By Raffique Shah
October 05 2020
I am hopeful that Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s Budget 2021 will remain open to ideas that may come from ordinary citizens or professionals or anyone else even after he will have presented it to Parliament tomorrow. This is no ordinary Appropriation Bill. It is, or ought to be, an extraordinary document that contains the sum total of citizens’ prescriptions for rescuing and resuscitating an economy that has been battered and bruised by several governments over the past, say, forty years, and rendered semi-comatose by blows from the Covid-19 pandemic.
With both the local and global economies forced to virtually shut down as the death-dealing virus wreaked havoc, billions of people were thrust into a surreal netherworld that left them dazed, unsure whether they would live to see the morrow, far less plan for the future.
Managing a country in such bizarre circumstances called for a special brand of leadership, women and men who would retain their full faculties in an Apocalypse-like aftermath, and would lead, not wilt, in what has been renamed the “new normal”. Thankfully, ours did not fail us. Indeed, the core, which contained medical professionals we knew nothing of before the crisis, a prime minister and ministerial inner circle that were equally untested, and other citizen-leaders who, sensing the magnitude of what had hit the world and their country, rallied without even being asked to help, they all steadied the ship of state in those perilous hours, days, months.
Let us never forget, too, that in such confusion, when disorder threatened to disrupt the otherwise stable society, ordinary citizens showed their resilience, rejected the divisiveness that threatened to engulf the society and destabilise the country, and a general election was conducted satisfactorily. There is much that we can be proud of.
It was in this setting that I, among other scribes, and many citizen-leaders, called on the Minister Imbert to democratise the drafting of the Budget. This was not a time for tradition to trump innovation and consultation. With the economy in crisis, the vital petroleum and petrochemical industries in near-disarray, production and commodity prices plummeting, the national debt rising ever so ominously, and evidence of poverty surfacing like sores on the fabric of society, this 2020-2021 Budget needed to reflect the consensus, if not the will, of the majority of citizens.
I do not know if Minister Imbert heeded our pleas. At the very least, he ought to have considered contributions from members of the economic recovery team assembled and chaired by the PM. Some of the best brains in the country, the finest minds, some might say, reside in that committee. They were charged with producing a road map to recovery. They have produced two “road maps”, one of which I have read. I guess we shall find out tomorrow if any of their recommendations for recovery have been accepted by the finance minister, if they form part of his budgetary measures.
I make the following observations: I am not among those who see the energy sector as being irrelevant to our recovery, as relics of an era of prosperity that has passed on. Petroleum and petrochemicals will remain relevant for some decades even as the energy landscape changes to renewables-solar, wind, etc. We have hydrocarbons that will bring us vital foreign exchange and much-needed revenues. My understanding is that there is need for re-negotiating the exploration and production contracts with the companies involved from upstream to downstream. We have skilled negotiators who can get us the best value for our resources and serve the best interests of the citizens of this nation. Let them do their jobs.
The manufacturing sector, and here I exclude petrochemicals, is the second biggest contributor to our GDP and earner of foreign exchange. There are issues that need to be sorted out, prime among them inefficiencies in the public sector, namely Customs, The VAT division, etc. Ease of doing business has become for us almost insurmountable. We need to change that, fix it, like yesterday. Other small and medium enterprises likewise encounter obstacles rather than efficiencies as they seek to expand and export. From financing to shipping to marketing, there is almost a conspiracy to have them fail. Fix that. Artistes and entertainers, sleeping giants in so far as foreign exchange earnings go, have not been treated well by officialdom. In an earlier column, I had pleaded with the Ministry of Finance and the banking sector to make life easy for mortgage holders, especially those close to completing their obligations, who might run into problems during the Covid-19 crisis and lose everything. Surely there must be a better way out of this. Fix that.
Food production will be my prime focus as I examine Minister Imbert’s budget. For far too long we have talked agriculture and food production but done little more than talk. I intend to fix that.