£60 million of Humanitarian Aid
There are two recent editorials in The Anguillian newspaper that I want to comment on. They are critical of the conditions that come with the £60 million (EC$250 million) of humanitarian aid that the UK has offered to Anguilla post-Hurricane Irma.
The editorial on page 2 of the issue of 30 March asserts that “it is difficult to reasonably conclude that the UKG, by stipulating stringent conditions for the release of the grant funds, is acting primarily in the interests of Anguilla and its people.” The piece then goes on to criticise the “insistence on the placement of a UK official within the Ministry of Finance . . . who would have considerable responsibilities over the public finances of Anguilla.” This is described as a “slap in the face of the Minister of Finance and his finance officials.” The proposal is said to be “abhorrent to all right thinking Anguillians as it can only be seen as seeking to diminish the dignity of resilient and persevering Anguillians.”
The editorial on page 2 of the later issue of 6 April continues to play the same theme. The author urges that when the aid was originally offered, “it was taken at face value with no mention whatsoever of onerous and discouraging conditions.” Then, “All of a sudden enter Mr Ben Merrick, Director of Overseas Territories, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister of the Overseas Territories, springing the surprising conditions on the people of Anguilla.” The UK Government is urged to “quickly release the promised 60 million pounds in humanitarian aid . . . and exercise faith in the Anguilla Government and the highly-qualified and responsible local financial and economic experts in the Ministry of Finance.”
These two editorials are part of an expected smokescreen. Humanitarian aid by way of a gift of money that is not subject to safeguards over its spending is money that is often thrown away. Which donor country in its right mind would release any sum of its own taxpayers’ money, far less such a significant amount as £60 million, to a government which many, including Anguilla’s Chief Auditor, believe has proved itself incapable of properly accounting for its own taxpayers’ funds, unless it puts in place the most stringent safeguards?
The UK conditions in question were analysed in my two-part ‘Anguilla: Sustainable Recovery and Resilient Development Post Irma’ published on my website on March 11 and March 18. They were both published in recent weeks in The Anguillian newspaper. In my view, few of the conditions that are asked of us in Mr Merrick’s letter are unreasonable. None of them is new. Nearly all of them are conditions that we should have imposed on our Ministry of Finance when they were spending our own money. The only shame is that instead of us imposing those conditions on ourselves we had to wait for someone else to force them on us.
As for the threat of imposing an all-powerful ‘Chief Financial Adviser’ on us, we were warned about this since the year 2015 when we were first threatened with its imposition by Order in Council. We opposed the creation of a ‘finance tsar’ then and, as I explain below, we should oppose it now.
Such an appointment is not a matter of “seeking to diminish the dignity of resilient and persevering Anguillians.” Those emotional words are an appeal to false patriotism. There is a real principle at risk here. As a matter of background, while it is true that some of our past Ministers of Government were irresponsible in their handling of public funds, they did it under the negligent supervision of the UK appointed Governor. The Governor had the constitutional power to insist on our Ministers and senior Administrators, such as Permanent Secretaries and Heads of Department, following the existing provisions of the Financial Administration and Audit Act. Instead, successive Governors neglected their duty to ensure good governance. The Chief Auditors complained about these defects for years as they repeatedly refused to give our Public Accounts a clean certificate for just this reason. No Governor or British official it seems took notice. There was no one else in our system of government to follow up on the Chief Auditor’s complaints. It is only in the past two years that, for the first time in the history of Anguilla, a Public Accounts Committee (the PAC) has begun to meet and to call public officials to account for their spending of public monies. We can hope the PAC will begin to demand that the Chief Auditors complaints are heeded.
The principle that is at risk here is that, as a developing society, we must constantly strive to improve our systems of government. Where we are negligent or ineffective in this struggle, it is the constitutional duty of the FCO to help us stiffen our spines. They can do this by loudly and openly insisting that we follow the correct path, instead of apparently shutting their eyes to our financial transgressions. They can tell the Governor to do his duty in insisting Ministers follow the law. In this way, with our own efforts propped up by the guidance of those UK administrators (theoretically with more experience in good governance than us), our democratic institutions will grow in strength. Imposing, instead, a ‘finance tsar’ who will simply set aside bad decisions of our Ministers of Government and bad laws of the House of Assembly (after those decisions were made in ExCo under the chairmanship of the Governor) will teach us nothing except how to become very angry and insubordinate. The appointment of an all-powerful Chief Financial Officer, however named, will amount to an increase in the democracy-deficit in our society, not to an improvement in our democratic systems. In my view, no good can come of such an imposition.
Calling such an appointment a “slap in the face” is mere propaganda. Those words are designed to appeal to our nationalistic emotions and to stir up a misguided patriotic fervour. They are used in an attempt to “pull the tam down” over the collective eyes of the FCO. The idea behind these editorials is that the FCO will be made so guilt-ridden that they will release the funds to us with no effective controls put in place for their proper use. We must sincerely hope they are smarter than that.
And so to return to the so-called “stringent conditions” that we must meet to receive the grant. I am not going to repeat why the conditions in question, even if stringent, are right and reasonable. I already did that in the two articles referred to above. If we can meet the conditions, and the grant begins to be disbursed, this will be “the best-managed economic reform and infrastructure development programme ever enjoyed in Anguilla.” If we can maintain the conditions, even after the grant is exhausted, we will be well on the way to proving that we can handle public funds responsibly and in accordance with law. What an improvement that would be on the existing practice!