CEPEP workers at the Edinburgh 500 Recreation Ground in July.

• ↓Government spends $50 million more on Cepep than was budgeted for 2020.

• ↓Economists say the programme is unsustainable and must be transformed.

•$400 Million more to be spent on state company

In a year when the government was running its largest deficit in the country’s history comes revelation that it pumped $50 million more into the Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme Company (CEPEP).

The increased subvention is again budgeted for CEPEP in 2021 even though there have been major cuts to other parts of the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government, there is no touching CEPEP’s allocation.

The figure was revealed in the Ministry of Finance’s Draft Estimates of Recurrent Expenditure which was laid in the Parliament last week Monday as part of the 2021 budget documents and showed that CEPEP spent $400 million last year even though the Parliament had initially budgeted for just under $350 million.

In the Finance ministry’s the document, CEPEP received a transfer from the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government of $354 million in 2019 and while it was estimated that it (CEPEP) would have received $348 million for 2020 – the revised estimates revealed that $400.4 million passed through the company that year (2020).

It must be remembered that this occurred in an election year and at a time when the company has come under public scrutiny for proposing massive increases in the salary of its chief executive officer Keith Eddy and its corporate secretary Nicole Gopaulsingh.

A series of investigative reports by Guardian Media had shown that Eddy and Gopaulsingh had in fact been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in what the company claimed was an accounting error and which was then reversed. It also under affidavit admitted that similar accounting errors had occurred in the past.

CEPEP went to court to try and stop the publication of the stories but ultimately the judge ruled in favour of GML.

For 2021, the same $400.4 million estimate has been allocated to CEPEP even as the Minister of Finance Colm Imbert announced that the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government would receive 33.5 per cent less in 2021 ($1.642 billion) than it did in 2020 ($2.469 billion).

This $400 million, accounts for almost a quarter of the total allocation to the ministry of Rural Development and Local Government.

Three economists have declared that the increase of transfers going into the programme is unsustainable and have called for a reinvention of CEPEP’S model.

In a interview with the Business Guardian (BG) Economist and UWI Lecturer Dr Marlene Attzs expressed: “It is not sustainable because essentially what we are doing is that we are reinforcing a dependency syndrome.

Attzs indicated that when CEPEP was contemplated and the architecture for CEPEP was established, there was a very clear mandate for CEPEP (apart from the environmental protection).

According to the economist, it was targeted towards persons who were more vulnerable in society to provide them with “some kind of wherewithal, some kind of subsistence level living so to speak, so that they can eke out a livelihood.”

However, Attzs noted that in the early moments of CEPEP’S formation, the late cultural icon Pat Bishop was involved in the programme, where she referred to those enrolled as “CEPEPERS”.

She said, however: “Since 2015, for example, publicly I have been stating that there needed to be a re-imagining of CEPEP so that essentially you don’t be a CEPEPER for life, but when it provides that cushion for you initially, you find yourself graduating out of the programme.”

Attzs made mentioned of this reconceptualisation with reference to the Argentinian programme called “Jefes y Jefas de Hogar Desocupados”(Programme for the Unemployed Male and Female Heads of Households).

This programme is the same kind of community based programme, with people involved in different activities like landscaping, construction and masonry, with the intention of the development and enhancement of skills that can last a lifetime – which eventually leads to graduation out of the programme and into more sustainable forms of employment.

Attzs said: “So while we are having a conversation about rolling back the transfers and subsidies, there has to be a commensurate conversation in terms of reskiling people and allowing them to move out of the program.”

She continued: “So that if and when the time comes so that the subsidy to CEPEP has to be significantly reduced, and it is not difficult to re-imagine that that conversation may come at some point in time, there has to be something put in place so that the individuals who benefit from the CEPEP programme now, can in fact not be left by the roadside and not be thrown back into some levels of poverty or some levels of vulnerability.”

In an interview with the BG, the CEO of the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business and Former Minister in the Ministry of Finance, Mariano Browne indicated that currently, the CEPEP and Unemployment Relief Programmes (URP) are largely involved in sanitation exercises, which can be recalibrated “to work with local government and local government maintenance of the environment”.

According to Browne, these programmes are not coordinated. He said: “So for example in Port-of-Spain, you will find a CEPEP clan cleaning up a couple streets and the same streets the Port-of-Spain City Council is collecting garbage on and doing other things on that street too. So how is it coordinated between them? And that has to do with literally all the regional corporations.”

Browne proposed that the country should look at the system to make the property tax go towards maintenance, rather than simply going into the consolidated fund.

He said that in this way, the property taxes should be used to fund local government and regional corporations to make it more specific to what are the benefits that people enjoy so that they can see their property taxes working for them.

Meanwhile, UWI Lecturer Dr Roger Hosein argued that the $400 million set out for CEPEP in 2021, comes as a tremendous cost, not only in terms of nominal amount of money set aside for the programme but “the cost of reducing the amount of workers available for economic activity in other more productive parts of the economy, as well as it nurtures underemployment in the economy. “

Furthermore, Hosein contended that one can make the argument that in the post COVID period, that CEPEP does some merit, because significant chunks of workers were displaced, capital formation in various parts of the economy was lowered and therefore the state is playing something of a welfare role to help alleviate the pain and suffering for these workers.

According to Hosein support for CEPEP is not moving in the same direction as trying to boost the agricultural sector of T&T. He said: “My view is that in order to support agriculture, the CEPEP programme should have been converted into a FARMPEP programme and therefore these workers be allowed to work on farms.”

He said, in that way, food insecurity is reduced, food production increased and the import expenditure bill on food will also decline. Moreover, Hosein said workers would be placed into more productive areas, which would contribute to the increased GDP in the economy.

As the COVID-19 pandemic period subsides and the county transitions, Hosein argued: “The government of T&T needs to seriously consider halting the CEPEP program, except for the very poor and most vulnerable.”

Currently, Hosein remarked that Venezuelan immigrant workers can now fill areas in the farming sector. He said: “We don’t want to use that as an excuse to keep local workers locked down in to CEPEP.”

In the CEPEP programme, Hosein said, learning by doing is very low, the chance of technological spill overs is very minimal and therefore the CEPEP workers’ ability to become more developed is compromised.

He urged the government, that as growth returns to the economy (which would certainly com by 2022) to reconsider their policy stance on CEPEP so that these workers would be encouraged to migrate into the private sector and look for more long terms sustainable employment that would benefit themselves, their family and the country as a whole.