August 06, 2009
By Godfrey Smith
Kenneth Boulding visited British Honduras from May 3rd to 10th, 1960. He was a highly regarded professor of economics at the University of Michigan and at one time the president of the American Economic Association. His list of accomplishments ran into several pages.
The professor was British-born and Oxford-educated, but took American citizenship in 1948. When he came to Belize he was attached to the University College of the West Indies where he had been for one year. British Honduras was his last stop on what was apparently a study tour of the West Indies.
He gave a public lecture, walked the streets of Belize City talking to ordinary people, met with trade unionists and conferenced with the Executive Council, the equivalent of today's Cabinet of Ministers.
He forwarded a copy of a short paper entitled "Notes on British Honduras" to Belizean Lionel Clark requesting that it not be released to the press without his consent and in a personal note to Clark recalled their conversation "as one of the few really hopeful experiences" he had had in B.H.
Boulding puzzled over the future of the colony. He noted that there was no interest in the West Indian federation and "considerable hostility towards Jamaicans" which he attributed to the fact that Jamaicans did very well because they were energetic and enterprising.
The lack of public investment made the colony look "like a pure rat hole". "As a nation British Honduras is a geographical absurdity", he said, which simply could not "survive as an independent country".
He marveled that British taxpayers did not revolt against the fact that the British Treasury had to meet large perennial deficits in the colony's budget and balance of payments through grants-in-aid and felt that it was in the interest of the British "to turn the whole thing over to somebody else".
Apparently, he didn't know that in the late 1940s British parliamentarians had already suggested handing over British Honduras to the United States to help extinguish the UK's post-war debts to the Americans. The Americans declined the offer.
Boulding, were he alive, would perhaps not be surprised to hear that British Honduras, now Belize, independent and fiercely patriotic, still relies on other countries to bridge deficits in its budget and balance of payments. Grants-in-aid are alive and well.
His most telling observation was that given the country's population it would be possible to manage it "with the equivalent of a city manager".
The apparatus of government existing at the time, he felt, "would serve a country ten times the size and is an almost intolerable financial burden".
Having made that observation back then, the professor, were he alive, would not be surprised to learn that today at least 65 cents of every dollar of government's current revenue is spent on the salaries of public officers and teachers.
After deductions for other bills, equipment and maintenance, little or nothing is left for social investment. This has been the case for a long time.
The plain truth is that the country has barely moved beyond subsistence governance and is unlikely to do so in a significant way in the foreseeable future. The revenue that comes in goes out to maintain existing government departments and programs, leaving little surplus to expand programs to meet mushrooming challenges.
This fact renders the annual parliamentary budget debates an exalted and trumped up sham; a case of the mountain going into labor yearly and only ever producing a mouse.
It would scarcely make sense for a family that lives from hand to mouth to debate about finances. Every paycheck goes to meet monthly bills; family heirlooms are pawned to meet unbudgeted expenses when they arise.
Remittances or barrels stuffed with clothing and appliances from America provide intermittent respite from the ennui of subsistence living.
The government's budgetary exercise is nothing more than the family experience writ large, except now "remittances" from friendly countries are drying up.
It should therefore not be expected that a fine new national crime plan will be presented complete with budgetary allocations. Money simply cannot be found to make the investment required in the criminal justice system to arrest, much less reverse, the descent into criminality. There is just enough money to ensure that the police department maintains its existing operational capacity.
If money can't be found to properly manage, staff, and stock the nation's hospitals, then it is time to abandon hope that the kind of investment in sports cannot be made to catapult our athletes to international viability. Sports, more than most things, endow a sense of identity and national pride and unity.
Yet political parties wage intense and bitter campaigns to win the opportunity to manage this state of subsistence.
A change of the political party in government usually signifies nothing more than the same effete [no longer productive; infertile] policies and dyed-in-the-wool methods recycled "under new management".
Should the electorate dare to hope that a government can be elected that could take the country beyond subsistence living, breaking the pernicious cycle of development á la one step forward, two steps backward?
Yes. But radical and bold innovation is required. Like abolishing city councils and town councils which are an unnecessary, inefficient, wasteful, expensive way of demonstrating that a government practices decentralization and autonomy.
The country can't afford them. They do very little. And the little that they do can be done by the public works department of the Ministry of Works in each district. Or by some other already existing, under-utilized department of government.
Barbados abolished theirs in 1967. True, Barbados has a population roughly the size of Belize's compacted into an area the size of Ambergris Caye while Belize's population is diffused over a much bigger territory.
So what? The responsibilities of the town councils are basic and wholly manageable by existing central government departments with better-trained personnel and appropriate technology. Their abolition would happily and simultaneously rid the country of wasteful municipal election campaigns which polarizes an over-politicized society.
Boulding observed in 1960 that "a good deal of effort is devoted to see that the public funds are spent honestly, but nothing is devoted to see that they are spent wisely". If that prehistoric observation strikes you as having applicability today, you are not alone.
He recommended a central "unit for planning and appraisal of government policies". No such unit exists. Such a unit, assuming competent people could be found to staff it, would counsel against or veto the public unveiling of unworkable plans like the one presented by the Ministry of Tourism in January of 2009. It was beautiful in conception but unrealizable as a simple matter of dollars and cents.
Unless the country is prepared to break the mould of governance and make radical choices based on well-thought out priorities, it will be condemned to many more years of subsistence.
It is a moment of reckoning when the casual observations of a long dead economics professor made half a century ago during a one week visit to Belize still echo with resonance.
But that moment will be brief, cut short by the cacophony of the call-in culture where everyone is an expert and solutions to the problems of the country are presented with hardly a reference to professors or priorities.