Tuesday 03rd May 2005
Local Government Minister Reggie Dumas presented a serious demeanour last week when he promised to clean up the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP). He spoke about rotating labourers so everyone gets a share, assured that ghost gangs had been reduced, told contractors that their contracts would be aborted if projects went over deadlines, and sounded a stern warning about illegal activities.
Which all makes for very good rhetoric, but which also makes us wonder whether Mr Dumas quite comprehends the monster confronting him. Many are convinced that the inner workings of the URP have become linked to the high murder rate plaguing the country. This linkage may or may not be valid. But, more and more, there is a perception that the URP is fuelling the gang fights that are centred in Laventille.
It has been argued that URP funds are not disbursed to workers. Instead, key individuals, who are often apparently linked to criminal elements, tap the disbursements and then redistribute them to ordinary labourers. Some of these funds, the story goes, are also used to buy the guns which the gang members use to carry on their war.
Now, if this is true - or even partially true - then it means that shutting down the URP may be a key strategy in reducing the country's murder rate. But we do not know if the perception is true. However, inasmuch as crime is the main problem confronting the PNM administration (despite what National Security Minister Martin Joseph seems to think) then it might be worth their while to do an investigation to see if this hypothesis has any substance.
But let us assume that the hypothesis is totally false. Then, at the very least, the URP is just a mismanaged make-work programme. The question then is, will Mr Dumas' measures have any effect? Will they root out the corruption that is endemic to the URP and all its previous acronyms? We are not sanguine. Mr Dumas speaks glibly about a "big stick." Yet, if ghost gangs have in fact been reduced, then that means that the Local Government Ministry must have discovered that certain persons were taking URP cheques illegally. So why have these persons not been reported to the Fraud Squad?
Until we see some action of this sort, then we cannot assume that the Government is serious about revamping the URP. And, if the purported linkage between the URP and the gang wars is true, then the Government must consider shutting down the entire programme. This will no doubt seem a drastic step, so ingrained is the make-work programme in the national psyche. But the real question is this: what would be the political and social consequences of shutting down the URP?
We would argue that the political cost for the PNM would be negligible, given the fact that most of the programme's beneficiaries are stout party supporters, and given that the Opposition is in disarray. And the social benefits might be considerable, if the shutdown removes the spoils that gangs fight over and if those resources are then used more effectively to aid the nation's underclass.
It is an option that the Government must at least give serious consideration.
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