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The view from the outside

by Dr Marlene Attzs Sooping-Chow

In December 2016, months after I started writing this column, I expressed my disappointment with some of the national institutions meant to support economic growth and development.  My contention was that many of our national institutions continue to fail us by their underperformance. I suggested this failure is one of the reasons we struggle to find a steady and sustainable path to economic development and prosperity.

The important role that institutions can play in determining a country’s economic and development trajectory was recently given attention by the Inter-American Development Bank or IDB. The IDB is one of the Washington-based multilaterals that also operate in the Caribbean.

Through its Caribbean Country Department, the IDB devoted its March 2018 Quarterly Bulletin to an analysis of how institutions affect development paths in the Caribbean. The analysis presented some initial findings on the performance of institutions in the Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

To put that report in context, the IDB noted that “…Less successful countries are those where these institutions are absent or have not been properly developed. A lack of institutions, or having institutions that are Ill-designed, has resulted in more vulnerable economies with reduced flexibility to adapt and confront changing and unexpected circumstances…”

Naturally my interest in the report was from a Trinbago perspective.  Some of the highlights from the Report was the focus on national institutions specifically those treating with education and healthcare, matters of an economic nature and institutions responsible for the rule of law.

My first take on the IDB Report is that there is need to revisit our education agenda and critically review “for whom are we educating?” and “for what purpose?”  The Report noted that among persons aged between 25 and 65 years old, “…the share with no or incomplete primary education in Trinidad and Tobago (approximately 15.4 per cent) is higher than in the comparator regions.”

It also suggests that among persons between 25 and 65 years of age, 19.8 per cent “… have completed tertiary education, which puts Trinidad and Tobago above the Latin American average (13.6 per cent), but substantially below the rest of the small economies (27.9 per cent)…”.

Citing the Global Competitiveness Report, the IDB report also hinted that the quality of Trinidad and Tobago’s education system has declined.

The second element of the IDB Report that was noteworthy was the role and performance of our economic institutions. On this score the multilateral agency noted, “Fiscal performance worldwide has been shown to improve with the existence of institutions that aim to correct incentives, contain overspending and allow for medium-term fiscal planning…”

Looking at our current economic systems in T&T, our main focus is the presentation of projections for revenues, expenditures and the fiscal balance at the start of the fiscal year –‘d Budget’. The IDB report lamented however, “… fiscal planning is not typically done within in a multi-year macroeconomic framework [and] medium-term forecasts of important macroeconomic aggregates are lacking… Therefore, the country would benefit from a more detailed medium-term framework that allows for fiscal planning and budget execution…”.

In other words, the annual cycle of waiting for ‘d Budget’ should be reviewed and perhaps consideration given to shorter periods of fiscal planning to account for any changes in the domestic or global environment.

At the more general national level a question now looms over the future of another economic institution, the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB). In 2015 the EDAB was established to “… provide advice on matters of economic policy … [as well as] guide and coordinate the activities of Government, government agencies and, through public-private partnerships and consultation … in the formulation and implementation of national development strategies and policies, as well as sectoral plans, programmes and projects”.

Since it cannot be ignored given the palpable unease about crime in the country, institutions responsible for the rule of law also are addressed in the IDB report.  “Crime and insecurity remain a major challenge in Trinidad and Tobago…Furthermore, almost one out of two women in Trinidad and Tobago have faced some form of violence in their lifetime. The high incidence of crime and violence has been linked to drug-related activities, limitations in enforcing the law, and the lack of credibility of the police force. Perception surveys show mixed views about the functioning of rule of law institutions…”.

The view from outside is clearly consistent with the views expressed by many on the inside – we cannot simply wish for a path to development, there has to be concerted time, effort and resources invested in developing and maintaining key institutions.

In the midst of failing institutions, Michelle-Lee Ahye has given us a reason to smile. The young athlete has made history for Trinidad and Tobago by securing the country’s first female athletics gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in the 100 metres women’s final. Well done Ms Ahye! Thanks for giving Trinbago a different and positive view from the outside.

That’s just my point of view.