First post-Erika budget-the good, the bad and the ugly
There are a few aspects of the budget that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit presented on Tuesday to the nation that gave us some hope.
Firstly, there's an indication that, at last, the Dominica government has learnt some of the lessons from recent natural disasters, especially Tropical Storm Erika.
In the budget presentation, Prime Minister Skerrit disclosed that his government aims at building greater resilience in self-financing, rehabilitation and recovery after disasters and external shocks by establishing a Vulnerability, Risk and Resilience Fund. In our view, that facility is much overdue and we hope that implementation bottlenecks do not choke it to death before it starts.
We were also encouraged by another aspect of the budget which indicates that the issue of a national health insurance scheme is, at long last, getting some attention even in a small way. After nearly two decades ( recall the 2005 DLP Manifesto on page 24 promised to establish a national health insurance scheme) we have taken a little baby step towards solving a major health issue.
Prime Minister Skerrit announced that "immediately upon passage of this Budget", Government will discuss with the Dominica Social Security "to determine how an initial instalment of $5 million can be set aside and utilized in the creation and administration of a pilot health insurance facility, for these workers and their children".
Skerrit added: "My thinking is that effective 1st January 2017, mothers of children three years and under and all expectant mothers in Dominica would be eligible to register with the pilot health insurance service, to have up to 80 percent of all medical bills associated with the care of their unborn, new-born and infant, paid by the service".
In addition, the budget presentation of 2016, unlike other year's, gave citizens a view of the state of the economy from government's perspective. This time we didn't hear much from Mr. Skerrit about how great things are in the country and that Dominica was the Caribbean's shining example of economic planning and implementation. Apparently the prime minister realised that the usual hyperbole would not work this time.
Dominicans always knew that their economy was in shambles but the figures that the prime minister presented last Tuesday indicated the depth of the economic precipice that we are in at the moment and that to get out will require the blood, sweet and tears of all Dominicans- red and blue and all variations of political colours. Now is the wrong time for political divisiveness, chest-beating and spin.
In summary, the prime minister indicated, at the beginning of his two-hour address, that in 2015/2016 agriculture had its tyre blown out (15.1% decline); tourism's engine had stalled (down by 10.9%); construction's foundation collapsed ( a fall of 10.1%). As one would anticipate, the Dominica government blamed Tropical Storm Erika for the dismal performance of its economy and truthfully, Erika did make an already bad situation much worse.
Dominicans also learnt, for the first time, that foreign governments and donors gave Dominica about EC$38 million in grants and aid after TS Erika.
In addition we now understand from the budget presentation that the main money-earner for the government is not taxes anymore but the selling of passports and the revenue from that venture is to be used to reconstruct the roads and bridges that Erika washed away almost 12 months ago.
Nevertheless, the budget was disappointing from at least two perspectives. First, we heard nothing about the arrangements, from the budget that Prime Minister Skerrit presented on Tuesday, for implementing electoral reform activities. Incidentally, the Leader of the Opposition did not comment on the omission and to indicate to parliament that the process of electoral reform must begin now because Dominica should not hold another general election without fixing the voters list, deciding on identification cards for voting and introducing campaign financing legislation.
Secondly, the budget that Mr. Skerrit presented did not speak of long term plans to rebuild Dominica's economy to withstand shocks like TS Erika. Again we question the wisdom of spending so much of the scarce revenue that we earn from selling passports on the building of luxury resorts. According to the budget the Citizenship by Investment Programme will establish the following resorts: Oriental Developers Caribbean Ltd. (Silver Beach) – Picard, Portsmouth); Bois Cotlette Estate Inc. – Soufriere; AyAy Holdings Caribbean Ltd. (Jungle Bay Villas) – Soufriere; Secret Bay Developments (Petite Bay, Portsmouth).
The point we need to establish is that Dominica may need many more quality hotel rooms at the moment but we wonder whether the country should be investing in the creation of so many beautiful white elephants that will undoubtedly remain unoccupied and become play grounds for spiders and scorpions and lizards.
We say this because right now the occupancy rate of the existing hotels is about 20 percent (not 40 percent as government officials claim); so we need to increase the country's stay-overs visitors significantly otherwise the local hotels will feel the pressure from these resorts.
We also cannot help thinking that much of the money from the sale of the state's passports would be better spent in making a real effort at reviving agriculture- building feeder roads; setting up market arrangements; instituting research, development and farmer education programmes; controlling pests and diseases; erecting irrigation systems and establishing food processing plants. In short, Dominica would be better off if it makes a real effort at put our rural areas back to work again. In the past we made the mistake of failing to adequately utilize the substantial assistance that we have been receiving from China, Venezuela and the European Union to develop the productive sectors. We should not repeat that error.
We continue to argue that the development of agriculture and the revitalisation of the rural areas have to become the focus of Dominica's development thrust because these sectors are the quickest and most effect way of taking Dominica out of the social and economic precipice that the country has dug for itself aided and abetted by Tropical Storm Erika.