Friday, December 4, 2009

CALLING TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL: State Capture is Not Only a Danger for Jamaica

The Trinidad Guardian carried an interesting article today (December 4th) coming out of Jamaica concerning a warning from Transparency International (Jamaica, unlike Trinidad and Tobago does not have a local chapter) that Jamaica is in danger of succumbing to what TI calls “State capture”. The report says that the term “is used to describe a situation where powerful individuals, institutions, companies or groups within a country use corruption to influence policies, the legal environment and economy to benefit their own private interests”. The report goes on to highlight the lack of transparency and accountability in the funding of political parties.

Now, everybody who has been reading this blog knows that I have had serious concerns with the Uff Commission of Enquiry into the Construction Sector. And those who have tried to keep a fair and open mind will also recall that I have had serious concerns with Commissioner Sirju’s connections with the Construction Industry and in particular with NH International Caribbean (NHIC), the very large, profitable and powerful construction company.

You see, Professor Uff and his fellow commissioners have appeared to be concentrating only on UDeCOTT and appear to be ignoring completely the very real concerns that reasonable citizens had or ought to have had with the behaviour of the construction industry, which some would say was taking a cartelized character.

Before UDeCOTT came on the scene with its design/build philosophy I cannot think of a single major project carried out by any of the big ‘players’ in the construction industry that came in on time and within budget using the much criticised design/tender process. UDeCOTT does have at least to its credit the waterfront project as coming in on time and within budget. That there are questions (and serious ones at that) to be answered, for example, the Tarouba stadium, by UDeCOTT does not take away from this fundamental point. That being said, the Tarouba stadium was managed as, ...yes, you guessed right a design/tender project.

[You should really read the hyperlinked Wikipedia entries on the two processes, they are very helpful in understanding the pitfalls of design/tender and how a developer can, in the worst case, fall hostage to the construction contractors].

Further, there is the as yet unexplored question by the Uff Commission (at least, if they are exploring it this has not been widely publicised) concerning funding of political parties and politicians. Wasn’t it Emile Elias who admitted that he had “contributed” to Dr. Rowley’s campaign? Or was it Dr. Rowley who made that revelation? Either way, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have had a public admission that Mr. Elias has made political contributions to a politician with whom he has had a close personal relationship and with whose wife (I am referring to the “Landdate affair”) Mr. Elias through his company has had a business relationship.

Now, I would be the first to agree that any person or entity has the right to make any political contributions to anybody they like and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with political giving, whether the recipient is a personal friend or not. But, life is never that simple. The obvious question that arises is how much did he give? A dollar? A hundred dollars? Thousands of dollars? More?

Why does this matter you ask? Because while there is nothing illegal or intrinsically wrong with X making a political contribution to Y’s campaign, nobody would really be concerned where the contribution was small, say, a thousand dollars, whilst serious questions ought to arise if, say, the amount was a million dollars.

In other words, large contributions from wealthy and powerful persons who are in a business that involves bidding for government/public contracts need to be able to withstand the kind of scrutiny that they demand of those who hand out the contracts. What is sauce for the goose!

Let me be clear: there is no innuendo of possible wrong doing by Mr. Elias or NHIC in this post and none is intended. As of today there is absolutely no evidence of this at all. But that does not mean that we cannot ask questions or pay attention. Whether we will ever get answers is, of course, another story.

And we have to be vigilant on this and related issues to ensure that the spectre of ‘state capture’ does not become a Trinbagonian haunt.

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