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Dr Vanus James

The Government has not taken serious steps to implement some of the proposals in the Roadmap to Recovery document.

This is the view of former planning minister Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, who was also a former principal of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and economist Dr Vanus James. Economist Dr Ronald Ramkissoon, who was part of the Roadmap to Recovery subcommittee, also felt that not much progress has been made in implementing the objectives of the report put forward a year ago.

Meanwhile, economist Dr Daren Conrad said that while no progress was made in the implementation, we have to put it into context, that resources had to be diverted.

One year, he also said, is too short for the Government to have made any significant steps in implementing the proposals.

The Government in its Roadmap to Recovery plan in 2020 promised to provide social assistance to those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and take steps to increase food production, boost aggregate demand and diversify the economy among other plans.

One year later, the Ministry of Planning, mandated to execute the delivery of the objectives said that it has taken steps to achieve the goals set.

Some of the things the ministry said that they have achieved so far by following the recommendations of the report was a $1 billion allocation to the agriculture sector to assist in greater food production, VAT refunds and millions in loans to businesses throughout the country. The ministry further stated that despite lower revenues, the Government continued to pay public sector employee salaries and have been encouraging them to work remotely in an attempt to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Tewarie: Get businesses back on their feet, digitalisation critical

Tewarie believes that the major priority of the Government should be getting businesses back on their feet so that they can survive post-pandemic.

“The first thing is to get those businesses that have survived the pandemic on their feet. It requires some sort of collaboration between the Government and private sector. The loans for the small business sector are not adequate. All they do is postpone the interest payment which accumulates at the end of the period. It doesn’t give any breathing room to the businessman.”

The second priority for the Government must be financing a large-scale diversification effort in T&T. To do this, the Government needs to make the country more attractive for foreign investment.

“This means dealing with the abysmal conditions of the ease of doing business, where we have fallen every year since 2015. We are now at position 105 in the world and by doing that to address the issues of competitiveness and innovation. Also, investment for diversification of production, export markets and import substitution activity,” Tewarie said.

“However, I don’t see the Government active in these areas as it’s almost as if economic activity is separate from interventions in the health sector. The two are directly related.”

Tewarie said the Government’s focus must also be how T&T borrows on the international financial markets so that the country would have new financing for future developmental plan.

He also said that the country needs to have a proper “digitalisation plan” to deal with the delivery of government services post-pandemic.

Tewarie also called on the Government to do more to secure T&T’s border and to seek grants abroad to assist the Venezuelan migrants in T&T as the Government does not have sufficient resources now.

The opening up of the airport will be a big step to give the business community confidence, he said. However, he added that this will only happen if enough people are vaccinated.

James: We must ensure businesses can survive, jobs saved

Economist Dr Vanus James said that the Government’s priority should be to ensure that businesses can survive the pandemic. In this way, people will have a job and there will be no need to rely on the Government.

“The mechanisms you need to support workers is through their jobs in the private sector. They have to build a relationship with the private sector to allow for the flow of resources to preserve the jobs of workers. Rather than have the workers directly dependent on the Government. They have to work with the business community to preserve the jobs people now have. This requires loan packages and programmes to raise productivity.”

He said roughly 40 to 45 per cent of the economy comprises medium to larger enterprises. Therefore, the Government should offer support not only to SMEs but to all businesses as long as they need those grants.

Ramkissoon: Digitalisation, increasing agri production should be the priority

Ramkissoon believes that the Government’s main priority moving forward should be the digitalisation of the economy and ensuring that agriculture production should increase so that the country can feed itself.

Ramkissoon said economic development was a long process and it is not possible to implement some of the ideas outlined in the report over the short term.

As part of the subcommittee, he identified weaknesses in the economy that need to be strengthened. He said they recommended certain ways to deal with the situation. “Already there were certain shifts in the structure of the economy in the sectors that were moving ahead. We recognised that society needed to be much more digital and IT-friendly. The delivery of goods and services depends on a strong IT infrastructure. Look at online education and people working from home.”

Ramkissoon said he was not aware of everything that is happening in every sector, and he hears about “bits and pieces” of things that are being done, but in terms of a comprehensive push for the Roadmap plan, he has not seen much so far.

“Maybe there are some things that are happening quietly. I do not know if this is so. What I do know is that we are continuing to fight this COVID-19 pandemic. We are looking for vaccines and there is promise in that area. We need to have more people vaccinated. Our businesses have been closed for too long.”

He said that COVID-19 showed up the structural weaknesses in the economy.

“What COVID-19 has shown for us and the world is that several of these ideas that we were thinking of and we had in a report ten years ago, we were too slow to implement. An example of this is not having adequate IT structures to deliver government services.”

Conrad: One year not enough to make significant steps

Dr Conrad, head of the Economics Department, University of the West Indies (UWI), however, said, “We have limited resources and the Roadmap to Recovery plan requires some level of investments in the different sectors. Given the country’s tight budget constraints and given the resources that were given to address the fallout, I would say that while no progress was made in the implementation, we have to put it into context, in that resources had to be diverted.”

He said once people have been vaccinated and the country returns to some state of normalcy, the authorities would attempt to implement some of the short-term measures.

One of the pillars that the report spoke about was helping the less fortunate and the social needs of the vulnerable. However, Conrad said that there was a lack of structure in terms of how social programmes are delivered in the country.

“We have social welfare programmes which turn into state-funded welfare programmes with a view of individuals that they are entitled to this on a long-term basis. What is supposed to be social development turns into social welfare with no meaningful outcome. Look at how many years they have been doing transfers and subsidies in the form of social welfare programmes rather than take on the approach of social development programmes.”

He said people are talking about welfare cheques which are important, but few people are talking about how they intend to enhance their skills for when the economy is fully re-opened.

Conrad believes that whatever political party is in power, there must be continuity in the objectives recommended in the Roadmap to Recovery plan.

BOX

The committee’s mandate

A report laid in Parliament in July 2020 stated that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley had appointed a high-level multi-sectoral committee on April 16, 2020, with the mandate to draft a roadmap for T&T in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic and social problems that ensued. In May 2020, the Ministry of Communications invited the public to be a part of the discussions by visiting the Government’s official website to submit their recommendations.

The first part of the report dealt with the health and wellness of the population, while the second part of the report dealt with the economy.

According to the report, the roadmap was intended, in the first instance, to guide the Government’s actions in the immediate short-term as the country navigates a challenging period ahead, driven by changing global, regional, and national circumstances and a new “normal” characterised by uncertainty and volatility and likely reduced economic activity due to COVID-19.

The report stated that “it is equally important for the roadmap to establish a solid foundation for the transformation of the economy and the accelerated and sustained development of our society over the medium to long term.”

The members

The Prime Minister is chairman of the committee and Gerry Brooks is co-chair. The 22-member committee comprises economists, accountants, business operators, people from the banking and finance sector, the energy sector, trade union and civil society.

The committee members are not paid for their expertise as they are doing public service, the Ministry of Planning stated.

BOX

Roadmap achievement so far, says Planning Ministry

The Ministry of Planning and Development said this was what they have achieved so far following the recommendations of the report:

1.The implementation of safe back-to-work protocols following guidelines established by the Ministry of Health, which saw improvements in remote and virtual working arrangements, as well as no widespread infections in places of work.

2. Policy decisions to immediately boost and sustain the agriculture sector featured as a priority in the 2020-2021 budget presentation with over $1 billion (TT) allocated to the sector to encourage increased production of raw materials, agro-processing, and the use of agricultural technology.

3. Support was provided to the private sector by the Government via financial assistance for companies and individuals to keep people in jobs through tax refunds, accelerated VAT refunds, zero-interest government-guaranteed loans, grants for micro-enterprises and more. Over 30,000 individuals and companies have benefited to date in T&T.

4. Although revenues have declined, priority has been placed on ensuring the payment of salaries, maintaining employment levels, and the provision of essential services, in which this Government has not faltered.

5. During April 2021, the Ministry of Planning conducted Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) assessment meetings with colleague ministers to discuss the status of this fiscal year’s projects and revise the plan of action going into the future with the effects of the pandemic at the fore. Some of the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) projects which have been progressing, informed by the Roadmap to Recovery Plan and guided by T&T’s National Development Strategy: Vision 2030 such as the Continuation of works on the re-development of the central block of the Port-of-Spain General Hospital and the construction of a new 106-bed hospital in Sangre Grande by the Ministry of Health, to ensure that the health system with its parallel service remains able to continue providing support.

6. Infrastructure projects such as the Ministry of Works and Transport’s Coastal Protection Programme, road repairs and improvements, maintenance of bridges also continue under the PSIP. There are also several projects currently being undertaken by various ministries focusing on digitisation, food security, human capital development, building climate and environmental resilience, and more, all guided by the Roadmap to Recovery report.

–Reporting by Raphael John-Lall

Continuing next week, we look at the proposals and implementation