History does not always fit neatly into well-defined phases. Since self-government in 1956, different administrations have been “constructing” a nation, metaphorically and literally. The period 1956-74 is characterised by the building of institutions required to manage a newly independent nation, Parliament, the Central Bank, the judiciary, a civil service. New taxation methodologies and the domestication of financial assets were introduced to give the wherewithal to fund development.
The boom years of 1974-85 allowed the country to accelerate the process of physical development, constructing the edifices to house these institutions. The construction phase restarted with the second boom in 1999 and saw the development of other physical structures to house government and represent the power of its constituent elements; the Government campus, education, works, legal affairs, public administration buildings and the prime minister’s residence to reflect the power and prestige of the office.
The refurbishment of the parliament building, and the president’s house reflects the lesser priority of these institutions and their continuity with the past.
The development of the sporting complexes and the academies of performing arts were the public spaces allocated to the upliftment of sport and people development. The expansion of the road network reflects a similar pattern. New hospitals, Mount Hope and Couva and the rebuilding of facilities in Tobago, Arima, Pt Fortin and Sangre Grande reflect a shift in the population density and political influence.
Perhaps the biggest element of the physical construction was the quantitative expansion of the secondary school system, without paying adequate attention to the qualitative aspects of education. Children do not control their maturation process and ignoring primary and kinder garden education has led to a rising level of functional illiteracy, and inexorably, to rising crime levels.
Overlapping the physical building phase are two broad themes which have influenced the role and functioning of the state: social populism that speaks to the needs of the common people and the rise of the free market consensus, or liberalisation, in a move away from government central planning. The move to “liberalise” was the result of the 1985-92 depression and the recognition that economic development was not dependent on the state.
The two themes still exist in contradiction to each other. Governments (UNC and PNM) say that they act to protect the poor and the vulnerable. This has translated to an unsustainable programme of subsidies and transfers which consume 50 per cent of the annual budget with no discernible positive social development impact.
Make-work programmes artificially depress unemployment numbers and do not transform depressed communities.
Politicians tout infrastructure projects as tools to stimulate the economy, evidence of their commitment to the development of people or communities. Such projects are visible, and support and cement a narrative that the government in working. More succinctly, “it helps secure the votes”. Performance is therefore measured by the number of construction projects undertaken, or new buildings, or hospitals completed. Developed countries have better infrastructure than developing countries.
But having well developed infrastructure is not enough to make a country “developed”. Neither do platform assertions/statements, nor do Vision 2020 and 2030 documents.
Development is a long-term exercise. It requires leadership, long range planning, strong institutions, stable management, and building human resource capacity. Yet, we have relegated these more critical aspects of development, crucial to our long-term survival and viability, to a secondary position by not strengthening and developing our institutions, people, processes or improving the ease of doing business.
Political leaders in opposition decry corruption, bid rigging, contracts awarded to gang leaders or to friends and families. Even with five years to plan and prioritise when in opposition, and five more in office, campaign finance reform remains elusive, and procurement regulation remains unimplemented. And when in office community leaders become constituents to be entertained. There is no commitment to reform these institutions, or to people development.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the courts are overburdened, the DPP under resourced, the Integrity Commission overwhelmed, the PCA a toothless pit bull, or the Commissioner of State lands and the Auditor General impotent. Similarly, a committee appointed on the eve of an election cannot achieve anything that a Ministry of Community Development did not achieve in 60 years. Window dressing at best.
A President once determined the outcome of an election based on moral and spiritual values. Perhaps it was fitting that the situation proved untenable as the House could not agree on the choice of speaker We have seen enough to divine that those moral and spiritual values seem exist only when the current protagonists are out of office.