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MAFF stealing headlines – for wrong reasons

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The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), grabbed headline attention once again last weekend, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. With rumours circulating about “money missing” at the Ministry, leading officials came out with denials of any such occurrences and explanations of what was taking place. This is important, since in today’s SVG, one can no longer talk of rumours “spreading like wildfire”; it is the other way around.{{more}}

The saddest aspect of the situation is that this is not just a so-called ‘bum rap’ given to the Ministry. In fact, in publishing comments from Ministry officials on the matter, SEARCHLIGHT itself recapped some rather sordid incidents from the not-too-distant past involving the same Ministry. In particular, some notorious incidents involving successive Permanent Secretaries in this Ministry leading to public accusations of “corruption” were recalled. One could only imagine how the current PS must feel, having to defend the latest set of rumours, both from an official, as well as a personal standpoint!

The current office-holder has denied the allegations of the missing funds and provided explanations that the Ministry is doing a review of its accounting procedures. This, in his view, has led to the speculation about money being unaccounted for, but it is more a matter of checking on the accounting system, the PS said. Claiming that he was “unaware” of “any missing money or anything of the sort”, the Ministry’s top public servant said that in order to minimize any such happening, an “Asset Register” will be initiated.

But the Minister of Agriculture has gone even further, promising an imminent “shake-up” in the Ministry in regard to the roles and responsibilities of some employees. The Minister, emphasizing the need for “all hands on deck” approach, where the work of the Ministry is concerned, disclosed that there are some employees who are not functioning efficiently and that in spite of efforts to ensure a more effective operation, some employees have been less than cooperative.

It is encouraging to hear the Minister being so blunt, but the public has every right to be sceptical. The claims of inefficiency in the Ministry are not new. Nearly two decades ago, former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, in scathing public comments about the Ministry, had said that it seemed that where officials of the Ministry of Agriculture were concerned, their biggest problem was “parking space” at the Ministry, clearly a case of skewed priorities.

In spite of this and repeated charges by farmers about the lack of cooperation on the part of some Ministry officials, the political leadership, both of the current ULP administration and its NDP predecessor, must take the blame for lack of resolve in straightening out the Ministry. The current administration appears reluctant to be firm with offenders, leading to allegations of protecting persons alleged to have political connections. One PS was merely fined for misdeeds, while her successor was simply transferred elsewhere, despite the serious nature of the allegations against him. How then can one have confidence that Minister Caesar, for all his enthusiasm and drive, will be able to clean out the proverbial Augean stables? What has happened to the audit ordered by the Prime Minister himself after the allegations?

One must, however, be mindful that there are many dedicated and efficient employees at the Ministry who are going beyond the call of duty. The problem lies with the system itself and the reluctance to let the chips fall. It is not just the Agriculture Ministry, but the entire system of public administration. It has led to citizens losing faith in the management of public enterprises and to a feeling that if one wishes to get away with corruption, the best place to practice it is within some government-related body. That is why calypsonians, year after year, hurl lyrics in that direction, charging “Rodents in the Treasury” more than a quarter century ago, to Fireman Hooper’s “Ratatouille” of this year.

The reputation, not only of the Ministry, but of the entire system of public administration is at stake. Indeed, I would go even further to charge that by handling white collar corruption with kid’s gloves, the very justice system is being brought into question. How could we jail ordinary thieves for stealing, when, if it is done in the public service or at a government operated institutions, very often the culprits get away with a transfer or relatives simply refunding the sum in question? That can’t be right!

This in no way contradicts the Ministry’s explanations about ensuring accountability; it merely is a reminder that no more papering of cracks will work. Accountability, efficiency and transparency are all elements of good governance and must be rigorously enforced.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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