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June 01
19:15 2019

By Lloyd Jones

Prime Minister Barrow has repeatedly referred to his administration as a “pro-poor” government. However, after ten years of “pro-poor” dynamics no one in Mr. Barrow’s government has been able to show us how many people have been lifted out of poverty.

The moniker “pro-poor” therefore can be properly construed as meaning an affinity for poor people as opposed to a distaste for poverty itself. Since 2008 Mr. Barrow’s objective seem to be to make poverty bearable a,s opposed to the lofty goal of eradicating poverty altogether.

Several of thelast IMF Article IV reports have called for austerity measures of some sort given Belize’s precarious fiscal position. But even in the face of a stalling economy Mr. Barrow tells the Belizean people that his administration’s two signature programs [Boost and Pantry] will not be disturbed in anyway, never mind the pressures coming from the IMF.

In 2018 the Barrow administration launched the third phase of the Southside Poverty alleviation Project. Mr. Barrow boastfully announced $400,000 for housing in each of the qualifying divisions and $300,000 for “education and social assistance.”If the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project is in its third phase, it means that two phases have been completed.

The Barrow administration has not reported to the Belizean people how many people were lifted out of poverty after two phases of the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project. Perhaps his argument will be that the project is to “alleviate” poverty not eradicate it. Even so, tell us how many people’s poverty has been “alleviated!”

It must be pointed out here that these two programs [Boost and Pantry] along with the Southside Poverty Alleviation Project are not in and of themselves bad undertakings. In fact in 2012 the World Bank declared Mr. Barrow’s Boost program to be the best in the hemisphere.

Undoubtedly societies do better when the poorest among them are uplifted so these “pro-poor” programs and projects are inherently good initiatives. The difficulty with these programs and projects is the absolute political control that is exercised over them here in Belize.

In Belize politics controls everything, and these initiatives have been no different. Although the official narrative is that these programs are administered by public officers and therefore there is no political bias, those of us on the ground know otherwise. It is the politicians who decided on the majority of the recipients. Those who are supporters of the ruling party get to eat and those who are considered to be supporters of the opposition are left to starve. They don’t qualify as “poor.” They are only “PUPs” and that is enough to disqualify them. This of course is sad because poverty does not recognize red or blue.

The ultimate objectives of these “pro-poor” initiatives therefore are social control and political coercion! And the Barrow administration has used them to great political effect. It is these “pro-poor” initiatives that have allowed some members of Cabinet and their hangers-on to become multi-millionaires. It is these “pro-poor” initiatives that allowed the Barrow administration to award a crony, with impunity, an eight million dollar contract for a mile of bumpy road. And it is these “pro-poor” initiatives that have diffused the tension and conflict that can arise by the imbalance of wealth between the UDP elites and the poor. In 2005 Said Musa was not “pro-poor” and Mr. Barrow used that as well as Musa’s “mistakes” to secure not just one but three general elections victory in a row!

There is a reason why, since our independence, Belize’s poverty rate has done nothing but increase. Poverty is used as a means of social control in Belize because as long as people have to be trying to satisfy their physiological needs they remain distracted and do not give the pressing national issues the attention they deserve. Of the three “pro-poor” initiatives the Pantry is by far the most socially destructive.

If you starve a man long enough he will hail you a king for giving him dry bread and water. There is a deep and lingeringsense of indebtedness when you are hungry and a man feeds you! Never mind that the hunger was created by the very person who offers you the Pantry in the first place!

The Barrow administration has used these initiatives to gather political mileageand to coerce poor people into toeing the party line. There are scores of people who are not qualified to be on the Pantry program but who, without hiding, access the program in an abusive way. A lot of the people making up the political machinery are placed on these programs financed by public funds. These initiatives are used in a cleverly disguised way to finance political work: an abuse of public funds. The public officers in the Human Development Department are aware of these abuses but they are afraid to arrest the problem given the political climate.

If you are a supporter of the ruling party and you do not adhere to the dictates of your area representative you are likely to suffer the consequences. No Boost, no Pantry! Such coercion is cleverly disguised of course but the word gets around. If the Party “ask” you to do certain things and you refuse you are mysteriously disqualified from these programs. Suddenly you are above the threshold and as such you are struck from the list: back to poverty and its perennial companion hunger!

It would be good if there was an unbiased study to determine the effect of these “pro-poor” initiatives on the results of elections. We all have our guess but there is great value in such studies. Unfortunately Belize is not yet a country that loves empirical data.And so the beat goes on: Boost here, Pantry there, hunger everywhere!

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