Peddle Hope Not Despair!

Sometimes a song, phrase or expression lodges itself in your mind as if on repeat play.  The one that is in my mind is the recent statement by former CEO of SWMCOL, Ronald Roach which was reported in the Trinidad Guardian on July 7: “We have not placed suf­fi­cient em­pha­sis on waste dis­pos­al. Our waste dis­pos­al meth­ods are very prim­i­tive and it has been so for a long time. I have been try­ing to change that. There is so much that needs to be done. We don’t get it as a coun­try. We don’t get it as a peo­ple.”

He was referring to “waste disposal” but I can replace “waste disposal” with “tourism sector”, “crime”, “education”, “sexual harassment” etc and the same sentiment will be valid.  We are at a place where the tourism sector has crashed; we can’t even afford to paint the white lines on our rapidly deteriorating roads; crime is out of control; 80% of students are unhappy their SEA placing; the Prime Minister continues to keep from the public the details of a report on how a sexual harassment charge about a Minister was handled and I can go on and on.

For the past 45 months we have been bombarded with the propaganda that there is not enough of anything; from money to pay public servants to hospital beds for the sick but the huge capital expenditure projects continue to be implemented.  There seems to be an insatiable appetite for building buildings and soon the road paving frenzy will unfold.

When households experience a money crunch, we do things like: repair and refurbish our furniture; spend only on what is essential; gather around the kitchen table and talk about how we are going to get out of this difficult space.  We hug each other and provide the reassurance that tomorrow will be a brighter day. In other words we take the necessary action and provide the inspiration, emotional support and hope.

It is no different for a country.  Our leader should be explaining that while our world has changed permanently we are creating a new and different space for Trinidad and Tobago.  He should be appealing to our aspirational selves and helping all of us believe that things can and will be better if we collaborate and take action to make our lives better.

Our leader could have identified three actions which citizens can take to make a difference.  Our leader could be peddling hope instead of wasting precious communication time either cussing the opposition, defending a poor decision or lamenting that we have no money while finding money to allocate to a commission of enquiry which is unlikely to finish in the remaining 15 months.

The author Tom Bodett said “a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do and something to hope for.”  My Prime Minister has a responsibility to provide our country with something to hope for.

Tourism Flounders

The recent termination of the CEO of Tourism Trinidad Limited is indicative of a wider systemic failure being experienced in every institution in the country.  It brings into focus the unreadiness of this current administration to do the job for which they applied. Under the stewardship of Dr. Rowley, we have burned down former TDC, created 2 new companies and the tourist arrivals continue on a downward spiral.  After 45 months, the decline in arrivals has not even levelled off while arrivals in the region move in the opposite direction.

The Minister, The Fired CEO and the Fearless Chair of Trinidad Tourism Ltd

Who will have the confidence to take on the responsibility of leading a company in which the Chairman fired her selection for CEO after 6 months; the Minister is “awaiting information” and leaked Board papers suggest that the CEO acted on her own volition and there is infighting amongst board members?

Clear, strong strategic direction must be taken immediately to begin the process of stabilizing the Tourism sector.  There are no quick fixes for the systemic failure of tourism in Trinidad and Tobago and whatever is done now needs a 6 – 9 month period before any results are seen.  In the short term whomever is left on the Board should urgently recommend the implementation of the Trinidad Tourism Sector Development Tourism Road Map 2016-2020 – Policy Proposal.  This will be a short-term measure while the Tourism Master Plan of 1995 is upgraded and modernized in keeping with current day trends.

A second action which can be taken is to appoint an interim action team comprising representatives from the tourism stakeholders to implement the top 5 priority actions which might stabilize the Sector.  These persons should be on short term contract and be given KPIs and deliverables tied to their remuneration.

Simultaneously, it is necessary to continue to build the new TTL according to its mandate and byelaws.  I disagreed with the closure of former TDC because the closure strategy has failed time and again in Trinidad and Tobago.  What is needed is transformative change to fix our institutions and for the Politicians to STOP trying to use State Enterprises and other Institutions to advance their myopic political agenda.

The Tourism Sector will not thrive under a heavy-handed government either PNM or UNC.   As visitors move along the tourism value chain, they interact with almost all sectors of the society and their experience is directly impacted by all sectors. For Tourism to work there must be complete collaboration –   from entry systems at the ports of entry to every other point of hand-off until the visitor leaves the country or moves on to the next destination. If people understood the direct relationship between their income and the product or service they offer, they would be energized to give of their best but nobody is explaining that to the Immigration Officer, the Taxi Driver, the Tour Guide etc. 

The current situation is that the Sector is in shambles and there are small and medium sized businesses which continue to suffer daily.  They are the ones who must demand clear, decisive actions because they stand to lose the most. Like many other things in this country, the sector is “fixable” but it requires leadership which is even-handed and focussed on a long term result.  We cannot continue to look at the election cycle because that is what has caused the perpetual mis-management, waste and corruption. For our nation to thrive we must be looking at a 50-to-100 year strategy which will build institutions which are robust and able to withstand the vagaries of modern day living.

The World Tourism Organisation projects international tourist arrivals to the Caribbean to increase by 2.2% a year to 25 million in 2020.  Trinidad and Tobago must carve out the section of that growth we are going after and place a laser like focus on how we are going to get the market share.  Without a clearly articulated vision, we are guaranteed to get to continue along this current path to underdevelopment.

Why we can’t get foreign exchange?

The allocation of foreign exchange to Jane and Beharry Public continues to be inequitable and discriminatory. The ordinary citizen cannot get foreign exchange but franchises keep popping up all over the place. Clearly if you operate in the right circles you can get foreign exchange at will.

Who needs another Starbucks, Chucky Cheese, Wendy’s, Porche dealership etc? Why are we importing dried mangoes from Thailand instead of encouraging local entrepreneurship?

Photo: Starbucks is believed to be thriving in Trinidad

I recall that the Couva Children’s Hospital was supposed to bring in foreign currency by attending to patients from other countries but it remains closed. These are just mundane, everyday examples of how our foreign exchange is being mis-allocated.

I came across three cases of citizens who are angry because they cannot get foreign exchange to carry on with their lives.

Case One is of a returning resident who sold his property in England, brought the funds to Trinidad and built a home with the intention of retiring.  After 10 years he is so disenchanted that he wants to move on, but cannot get access to the money after selling his newly built house. He is now stuck in a place with money which he can only spend locally.

Case Two is a woman who has been living abroad for 15 years and has been investing in financial instruments which have matured; and she cannot get the funds out of the country now to continue her life abroad.

Case Three is of another woman who emigrated 20 years ago and cannot get access to her retirement lump-sum or monthly pension.

I have had the humiliating experience of having to line up daily to get US$100 in order to carry out some random transactions. Something is terribly wrong with the system. It appears to favour those with contact and access.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago is feeling a foreign exchange crunch.

Is the reason that the ordinary citizen is experiencing these problems rooted in our corrupt systems, which are based on who you know and not what is the right thing to do?

The population understands that the energy sector has contracted resulting in a reduction in foreign exchange inflows. We also understand that very little has been done to diversify the economy to make up the shortfall, despite decades of experts telling us that we need to diversify the economy. What is clear is that citizens without contact or friends in the right places will continue to feel the pinch.

So if your son, daughter, tanty, etc, ‘in foreign’ need some help, you can’t offer it because you can’t get the foreign exchange to send. For the hundreds of thousands of Trinidadians who have migrated but have funds in Trinidad from pension plans or other instruments, that money remains unavailable, locked away from their access.

This is simply inequitable, unjust and unfair. Additionally, it does not inspire confidence that the system will work in your favour at all times.

Governments must inspire confidence in people by operating even-handedly and transparently so please let us know who are the users and recipients of this scarce resource.

Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert.

Against every wrong!

The Jawala Rambarran / Colm Imbert debacle is not new.  It is alleged that the goodly Minister prevented the employment of former Central Bank Governor at the G-24 Secretariat.  I am aware of several careers which have been halted by the political attitude that if you dare object to what I am doing or support the opposition you will “eat grass”.  Both the PNM and UNC (and/or its derivatives) are guilty of destroying careers and lives simply because they perceived that their opponents held a different view or objected to action.  Our society will not progress under the leadership of persons who are so vindictive and short-sighted. It is beyond my comprehension that a Minister can allocate some of his time to preventing a person from being employed or being awarded a contract.  

In this winner-take-all political system, people are justifiably afraid of being victimized.  I have seen how the winner-take-all political system extends way beyond the seats in Parliament.  Indeed it impacts the day to day running of the country. It translates into policy decisions about where a highway or houses should be built or if a project should be halted or if approval should be granted for a development being sponsored by a political financier.  Unfortunately we have bastardized our political system to the extent that this winner-take-all attitude is setting us up for conflict.

In an ideal world, it should not matter who is in control, all action should be in the best interest of the citizenry and there should be such a planned approach to development that “John Beharry Public” is the winner.  The ideal world should prescribe that the state boards be appointed on the basis of competence and therefore are not affected by a change of political parties. In the ideal world, politics will be de-linked from infrastructural development and plans would not be derailed simply because the new Minister does not agree, or that he does not like the incumbent, or has a friend who is expected to be the beneficiary of a particular contract.  The development of the country should be a planned, sustained effort aimed at providing the best quality both in terms of outcomes and procedures.

Both political parties mouth some version of having a meritocracy and focussing on the citizens but their talk is not substantiated by their actions.  We continue to hear wild promises but see focussed action directed towards benefitting their inner circle of friends and financiers. They do not even have the courage to call out wrong doings.

Our country is at a significant crossroad where we need a breath of fresh air and a new kind of change.  What is needed is a cadre leaders who are mature and have the tenacity to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. The challenge we face is that we know that the political system is broken and the leadership of both parties is without vision or empathy so we are back to “who we go put”.  

This is a time for patriots to stand up to tyranny and wrongdoing.  We cannot continue to pay lip service to the phrases about taking back our country.  We have to stand up to every wrong that is presented.

Minister Imbert’s arrogance!

Finance Minister, Engineer Colm Imbert has once again demonstrated an attitude of arrogance when he tried to call out the Regional President of BPtt and almost with scorn said she relied on technocrats for advice as if that was a problem.  Last time I checked, BPtt is a successful global organization managing a budget that is significantly larger than the national budget of Trinidad and Tobago. Maybe their success is because of their understanding of the value of collaboration and the importance of relying on technocrats and subject matter experts for advice.  Maybe our failure as a nation is because we ignore the technocrats and rely on politicians like the current Minister of Finance who has no track record in Finance.

The Minister’s intemperance in referring to BPtt’s action is almost as bad as Roget’s infamous “take your platform and go”.  I guarantee you that the decision to “pause” was not made singly by this Australian Accountant. It would have had major direction from BPtt’s global team.  To add insult to injury, the “Engineer Finance Minister” referred to other operators in the market including Shell, EOG and BHP Billiton. I wonder what is he channelling!

A day later the “Engineer Finance Minister” attempted to explain that he simply meant to convey that “like any person without discipline-specific expertise, will need to rely on expert technical advice to arrive at an informed decision.”  This was a good comeback but an oversized shoe is already in his mouth. I looked at the presentation in Parliament and made the following observations:

Firstly,  the “Engineer Finance Minister” does not understand that organizations like BPtt are designed for seamless transition at the head.  His comment that a lot is happening at BP is instructive. It reflects the approach used by our “Engineer Finance Minister” during the transition from the People’s Partnership to the PNM.  Put everything on pause until I understand what is happening here.

He commented that Mrs. Fitzpatrick is neither a geologist nor a petroleum engineer but merely an accountant so in deciding to press “pause” she had to rely on advice.  In his subsequent explanation of what he meant, he talked about the importance of being advised. I wonder what happened to the advice given by the now defunct Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB) which he preferred to dissolve rather than take their advice.

My third observation is about the tone and I wonder if the head was a Mr. Fitzpatrick instead of woman, if he would have been so caustic in his remarks.  Trinidad and Tobago would be well served if Mr. Imbert apologizes to the head of BPtt for any unintended conclusions which  his intemperance may have conveyed.

Demming: 3,777 teenaged pregnancies in past four years; and here’s why you should care… — Wired868

Dr Rowley’s Carenage interview suggests gun violence trauma at epidemic level.

This interview with Dr. Rowley and his constituents aggravated a deep wound in that area.  What I saw and heard was a man from within the constituency reliving the pain of the shooting death of his mother WPC Bernadette James and asking for some assurance that the shooting death of the 14 year old female by a Police Officer would be investigated.  Twice he mentioned that he was 7 years old when his mother was allegedly accidentally killed on the rifle range on a training exercise in Chaguaramas. He personalized the shootings for the Prime Minister by pointing out that the Prime Minister’s godson was shot on another occasion.  This brought the issue of police shootings very close to the Prime Minister and made me ask the question: What can be done?

Photo: An irate Carenage resident, who identified himself as the son of slain WPC Bernadette James, makes a point to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

The optimum approach would be collaboration between the Government and the Opposition but with the recent arrest of a former Attorney General current Opposition Senator, collaboration seems highly unlikely.  In 2015 under the Leadership of then Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, Trinidad and Tobago was listed as an adaptation partner in the Cure Violence programme which is having global success but as usual, when either the UNC or the PNM wrest power from each other, they simply discontinue initiatives and start over.  The Cure Violence model to prevent violence is currently being implemented in 10 countries across more than 25 cities and 60 communities.  Programs are expanding into new communities in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Latin America, as well as in the Middle East, including Syria.  Seems to me that since Trinidad and Tobago has some experience with the programme, we could stretch across the aisle in Parliament, discuss the benefits that could be derived and work towards implementation.  Read more about the Cure Violence model here.

The Cure Violence Programme came to my attention via a TED talk by Epidemiologist, Dr. Gary Slutkin who “applied lessons learned from more than a decade fighting epidemics in Africa and Asia to the creation of a public health model to reduce violence through behaviour change and disease control methods.  He is an Ashoka Fellow, a Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a senior advisor to the World Health Organization and the 2009 Winner of the Search for a Common Ground Award”.

A second area crying for attention is the thousands of people who have been impacted by deaths by shooting over the past 5 years.  It is reported that we have had 2,000 deaths by shooting and if we assume that each death impacted 10 people, then we perhaps have 20,000 people suffering some kind of trauma associated with gun violence.  Unless there is some meaningful intervention, it is likely that this trauma will lead to more violence.

Crime in Trinidad and Tobago is now at epidemic level and the solution lies in a collaborative approach.  It is time to depoliticize crime in the interest of the citizens of our country.