Decisive Leadership is needed to stem the Exodus

 Decisive Leadership to Stem the Exodus

originally published:

Wrightson Road in Port-of-Spain. AZP News/Azlan Mohammed/

FORMER senators Clarence Rambharat and Devant Maharaj and actress/comedian Nicki Crosby are citizens who have opted for a sojourn outside of Trinidad and Tobago. I wonder why.

From their public profiles, I conclude that they are all nationalists, formerly committed to the progress of our twin-island republic but something inspired them to seek happiness elsewhere.

How are they different from the long list of companies who have abandoned the thought of setting up business in T&T?  From Sandals to WiPay, companies have made other choices to realise their dreams and aspirations in a country other than ours.

Since 2008, different governments have talked about diversifying the economy away from energy. Over the years we have even invested more than $15 billion of taxpayers’ money into the establishment of the T&T International Financial Centre (TTIFC) to realise the dream of diversification.

The International Financial Centre (IFC) concept is not unique to T&T and indeed many other countries have successfully set up IFCs and continue to work aggressively to distinguish themselves.

But our country seems to be stuck, unable to achieve that goal of diversification or to realise our dream of being the regional financial hub. According to their website, TTIFC seems to have pivoted to taking responsibility for building out our country’s FinTech-enabled ecosystem.

If someone asked: “Where do you see T&T in five to ten years” most of us would struggle to provide a clear answer.

Decisive, inspirational leadership is required for us to emerge from this stuckness. Many countries have used the misfortune of the Covid-19 pandemic to reboot their economies and focus on building back a stronger, more inclusive, green, and resilient economy.

The T&T response seems to be a doubling down on our petroleum dependency. According to the Green Economy Tracker, the petroleum sector provides 5% of jobs while accounting for 85% of our export earnings and 40% of government revenue.

This reliance on the petroleum sector and the provision of gasoline and electricity at globally low prices have caused our population to become complacent.

Our country has been estimated to have the world’s second-highest carbon footprint per capita.

Despite the benefit of our tropical location with an abundance of sun and wind, little has been done to create a green economy.

Our recycling efforts continue to be poorly executed and we still have not found the political will necessary to join the global movement to ban the use of plastics.

Decisive leadership which builds trust and confidence is what is needed to stem the outflow of citizens and businesses.

We all need to feel confident that efforts are being made to diversify our economy away from fossil fuels.

If I could influence our decision-makers to identify two areas of focus for our country, I would suggest massive investments in digitization and a deep pivot to creating and developing a green economy fueled by clean energy.

Maybe if technology underpinned all our actions and conservation was evident in everything we did, fewer citizens would think of leaving our beautiful twin island.

Maybe if the business environment was driven by technology, many more companies would consider setting up shop here.

Additionally, a better rating on the ease of doing index would help. Unfortunately, we continue to make poor decisions about the use of our technology and the greening of our economy is seldom ever discussed by our politicians.

For the foreseeable future, citizens like former senators Rambharat and Maharaj and actress Crosby will continue to remain outside of T&T.

Mental Wellness discussion

Maureen Joanne Bowen is a practicing Psychologist for the past 35 years and a Senior Lecturer at UWI Roytec for the past 28 years.

She comments that despite the high number of counselors in the country, mental health issues are still a taboo subject that is often swept under the carpet. She has managed Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) for a range of organizations and observed that while the attitude is becoming more positive, there is a significant amount of work to ensure that the average worker can access mental wellness support when they need it.

In commenting on what can individuals do to maintain their mental wellness, she notes the importance of authentic engagement on an ongoing basis. She also remarked that just the act of helping another person will add to one’s personal mental wellness.

Your Mental Health is important …

Mental wellness is the topic of discussion between Nirad Tewarie, CEO of Amcham, and Mental Health Counselor, Dennise Demming.

He commented that the importance of Mental Health was brought to his attention when he began to focus on the Health and Safety Track at the annual HSSE Conferences which Amcham has been hosting for more than 26 years.

His personal experience with the suicide of his cousin has motivated him to be an advocate for mental health. He commented on the need for people in organizations to use the services available to them in their EAP programmes as well as the importance of de-stigmatizing mental wealth.

We all need to recognize that our mental well-being is just as important as our physical wellness and sometimes requires even greater attention. It is indeed an investment in our overall well-being.

Transportation is a quality of life issue …

Trinidad and Tobago is not a healthy place, so how do we expect to be productive?  We are leaders in the incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the region.  Heart disease accounts for 25% of all deaths annually while diabetes and hypertension each account for 12% of the deaths.  The contributing factors include overweight/obesity, lack of regular exercise, and some completely avoidable stresses of a chaotic transportation system.

There are neither quick fixes nor easy solutions to these problems.  There is a World Health Organization (WHO) report titled: “What Ministries of Transport Need to Know” and I wonder if it is available to our cabinet Ministers because our Ministers have clearly missed the concept that “transport is strongly linked with health, development and the environment”.

Express May 22, 2022

There is no question that an effective transportation system that increases access to work, education, and health care will positively impact our population.  If students did not spend so much time getting to and from school, there would be more time available to engage in sports or other productive activities and just maybe redirect them away from drugs and crime.

If parents didn’t spend so much time in the traffic, they might just be motivated to prepare healthier meals for themselves and their families.  Healthy foods and a balanced diet directly result in improved health.

If we all spent less time on the roads and in traffic, we might all be encouraged to be active and become engaged in more physical activity.

If we had an organized transportation system, Trinidad and Tobago would reduce its carbon emissions and help mitigate climate change and environmental damage.

The government of Trinidad and Tobago has not even bothered to create a Transportation Authority to regulate the chaos which now prevails on our roads.  As recently as March 17, 201, Dr. Trevor Townsend, who was at the time a Senior Lecturer at UWI said that: “Trinidad and Tobago needs a national Transit Authority to govern the public transportation sector and protect commuters like 18-year-old Ashanti Riley, who it is alleged lost her life at the hands of a “PH” driver.” 

Our leaders continue to ignore the evidence that poorly managed transportation systems adversely impact safety, health, and productivity.

The National Strategic Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) outlines the strategic direction but never references the role of transportation.  We continue to miss the mark when we take a siloed approach to governing.

If we truly believe that the health of a nation is a fundamental determinant of the quality of life of its citizens and therefore an instrument of development, then we must make every effort to create the policies and frameworks which will nudge our citizens in the direction of making positive lifestyle choices.   Transportation is a quality-of-life issue that can have a significant positive impact on our health and productivity.  

After World War Two (WW2) ended in 1945, Japan was hardly able to feed its population, but they realised the importance of transportation and re-focussed their journey to continue developing the dream train.  Today Japan leads the world in the development of fast trains.  I don’t expect us to do the same, but we must develop and implement a transportation framework that will positively impact our own development.

Caribbean Wellness in Focus

In this edition of Caribbean Wellness, Mental Health Counselor, Dennise Demming chats with Clinical Psychologist, Denise Jittan Johnson. The discussion focuses on mental wellness and the need to bring mental wellness to the forefront of our discussions.

Historically Trinidad and Tobago has stigmatized persons as either healthy or mad and this stigmatization limits people’s access to support and help. Conversations about mental well-being are important for us to understand that even if we are struggling emotionally, there is help available.

In commenting on the work environment, it was noted that healthy attitudes positively impact productivity and that workplace wellness activities should not be annual check box items but should be built into the day-to-day work environment. A simple recognition that there’s a human behind every job title can go a long way to changing our response to mental wellness.

Mental wellness begins with the individual taking time off to check-in with themselves and really approaching that self-recognition from a space of kindness. People who are kind to themselves can extend that kindness outward to others and recognize that others are also dealing with their own stuff.

The PNM will win the next elections unless????

There is a continuous stream of commentary about how badly the country is doing particularly in terms of the economy and crime.  Despite this dissatisfaction, if general elections were called in the morning, my prediction is that the People’s National Movement (PNM) will retain power.

Cultural commentator David Rudder was spot on when he sang: “…how we vote is not how we party!”  Except for The Organisation for National Reconstruction’s (ONR) defeat in 1981 and the 33/3 victory of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) in 1986, we have been stuck voting based on race, religion, and skepticism for anything new and different.  

Recall the 1981 general election where the ONR received the second-highest number of votes and failed to win one single seat (“Not a dam’ seat for them!” is the line from the calypso ringing in my ears).  These were exceptions and while one may argue that the mood of the people is changing, I am willing to put a little bit of money that the PNM will win.  The failed experiment of the People’s Partnership (PP) demonstrated the potential for coalition governments to succeed but there are too many “open wounds” for that partnership to be re-established and gain traction in the approximately 39 months left until the 2025 elections.

There are currently 3 clear entities out on the streets: Watson Duke’s Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP);  Gary Griffith’s National Transformation Alliance (NTA) and Phillip Alexander’s Progressive Empowerment Party (PEA).  So far, Makela Panday has not indicated her intentions for the next general elections and I won’t be surprised at anything she and her daddy, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday might dream up.  Given our history, it is simple to conclude that neither of these entities on their own will cause the groundswell necessary to remove the incumbent.

If this were a movie, all that would be necessary is to identify a figurehead under whose leadership they could all function and provide a third choice to the voting public.  But this is the politically complex Trinidad and Tobago, so that is unlikely to happen

In the 2020 general elections, the PNM received 322,180 votes which represented 49.05% of the voter turnout while the United National Congress (UNC) received 309,654 representing 47.14% of the votes.  Since then, the PNM has been working hard to keep its supporters happy and while they are in control of the treasury, there isn’t enough money to trickle down.  Once things remain the same, that 49.05% of the voter turnout will vote as they are accustomed to, and we are likely to continue along this slippery slope. 

The “wild card” in the equation is the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) who boldly left their hometown in Tobago to brazenly challenge homeboy “Rowley” in Trinidad in the upcoming local government elections.  A good thrashing in those elections is likely to send the PDP leader Watson Duke back home to focus on repeating the strategic success that A. N. R. Robinson and Winston Murray experienced because of their retention of the Tobago seats.

There is another possible scenario. The UNC can experiment with a major change in its leadership, but that is problematic because, since former Minister of Trade, Vasant Bharath lost the campaign for political leadership to Kamla Persad Bissessar, he has spoken out in an individual capacity.  The other name whispered under one’s breath is Dr. Roodal Moonilal but he appears to not have a high level of trust within the Party.

Politics is not T20 cricket.  It can be more likened to a test match, which is won based on strategy and building partnerships.  With each passing over, the required run rate increases, leading to risky strokes and increasing the likelihood of wickets falling rapidly.

The PNM just needs to be patient and bowl a reasonable line and length and they will win the game.  There is power in incumbency.  A PNM win will be unfortunate for the country because thus far Dr. Rowley and his team have not demonstrated the intellectual competence to change the trajectory of our country.

The local government elections will indeed provide a good sense of the temperature of the country and if the PNM is successful, it might just provide an opportunity to call early general elections and therefore allow the PNM to extend its stay in office.  Either way, the road will be rough. 

Lessons from the Board Room (April 28, 2022)

Oliver Jordan and I discuss lessons from the board room at a conference hosted by @TheCaribbeanCorporateGovernanceInstitute.

In this candid discussion about governance, the presenters comment that private sector organizations are motivated by the return on investment for the shareholders while State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) often operate on the basis of subventions. The point is made that there is an even greater need for adherence to the highest accounting and investment principles because SOEs are using taxpayer funds.

Please, PNM, we need an efficient transportation system if we are to move forward

Dennise Demming Friday 29 April 2022 originally published in @wired868

Public transportation is a quality-of-life issue.

Sometime in 2015, this statement caught my attention and gave me hope that Trinidad and Tobago was finally beginning to take action to bring our country out of the doldrums of the 20th Century.

Photo: A maxi taxi waits for passengers.

Seven years later, transportation continues to be chaotic, dangerous, and energy-draining—both mental and physical energy as well as fossil fuel. We have disregarded the fact that our almost completely unplanned and very disorganised transit systems result in significant social and economic challenges for all citizens, from toddlers to the elderly.

It is noteworthy that in the western peninsula, there is an increased presence of buses on the routes into Diego Martin and Chaguaramas. But without easily accessible information about their expected times of arrival, very few persons will be attracted to hop on a bus.

Meanwhile, the region is beginning to act on transforming its transportation systems and exploring private/public sector arrangements. Audley Shaw, Jamaica’s Minister of Transport & Mining, recently indicated that his government is actively contemplating an arrangement to lease railway lines in the Montego Bay area for the transportation of tourists.

If this is successful, it will be an addition to the current arrangement that now obtains with the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC) and the bauxite companies that utilise the railway lines to transport bauxite.

Saint Lucia recently invited companies to tender for the formulation of an ‘Integrated, Sustainable Road Transport Policy and Strategic Roadmap for Implementation’.

Photo: A commuter waits for a maxi taxi on the Bus Route in D’Abadie.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/ Wired868)

The Barbados-based Caribbean Transit Solutions is working hard to provide real-time and on-demand information on public transport vehicles as well as private fleets of vehicles for citizens as well as tourists.

In Trinidad and Tobago, we are ignoring the bigger problem and focusing on fuel subsidies and the allocation of scarce foreign exchange for the importation of more cars.

The politicians know the problem and, in their manifestos, they have outlined several solutions. But when they occupy the corridors of power, something happens that causes amnesia.

In 2015, we knew that our road network was clogged with over 750,000 motor vehicles, crawling in endless bumper-to-bumper traffic. We knew that thousands of productive man-hours were being wasted every day in non-stop, grinding traffic jams, even at non-peak hours. We knew that there were neither traffic management plans nor mass-transit national transportation.

In 2019, Minister of Finance Colm Imbert commented that “Vehicle sales continue to charge along at an average rate of over 25,000 new registrations per year, with the total number of vehicles now well over the one million mark.”

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and Minister of Finance Colm Imbert.
(via Trinidad Express)

Now, seven years after the revelation about the quality-of-life nature of the public transportation issue, we are still stuck with no clear direction regarding the future prospects for transportation. There is one recurrent recommendation urging that we establish a Transit Authority to regulate all forms of public transportation.

The PNM manifesto of 2015 boasted thus:

It is a matter of record that virtually every institution in this country was created, nurtured and developed by the PNM. Our education system, our manufacturing, industrial and energy sectors, our road network, transportation systems, primary infrastructure, social services, public sector, state enterprise sector, creative industries, health services, public housing, and system of governance, among so many other things, were all given life by the PNM …

I note that ‘transportation systems’ was included in this proud boast about PNM accomplishments. So I wonder why, with the same party holding the reins of power since 2015, there has been no significant improvement in the system in all of seven years.

Photo: A taxi driver in San Fernando waits for passengers during the Covid-19 pandemic on 23 April 2020.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/ GhanShyam Photography/ Wired868)

The recent protests over the hike in the price of gasoline may just be the tip of the iceberg. It is my considered view that, in order to move forward as a society, we have little or no choice.

We—read Government—have to act now to ensure that the transportation system has no major negative impact on our quality of life.

We need to fix the system, not subvert it to suit our friends

Originally published in @wired868 on Monday 11 April 2022

The perception that if you are within the inner circle of the government, you can get anything you want was solidified in my mind with the recent announcement by the Prime Minister.

Clarence Rambharat, former agriculture, lands, and fisheries minister, we were told, is coming back into government and will take up a position in the yet-to-be-created Single Point Land Management Authority (SPMA) and his terms and conditions of employment will be determined by the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO).

Photo: Clarence Rambharat on the campaign trail in the lead-up to the 2020 general elections.
(via PNM)

In other words, the Prime Minister is seeking Cabinet’s support in forming a company while simultaneously instructing the CPO to determine the terms and conditions of employment of his nominee for the leadership role. In one announcement, we have thrown out any idea that there is a process to form a company and that the hiring procedure is fair and transparent and allows all suitably qualified citizens to access the opportunity.

In the normal course of things, forming a company, state enterprise or entity requires a clear articulation of the problem to be solved or the service to be offered followed by a careful definition of the core values and the mission of the organisation, development of the job description of the leaders before engaging the hiring process.

If the Prime Minister publicly throws all the rules of engagement out of the window, what are we to expect of the public servant when his friend asks a favour? What will motivate a junior person to feel a commitment to following the rules?

Successful organisations seek to recruit persons who can advance the mission of the organisation and often use a transparent process to invite persons who are inspired to help solve the problem. The failure of the SPMA is almost written on the cards because of the way the company was introduced to the public.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Office of the Prime Minister)

The SPMA is envisioned as solving a critical problem where state lands often end up being occupied without authorisation by persons who are bold and savvy enough to outfox the system. The entity is intended to eliminate corruption associated with the management of state lands.

A reasonable person cannot deny the need for regularisation and management of what happens with state lands. And given the historical inequity in the distribution of state lands, this issue must be managed transparently.

How will the SPMA differ in its role and responsibilities from the Land Management Division?

According to the Ministry of Agriculture’s website:

“The Office of the Commissioner of State Lands (COSL) is charged with the overall management, distribution, and allocation of all State Lands, which includes all shoreline below the high water mark and the seabed within the waters of Trinidad and Tobago.”

Photo: Former Minister of Agriculture, Land, and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2021)

If this is not working and you have found corrupt practices, we should be investing time and effort in fixing the system, not creating another bureaucratic structure. The message of repair can be deeply fulfilling and will necessitate hard work and dedication.

Instead of engaging in the hard work, our government has once again thrown up its hands and looked for a shining new entity in the hope that it will solve the problem.

We have not yet learned that workarounds have not worked and that, to regain the trust that people outside of the inner circle will be considered, what is needed is deep systemic change.

Order in the House! Is Prime Minister Rowley a tone-deaf role model?

Originally published on Friday 25 March 2022 wired868

“Order!” shouted the Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George. “Order!”

“Prime Minister,” the Speaker had already said three times while on her feet. Ignoring her, the Prime Minister continued his rant in response to what seemed to me to be a reasonable question from Naparima MP Rodney Charles.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2022)

The Speaker was not, however, moved to ask the Prime Minister to leave the House. Nor to adjourn the sitting.

That disconcerting sequence brought to my mind the 1967 Calypso Monarch the Mighty Cypher who sang ‘If the priest could play, who is me?’ If the Prime Minister disrespects the Speaker of the House in Parliament, then what are we to expect from the other members of Parliament?

What are we to expect from young men on the streets? What are we to expect from public servants in their daily interactions with the people they serve?

If the prime minister cannot control his anger, then what are we to expect of ordinary citizens?

I sincerely hope the Speaker has had the courage to have a private conversation with the Prime Minister, the very official who nominated her to her post. I sincerely hope she has advised him that any recurrence will be dealt with severely.

Photo: Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2022)

But it also makes me wonder whether, if the speaker were male, such disrespect would have prevailed. The last male PNM speaker of the House was Barendra Sinanan, MP, who presided from 2002 to 2010 and I seem to recall a different tone and general ambiance in the House.

Am I viewing things through ‘rose-tinted’ lenses or did parliamentarians behave in a more dignified manner then? Were they or weren’t they more deferential and respectful in the way they conducted themselves?

The average citizen tends to look to the party in power for leadership. Therefore, those who hold the reins of power are obligated to set a tone that is calming and collaborative rather than aggressive and disrespectful. Instead, we frequently witness tones of aggression, anger, and violence.

In these times of uncertainty and turmoil, we need leadership that is calm and purposeful. What I saw in Parliament was a prime minister, an employee of the people of Trinidad and Tobago, who felt it necessary to remind us that he is the prime minister and to suggest that the opposition member should go to Guyana or Barbados.

Photo: UNC member and Naparima MP Rodney Charles.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2022)

Had he been in complete control, he may have taken a deep breath and responded in a way that was much less aggressive and violent.

Almost simultaneously on television, the US Senate hearing for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson was in progress. In stark contrast, I saw a female leader maintaining her grace and dignity for many hours while under severe provocation and pressure.

Many of us here in T&T feel stuck and hopeless. It is an ideal opportunity for the leadership to intervene and change the tone from hopelessness to optimism.

I seem to remember, Prime Minister, that when you were asking for our vote, you implied that you would take leadership down a different path. Instead, whether it is in the Parliament, at a political meeting or at a news conference, we continue to be subjected to your language of violence and aggression.

I shall continue monitoring the parliamentary proceedings and I sincerely hope never again to witness the Speaker calling repeatedly but in vain for order to be restored.

Photo: Dr. Keith Rowley is sworn in as prime minister for the second successive term on 19 August 2020.
(via Office of the President)

If we are to reduce the level of violence in our country, our leaders, indeed, all our politicians must begin to always show respect for each other, for their employers (the citizens of T&T), and pour soothing oil on already troubled waters.