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October 11, 2023
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October 11, 2023

T&T’s inflection point: Budget 2024 and beyond

By Dr Marlene Attzs, Economist


On September 22, 2023, I presented to an online seminar a paper titled ‘T&T’s inflection point:  an assessment of Economic and financial viability and sustainability of Trinidad and Tobago’.

The national inflection point – a time of significant change in a situation – has been precipitated by the change in fortunes in the energy sector, the backbone of our economy.

Indeed, Trinidad and Tobago’s economy has been challenged since 2015 when oil prices collapsed. As he delivered his maiden budget speech on October 5, 2015, Minister of Finance, Colm Imbert, noted that “….Revenue collections from the oil companies in fiscal year 2015 amounted to $13.0 billion, $8.0 billion less than the budgeted estimate, reflecting both price and volume setbacks …this is the lowest level of revenue collected from the energy sector since fiscal year 2011…”.

Apart from the revenue challenges, Imbert’s maiden budget speech also highlighted the social upheavals plaguing the country at that time including whether the average citizen could then conclude, “…that they are living in a safe and sound environment without criminal activity? that they are exposed to a modern and efficient transportation system without traffic gridlock? that they are being provided with a reliable source of public utility services? that they are benefiting from an agricultural sector geared towards achieving food security?”  Fast forward to October 2, 2023, when the national budget for fiscal 2024 was read and this paper’s editorial of Sunday, October 8 in which there was a call for a “reset”.

The editorial noted, “Trinbagonians have long been encouraged to believe that the country is wealthy … Yet it is becoming clearer that, if it was ever true, we are no longer as wealthy as we once were… it behooves all of us … to focus on making the best possible use of what we have and to reduce our expectation that it is government alone that can and should solve all our problems.”.

The editorial resonated with me given my position on T&T’s inflection point.

For fiscal year 2024, incidentally the year before a national general election is scheduled, the domestic energy sector continues to struggle from low oil and gas output. Natural gas, the lifeblood of T&T’s economy, has not improved over the last year. Crude oil production has not fared any better.

This is the overarching context within which the Minister of Finance hopes to earn total revenue of $54.012 billion while spending $59.209 billion – resulting in a deficit of $5.197 billion.

In terms of his allocations to various ministries, Education, Health, and National Security received the biggest slices of the budgetary pie. The multi-billion-dollar question though is, do we evaluate the returns on investment given the large allocations apportioned to these ministries year after year?

There is no doubt that crime and national security are pain points in T&T. It is my view that allocating more and more funds will not necessarily lead to sustainable solutions.

In Budget 2024, not only was there a significant allocation to the Ministry of National Security but there were additional financial commitments – 80 million dollars to procure new vehicles and a commitment to increase the number of recruits in the police service from 300 to 1000.

Is the existing national security institutional framework, the whole apparatus that is the Ministry of National Security, appropriate to deal with the level and type of criminal activity we are witnessing daily?

Has the time not come for an organisational audit to identify the institutional strengths and weaknesses and assess whether as currently structured, the institutional framework may require structural changes?

A 2013 document, No Time to Quit: Engaging Youth At Risk, also referred to as the ‘Ryan Report’ since the Committee was chaired by the late Professor Selwyn Ryan, noted “Laventille… is like the ‘dagger’ pointed at the ‘soft underbelly’ of the capital city, and it would be irresponsible and negligent for those responsible for strategic planning to ignore the possibility that Laventille could in time be the weak link in the urban chain.”

The report went on to state that “… young African males in urban hot spots such as Laventille were more at risk of being directly caught in the criminal world of drugs, guns and deadly violent crime if something was not done immediately to stem the problem.”

In 2023, ten years after that report was laid in Parliament, the situation described by the Ryan Committee specific to one area, is evident throughout the country.

Will the additional allocation for national security in Budget 2024 solve this problem or is a deeper, analytical diagnosis needed?

My view again, is that the crime scourge is multifaceted – family and school socialisation coupled with other socio-economic factors – seem to be at the heart of this ubiquitous challenge.

We are at an inflection point.

In today’s complex society, addressing multifaceted challenges requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach – a whole-of-government approach that promotes collaboration and integration across diverse government agencies and departments.

The idea is to leverage collective resources and expertise to enhance efficiency, effectiveness, and responsiveness in addressing complex societal issues – including crime.

My hope is that we can find the collective will to reset, to be the change we wish to see in Trinidad and Tobago – side by side we stand or fall.

That’s just my point of view.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash