are school feeding programmes, food cards and different poverty alleviating grants. While by no means am I suggesting this is a panacea, to make it out, that one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere has thousands of children going hungry and sleeping on the floor is unfortunate.
What is also worrisome is that there are many, who like Ms Brandt, seem to share a similar view or if we are to judge by some social media postings, at least try to excuse away her comments.
Ms Brandt’s comments and the responses are symptomatic of the major challenge that the country faces. This is a country that is so stratified, is broken into so many parts that both its management and its ability to move in one direction are very difficult.
The late great Prof Lloyd Braithwaite identified the challenges of this society. Its plurality that should be its strength, but which has been used as a source of divisiveness and prevents us from moving forward.
As the late Lloyd Best once said, there appear to be no first-class citizens in T&T. Every section of the population feels itself second-class, fighting to be accepted.
We must not pretend. The reality is that there is a large group of people in the country who feel when the party they do not support is in power, that those in charge are a group of thieves whose only intent is to build generational wealth on the backs of taxpayers.
There is another large group of people who feel when their party is not in power the other side is a group of incompetent people who don’t know anything about running businesses or managing money. They see that group of people as unable to manage the country and are only intent on taking their money to give to their lazy supporters who are unwilling or unable to earn a living on their own.
Then there is Tobago which does not see itself as one country with Trinidad but rather its own island in an uneasy relationship with another island that it never asked for and which it feels undone by.
This is the state of play in the country and it requires high-quality leadership to create a vision that will lead us forward.
In times of plenty this division has been papered over as there has been enough for those at the table and others at the side of the table to consume to their heart’s delight, but in times of less, the noise of separation grows louder.
The tragedy of all that I have described is that this does not have to be so. T&T is not a poor country.
This country’s economy is almost twice the size of Jamaica with half its population and physical size. It is several times the size of Guyana’s economy.
Its infrastructure is significantly superior to others in the region. T&T has a world-class oil and gas basin. In case we forget, just recently Ryder Scott showed that as a country we have produced 29 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and in what we can say are already discovered reserves, well over 21 trillion cubic feet left.
This gives us a basin of at least 50 tcf of gas and a real possibility that the T&T basin is closer to 100 tcf of gas. That is a giant, world-class basin. You add several billion barrels of oil, from tar sands, to heavy crude, to light sweet, we have been blessed as an energy economy.
This country is one of the largest exporters of ammonia and methanol in the world, the largest exporter of urea to the United States, still one of the top ten exporters of liquefied natural gas in the world.
We have the largest and strongest financial sector in the region. Our manufacturers continue to dominate Caricom. We spend more money per capita on healthcare and education than most in the region. T&T is a place with real possibilities.
But there are challenges of leadership, particularly at the political level, that have pervaded the entire society.
The political system makes people enemies if they are of other political persuasions. This robs the country of access to the best and most talented and it makes many unwilling to serve, even when they have a lot to offer.
The country has a limited talent pool and unlike the UK or the US it is not easy to replace highly qualified people.
Another challenge of the leadership vacuum in T&T is the zero-sum politics played in the country. There can be no good reason that we did not get a revenue authority with the kind of teeth needed, there is no good reason we are not having the entire procurement legislation implemented, there is no good reason we are without a substantive Police Commissioner.
As a country, this is not the time to panic. We need to be smart about how we utilise our resources and have a real plan, with targets on moving the economy forward. The time for the political games needs to end. There will be elections in a few years and the country will make decisions.
What we need is to demand value for money. Projects must be executed on time and within budget. The waste and corruption at many institutions, including state entities, must be brought to an end.
The country cut over $10 billion, mainly in fat, some of it in deferring payments, we can do more if we clean up the waste and corruption.
More people and businesses must be made to meet their statutory requirements and the constant apologists who know that the burden is being carried by too few, need to stop making excuses. No one likes to pay taxes and there is never a good time to implement taxes.
Most of all, the country must know where it is heading and the plan to get us there. This remains a failing of the Keith Rowley administration which for almost seven years has not shown an ability to put forward a strategy to lead us to a better economic future.
Project announcements do not make policy.