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A difficult Budget

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Prime Minister Hon. Dr Ralph Gonsalves faces one of the most difficult tasks of his near-eight year administration when he gets up in Parliament to present the 2009 Budget on December 1. Before he does that, on Wednesday of this week, as Minister of Finance, he laid the 2009 Estimates before the House, signaling the start of cross-party skirmishes on the merits and demerits of the new Budget.{{more}} It will be the first time, since the emergency Budget in October 2001, occasioned by the infamous 9/11 events in the United States of America, that the Prime Minister has had such a formidable challenge of both economic and political implications.

In many ways, the enormity of the current situation surpasses that of 2001, since the consequences of 10/08 (the global financial crisis which exploded in October of this year) are far more devastating than those of the 2001 terror attacks. Already the negative effects are being felt all over the world – bankruptcies, loss of homes, massive layoffs, spiraling unemployment, poverty, hunger and homelessness staring millions in the face. Dependent, open economies like ours will be affected in turn as promised investments will be stalled, tourist arrivals decreased or stay-overs shortened, and reduced earnings in developed countries will certainly cause a drop in remittances.

The full effect on tiny economies in the Eastern Caribbean is yet to be experienced, but St Vincent and the Grenadines has every reason to be specially concerned. For the current crisis comes smack as we undertake the biggest capital project in our history, the construction of the international airport at Argyle, an undertaking which in the best of times would severely test our material and human resources. Put this project in the context of a difficult global financial climate, problems with attracting capital funds for other needed infrastructural projects, reports of a hold-up in European Union funding and the critical problems facing the banana exports, and it becomes clear that the road before us can be quite rocky.

Given the expanded needs of a population overburdened by steeply rising prices and the heightened expectations of our people, particularly our youth, then the P.M. has a very delicate balancing act to perform. There are pressures to increase social spending, but conversely, even greater pressures to find the money to fund these. In 2001, the government embarked on what it called “counter-cyclical measures” to meet the challenges. Can these work in the current circumstances? How do we steer the ship of state between the need for economic austerity and fiscal prudence on one hand, and the need to stimulate the economy and provide for and protect the most vulnerable sectors of the population and economy?

No easy tasks are these, requiring not only financial acumen but also political skill in forging a consensus among our people on the basis of sacrifice and patience. Can Dr Gonsalves and his team do this? How will Her Majesty’s Opposition (the NDP) respond? The events of the next few weeks will reveal the answers.

What’s going on in our schools?

Over the past few weeks we have published a number of disturbing stories involving undesirable activities among teachers and students in some of the nation’s schools. Among others, we have reported on a staffroom brawl; a near fatal stabbing; a mass suspension; the discovery of a concealed weapon; and the possession of illegal drugs. Clearly, there is something brewing in some of our schools that needs urgent attention.

This paper has taken some flak privately and publicly from Ministry of Education officials, principals, teachers and parents for publishing the stories. Should our critics have their way, the incidents would be buried and the public would be none the wiser. However, it must be made clear that our reporters do not invent nor do they go looking for these stories. The fact is, the incidents driving them did and do occur. And, as a responsible media house, Searchlight is duty bound to report accordingly and to do so accurately.

While we are on this topic, we commend the principal who spoke to us last week, albeit reluctantly, about a situation in his school. In speaking to us, he ensured that we published both sides of the story. He used the opportunity to get the message out that what happened is an aberration where his school is concerned and that such acts will not be condoned. On the other hand, in two other recent cases, we got calls from educators after stories about incidents at their schools had been published to say that we did not have the full story. In both cases, we had contacted the principals prior to publication, only to be told: “No comment”.

Rather than berate the paper for what some persons may consider negative reportage, serious efforts must be made to determine the root causes of violent, deviant, and anti-social conduct that mars the image of the nation’s schools. Something is wrong. Together we need to find out what it is and how it can be addressed.

We do not pretend to have the answers. However, we are in a position to raise the questions. Is the government doing enough? Are parents taking their responsibilities seriously? Are our teachers sufficiently empowered and engaged? Do the programmes offered in our schools effectively address the needs and concerns of today’s youth? What of the report which was to have been prepared by the senior police officer recently assigned to the Ministry of Education? The questions are many. Remaining silent is a risk we cannot afford. The time for a broad based conversation on what is happening in some of our nation’s schools is now.