The following is the final part of the edited version of the speech delivered at the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) virtual meeting on the Castries Central Market steps, August 23, 2020, by Alva Jn Baptiste, member of parliament and district representative for Laborie.
By Alva Jn Baptiste
The 2020/2021 budget is a hot mess
I fully support legitimate private sector development, as it plays a key role in creating economic growth, employment and improved living conditions. Legitimate private sector development is central to our fight against poverty, and to support the private sector in its role as a driver of job creation, a provider of goods and services and a generator of the public revenues needed to underpin economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development.
At the last sitting of parliament, we were asked to approve a total of US$75,700,000 or EC$204,390,000. None of these projects or borrowings were included in the budget that was recently passed.
This tells us that the budget recently passed is a farce and does not serve its purpose of being the financial plan for the country for the fiscal year 2020/21. Given this scenario, it is absolutely important that we get an update on the budget from the minister for finance. In other words, the minister for finance needs to present a supplementary budget in accordance with section 21 of the Finance (Administration) Act.
Also, at the last sitting of parliament US$20 million was approved for the Caribbean Digital Transformation Programme. Based on my research, the objectives of the Caribbean Digital Transformation Programme project is noble and will go a long way in developing a digital economy, if implemented well. However, herein lies the problem. The government of Saint Lucia has approached everything in a haphazard, slipshod, parochial and ad hoc manner. The public sector modernization, ICT, and the digital economy are no exceptions.
Moreover, do you know that the Caribbean Digital Transformation Project was not featured in the budget; and was not even mentioned in the Budget Speech? This is a major omission, as this project was not conceptualized yesterday, and should have been included in the budget.
Based on the budget presented, the total cost for Capital Projects for Public Sector Modernization in the Fiscal Year 2020/21 is $87,564,161. When the Caribbean Digital Transformation Project is added, the total project cost for public sector modernization jumps to $141.6 million.
History is indeed replete with many ICT projects becoming failures, and our recent experience of WiPay, shows that they can be funnels for very high-level corruption. Therefore, we need to ensure that our scarce resources are wisely and transparently invested in ICT.
World Bank-funded projects
In this regard, it is important to look at how well our ICT projects have performed, especially, the World Bank-funded ICT projects. The first project funded by the World Bank was the 2008 Electronic Government for Regional Integration Project or EGRIP as it was known.
This project had as its centrepiece, the implementation of the Multipurpose ID system and the hardware, software and all of the relevant training was provided to staff. However, up to now, the Multipurpose ID system has not been implemented and this project is deemed to be a failure.
The next World Bank-funded project was the Caribbean Infrastructure Communications Project or CARCIP, which is currently ongoing and for which we approved an additional loan at the last sitting.
In this year’s budget, an amount of $6,868,281 is allocated to CARCIP of which $2,794,526 is financed from the World Bank and $4,073,755 is financed from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) – the same IMF money that was supposed to be used for essential health expenditures, income support to workers and cash support to households.
Do the words “misappropriation” and “embezzlement” of public funds seem appropriate here?
Now, let us look at our major concern with CARCIP and by extension, what could happen to the Caribbean Digital Transformation Project and serve as a lesson learned.
Based on the figures in the current estimates, the total project cost of CARCIP is $27,150.820, of which $18,112,758 was spent as at March 31, 2020. However, in the budget for 2019/20, the total project cost was $20,554,884; and $13,601,003 was expended as at March 31, 2019.
The prime minister and minister for finance provided no explanation whatsoever as to why under his watch and in one year, the project cost increased by the staggering amount of $6,595,936 or 32 percent. Where has that money gone?
This is an administration which prides itself on avoiding cost overruns but we know better – how it conceals such overruns by avoiding the tendering process and granting inflated direct awards to its friends, family and foreigners.
Therefore, Saint Lucian’s want to know why such large cost overruns on this project?
Both of these projects had noble intentions, but seem to have been implemented poorly by an incompetent, inept and corrupt government. And we are now going into a major investment – into another project and I am concerned that we have not learned from past lessons of failure.
Further, we have a project in the 2020/2021 Estimates called ICT Evolution: Building A Secure Connected and Modern Government: which has a total cost of $45,514,117 of which $10,608,479 is allocated this year and financed from the IMF’s Rapid Credit Facility. Again, money which was intended for health expenditure, income support and cash transfers, being essentially embezzled and deflected to other uses or misappropriated.
This project was included in the 2019/2020 Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure; a total of $8,299,224 was expended. At the time, it was called ICT Evolution and the source of financing was bonds. The source of financing has now changed in this year’s budget. However, it is interesting to note that in the budget for 2019/2020, a total of $13.2 million was allocated to consultancy out of a total projected expenditure of $15.6 million. I understand that a company out of Singapore called Crimson Logic has the contract for this project.
The question is, was this project tendered, or is it another case of Direct Award to friends, family and foreigners (FFF)?
This government has a fetish for companies out of the Far East:
- We have the infamous DSH – a Teo Ah Khing project, from Malasysia.
- We have Pemandu, which has used Saint Lucian’s for free to develop the multi-million dollar vision and medium strategy for the government, as well as helping with implementation, is also from Malaysia.
- We have Health City from India.
- And we have Crimson Logic from Singapore.
If this is not reason enough to worry, it appears that this Evolution Project bears a striking similarity to the Caribbean Digital Transformation Project, and there is significant overlap.
We must therefore be very concerned that the combined cost of these projects is $99.5 million, just under $100 million. And given this government’s poor record with ICT projects, I have serious concerns about taking away monies intended to directly assist the people of Saint Lucia, to finance these projects.
This Allen Chastanet-led United Workers Party (UWP) administration, from June 6, 2016, has shown no compassion for the poor and vulnerable – and has no commitment to a social safety net (public welfare) in contrast to much infinity for corporate welfare.
This Chastanet-led UWP administration appears before the world as a callous government, devoid of empathy.
If all indicators are to continue along the same trajectory, especially in respect of the dynamic of economic inclusion and exclusion, we shall soon reach a point where the negatives are going to overwhelm the positives. Because, by wasting tens of millions of dollars of our country’s money into OJO Labs, Cabot St Lucia and DSH, at the expense of our development, we are being denied the use of our resources to reduce poverty and inequality in Saint Lucia.
Under this government, we are facing growing conditions of inequality and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few households, while large sectors of our country are being excluded.
I, therefore, end with this simple but urgent message: that we must put an end to this UWP administration before it puts an end to us.