It would be safe to assume that each and every Belizean understands that in one way or the other the government of Belize has to expand our economy.
It is also fair to suggest that people are not ignorant to fact that the tenets of globalization have augmented the degree to which countries need to maintain sound diplomatic ties and trade arrangements with foreign countries.
Belizeans, especially those in the business sector, understand that no man—or in this case, no country—is an island. They know that in order to advance and expand an economy deals must be made; foreign direct investments must be sought after and secured; and even natural resources must be put to good use.
Nevertheless, in the local interactions between the Government of Belize and the private sector, we constantly find that stakeholders in specific industries or members of the general populace contend with government on several decisions they make. The question is, why?
We could attribute these problems to a fundamental lack of trust between the government and the electorate—especially those who are not of the same political persuasion as the incumbent government. A lack of trust that is birthed in an environment with weak standards of transparency and accountability.
Agustín Cartens, the former deputy-managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), said it this way:
“Transparency and accountability are critical for the efficient functioning of a modern economy and for fostering social well-being.
“In most societies, many powers are delegated to public authorities.
“Some assurance must then be provided to the delegators—that is, society at large—that this transfer of power is not only effective, but also not abused.
“Transparency ensures that information is available that can be used to measure the authorities’ performance and to guard against any possible misuse of powers. In that sense, transparency serves to achieve accountability, which means that authorities can be held responsible for their actions.”
Cartens would go on to say in a 2005 statement that where there is no transparency and accountability there will also be no trust between a government and the society. “The result would be social instability and an environment that is less than conducive to economic growth,” he said.
That lack of trust can be clearly seen in some very recent examples. The government recently signed a deal with American Sugar Refining (ASR), which has now bought a controlling interest in the Belize Sugar Industry. Although everyone agrees that the ASR investment is needed, the cane farmers said the government failed to consult with them and they contested the initiative.
Another case could be seen in our fledging oil industry. If petroleum companies find more oil in the country, everyone agrees that such discoveries could create greater opportunities for a developing country like Belize; yet NGOs like Oceana are challenging government in court with the most basic-level question: do the companies that have received these concessions meet the necessary criteria?
The government and Oceana are now before the courts just to have this question answered. Is that transparency?
And even this week’s uproar from the newly formed activist group, Belize Coalition for Justice (BCJ), has, with the amalgamated voices of reportedly 30 associations, attacked Foreign Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington for his comments made during an interview with Channel 7 News, in which he discussed the shooting death of a Guatemalan man at the hands of a Belize Defence Force soldier.
Elrington said the government agreed to make a compassionate grant to the man’s family. “The Prime Minister thought that that was the best to show goodwill, to show good neighbourliness and Cabinet was in full agreement with that approach.”
Elrington said regarding the 21-day Guatemala-to-Belize ultimatum, “The last thing I would want is for the Guatemalans to send back our Ambassador and close the border with us. … It is going to hurt business, it’s going to hurt people who are ill, it’s going to hurt the relationship we have with SICA, it’s going to hurt the relationship we have with the OAS. It’s going to really have serious regional and international repercussions.”
The economic repercussions from a diplomatic fallout with our western neighbor, Elrington said, easily eclipse the amount offered as compassion. Is the government wrong to weigh both options and choose the lesser of two evils?
We all could agree that economics and diplomacy are delicate things, and Belizeans for the most part may already know—even on an unconscious level—that some of these decisions must be made; but they are opposed largely because we have learned not to trust government officials.
In the end, we may find out that the grant is coming from the Organization of American States (OAS) Peace Fund, which again emphasizes the fact that there are several factors to consider ,and diplomacy must take its course.
But it would seem that Cartens had it right. The lack of true, structural transparency that leads to genuine accountability has engendered a sense of distrust between the people and the government.
The social contract/compact has been breached too often in the past and the folks who remember have decided to leave nothing to chance. The current woes of the Belize U.S. Dollar Bond (super bond) or stories of ranking ministers giving away land to family members have taught Belizeans too well.
But as was discussed in last week’s Ripple Effect, to bridge this gap of mistrust, the electorate—instead of becoming disillusioned and discouraged—ought to start demanding for true transparency and accountability to be properly institutionalized.
As was discussed before, the application of the twin concepts should never be whimsical. Transparency should never be at the discretion of any one minister without a truly just cause. Those who are found guilty of misusing the system should not only be held to ethical standards. We should also be able to be found legally and fiscally accountable for fraud, corruption and any form of mismanagement.
As the electorate, we ought to pool our energies on challenging government to make sure that we have properly functioning and independent “watchdog” agencies like the Integrity Commission or an autonomous Auditor General’s Office.
In our role as members of this great country, we must take part. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the only committee of the House of Representatives that is chaired by a member of the Opposition and is open to the public, is scheduled to host its first meeting on Monday, November 12.
PAC Chairman Julius Espat said that the committee—which can and will accept questions from the general public—has the Constitutional authority to order an investigation into how efficiently or inefficiently public funds are being managed.
It’s a relatively small step, especially since Espat has expressed concerns over the group being able to achieve a quorum. However, it is for this reason that we encourage Belizeans (mostly via your associations or NGOs) to take part in these meetings and add to the structural integrity of transparency and accountability.
To the leadership of associations and NGOs, we encourage you to meet, officially and objectively analyze your concerns and forward your queries to PAC’s chairman at the email address [email protected], until an official PAC email and website is formed.
The structural and systematic integrity of our country’s political transparency and accountability is only as strong as the people behind them.
Therefore, in this case where the entire electorate has been given an invitation to participate, let us participate and start rebuilding the structures that could help restore the trust in the social compact, because it is quite clear that a lack of transparency is not conducive to economic growth.