While one would expect that the PPP government, faced with flagging popularity in even its core support demographics, would try to propose a budget geared more towards surface citizen appeasement than actual economic practicality, no one could have predicted that it would be at the level of fluff as was the 2014 budget as presented by Minister of Finance Ashni Singh on Monday.
I expect more detailed analysis from the experts like Christopher Ram, and hopefully from the parliamentary opposition, but for now I’d like to share my own initial impressions on one key programme that was clearly designed to hoodwink the general population, ie, the ludicrous $10,000 per child, $2 billion initiative coming under the Ministry of Education.
This is the most blatant example of using the national budget for temporary popularity points and possible electioneering as opposed to sustainable development, and in the crucial education sector of all places. I can quote the relevant paragraph (6.21) of the Finance Minister’s speech:
“In an effort to provide additional support to parents with school age children, Government will provide this year a cash grant to the parents of every child attending a nursery, primary, or secondary school in the public education system in the amount of $10,000 per child for the year 2014. This grant can be used to meet such costs as transportation, and will provide added impetus to raising enrolment and attendance rates, in addition to having the effect of increasing the disposable incomes of the parents of school age children. This initiative will benefit the families of [sic] the 188,406 families of the students of public nursery, primary, and secondary schools, and will cost a total of $2 billion.”
First of all, as much as $10,000 in itself might seem tempting to the majority of us poor Guyanese, this works out to roughly about just $33 per day per child – that is less than a one-way passage to school in the vicinity of Georgetown; in contrast, $10,000 is easily what the child of a PPP ‘elite’ spends sporting on a Saturday night.
Secondly, this one-size fits all handout apparently did not take into account the range of incomes of parents whose children are in the public school system and seems to allocate the same $10,000 to the working class single mother in Sophia as it does to the two-job nuclear family in Queenstown, as opposed to, for example, allocating this money on a needs-assessed basis.
Thirdly, considering the government’s baleful accountability record on massive cash payouts or similar large-scale programmes, none of which have actually been of comparable logistical/financial scale to this ‘initiative’, it is not unrealistic to foresee that is going to be riddled with widespread corruption; up to now, for example, the PPP has refused to present audited records of the comparably smaller 2007 World Cup Cricket expenditure, or of the 2008 Carifesta expenditure, despite Minister Frank Anthony’s repeated promises to do just that – indeed, it is my understanding that millions of dollars allocated for Carifesta X have yet to be disbursed, six years after the fact, while there are serious red flags attached to some of those funds that have been disbursed so far.
Fourthly, the fact that this handout was not meant to be long term, and is really just for 2014, indicates that the PPP has no real interest in the supposed stated goals of the initiative. If the government were truly interested in a long-term initiative to put disposable income in the hands of Guyanese parents, it would reduce the level of VAT from the onerous 16%, something that candidate Donald Ramotar promised to explore in June of 2011 via a tax committee but which as President he has refused to do; a 5% reduction in VAT would comfortably put far more than that $10,000 as disposable income into the hands of parents and other Guyanese, including teachers and other education sector or auxiliary workers. Additionally, if another goal of this initiative is access to a better education system, the Budget would have catered for at least a significantly incremental increase in the salaries of teachers, something the PPP has perennially refused to do.
This ‘grant’ programme is being done openly and brazenly using the very tax dollars that the people themselves are forced to expend under the same repressive tax regime put in place by the PPP government itself. I believe that it is cynical, desperate and indecent and the political opposition should oppose it, counter-proposing instead the more viable and long-lasting alternative of a hike in teachers’ pay and a reduction of VAT allowing for more disposable income across the board; then let the PPP explain to the people, with all its trumpeting of record economic growth and sound fiscal management, why this cannot be done.