Be transparent with our neighbours' generosity
What is the Plan?
Be transparent with out neighbours' generosity
by Prof. Biman Prasad, NFP Leader
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 22nd May 2021
First of all, on behalf of the people of Fiji we in the National Federation Party represent, we say to Australia and New Zealand – thank you.
In the last few weeks, Australia and New Zealand have come up with $115 million in cash to help keep our Government running. They have also pledged thousands of vaccines to get our people immunized quickly so that we can begin to see our way out of the nightmare that is Covid-19.
For the last fourteen and a half years, senior ministers in the Government have repeatedly dismissed Australia and New Zealand as “neo-colonial” countries. They say they can be ignored for the greater riches to be found if we “look North” to China and Dubai.
But in times of disaster and critical need, Australia and New Zealand are the countries that can be relied upon to help us. These countries are our near neighbours.
If we believe in democratic values and rule of law, they should also be models for the sort of government we want.
We certainly do not agree with them on everything, particularly Australia, whose climate change policies are not in line with our views. But even then, we are able to air our disagreements with them in a sensible and constructive way.
Today I want to talk about two things:
how should we spend the generous financial support Australia and New Zealand have given us? And when will we know how it is being spent?
how can we plan in the long-term for our Government finances? How are we going to make the most of this support, as surely Australia and New Zealand would expect from us?
The current government has never been transparent, only hyper-political, always looking for the next vote-catching opportunity.
We need the Government to develop some maturity. It needs to share with the people of Fiji how it is managing under the Covid crisis and how it will change its financial management to deal with the lasting damage Fiji has suffered.
Or perhaps the Government should just tell us what I suspect is the truth - it is not telling us, because it has no idea.
And this is why we, the people, must put pressure on the Government to say: “Open your doors and your minds. Consult – get the best ideas from everyone, including your critics. Work together, develop a plan and share it with everybody. Help us to all travel in the same direction."
How should we spend our gifts?
I am careful about supporting “tied” or “conditional” aid – that is, when a donor says “here is the money but you must change the way you do things”.
But a donor equally has the right to know, and to be assured, that the millions it is giving to us are not going to simply be thrown away.
First and foremost, the Government is here for the people – and right now the people are hurting badly. What can be more important now than helping them?
We have only to read The Fiji Times every day to understand the human stories about how parents struggle to feed their families; how elderly people have no support because their children are out of work; and how the sick can no longer access basic medicines because there is no money and no facilities.
But, as always, this government refuses to do the obvious – to co-operate and work hand-in-hand with those organisations who, for years, have helped the poor – who know their families, know their needs, know how to find them and how to support them.
These organisations don’t need a 161 number. They have been doing this work for a long time already.
The Government does not even seem to use the information it has in its own Social Welfare files.
You do not have to go far to see what a mess the Government is making of its food ration support. Look on social media at the complaints that the phones are not answered, that people hear nothing back or that the food never arrives.
Videos uploaded to social media show how when food arrives, people rush out in the hope of receiving it. They breach every physical distancing rule and Covid protocol the Health Ministry is trying to enforce. There is panic and even threats of violence. This is a social crisis.
Doing better with food
This social crisis must be obvious now, even to the Government which pretends that soon there will be a “Bula bubble” and all the problems will go away.
Even before the Covid crisis, the people’s poverty was already dire. If you had offered food rations to people then, they would still rush to get it.
And this situation will continue. Lockdowns or no lockdowns, people will continue to struggle to meet their basic needs. The current deep crisis will continue for at least another 12 months.
So the first thing that the Government must tell us is – what have they learned from their recent poor performance on food distribution? How will it improve? And what resources will they commit the problem? How much money out of the $115 million we have been given?
Will they work with the experts, the charities and the NGOs? Or will the charities and NGOs have to continue begging for money from the public and international aid organisations to do their work?
What can be more important right now than the needs of the people? It is not just food. It is essential medicines. It is sanitary essentials to preserve their health. And yes, it is data and information to ensure they receive information and are able to communicate with others, to ensure their mental health.
And so again, we ask the Government – what is your plan?
What about the next 10 years?
A responsible government would already be looking at the long-term effects of this Covid crisis and seeking advice to formulate a plan for its finances. We need a 10-year plan.
The Government was already unsustainably burdened with Government debt, before the Covid crisis began. It had left itself no room for movement in an emergency.
It is true - few of us could have predicted the Covid crisis. But a major weather event, earthquake or other serious natural disaster is always a possibility.
We might have a tsunami warning system (even if it does not always work). But what is our financial recovery plan?
It is too late now to ask these questions. The disaster is already here. And no one knows how our government and our economy will fight its way out of it. This includes the Government.
Let us be honest – these are not easy problems to solve. If I was the Economy Minister the first thing I would do is be honest, and tell everybody.
Then I would open my doors (or at least, in these Covid times, my Zoom account). I would ask our people for help – the business community with strategic capabilities and information; the welfare organisations with their deep knowledge of people’s problems.
I would talk to the private health sector about how to deliver health at community level, long-term action against NCDs. I would talk to farming experts about how to ensure long-term food security and better access to locally-grown food supplies.
I would talk to women’s organisations about the things that directly affect vulnerable women daily – domestic violence and the safety of their children.
I would talk to the educational and religious institutions to ensure that, once we had a plan, we knew how to get out the message and gain the support of the people.
Perhaps this Government doesn’t see a need for a 10-year plan. Its only horizons have ever been the next election.
But if the Government will not start this process, perhaps we, the people, should start anyway.
The Government may not listen. But we in the NFP will listen. So will so many people who are desperate for information and a change in direction.
We need to start this dialogue now. We need to look past the current government and begin thinking and planning for our country’s economic and social future.