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Politics behind NationGrowth squeeze

Published:Tuesday | June 2, 2015 | 6:00 AMAubyn Hill, Contributor

I read with strong disapproval the headline in the May 31, 2015 edition The Sunday Gleaner which claimed 'Aubyn Hill to pay $46m'. The court ruling to which you referred is a case involving NationGrowth and the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ). Aubyn Hill does not owe DBJ one cent, nor did the court instruct that I pay DBJ a penny. Your headline is inaccurate, misleading and injurious.

A few years ago in a case that went to the Privy Council in England, The Gleaner was ordered to pay a large multimillion-dollar settlement in a libel case that it lost. Your headline then did not include the name of your chairman, rightly so. Why did the headline in Sunday's paper claim that I'm liable to pay DBJ $46 million? I and persons who called me saw the headline as clearly written to tarnish my reputation.

Tarnishing and other motives may also have been at work when this matter was first reported in The Gleaner on Sunday, May 17 2015. The news of the DBJ suit against NationGrowth - with my picture - was placed prominently in the A section of the paper while a headline stating 'We wrote off less than $1 billion' DBJ was conveniently buried in the Entertainment section.

The NationGrowth case was about poor farmers who cannot repay their loans and according to the DBJ admission, the over $700 million write-off was also for poor farmers who could not repay their loans (Audley Shaw Broke the write off story in a parliamentary committee hearing). So why was the DBJ write-off of millions of dollars story not put next to and as prominently as the NationGrowth story?

 

microfinance company

 

On April 9, 2013, the late agriculture minister in the current PNP administration went on the record in Parliament and named NationGrowth as a microfinance company that financed farmers who went bankrupt. The minister was very aware that the FARM Financing Programme was initiated by his ministry and RADA was to be the driving force in identifying farmers as clients for the programme, as well as selecting seeds and providing advice to farmers on irrigation, diseases and related issues in the tripartite arrangement with DBJ, RADA and NationGrowth.

NationGrowth wrote the permanent secretary of the ministry and copied the managing director of the DBJ, seeking a meeting with all the original parties to try to arrive at a solution, but till today, NationGrowth has not had a response to that letter. We were told by executives at the DBJ that subsequent letters to the development institution seeking a meeting to discuss proposed settlement arrangements were flatly refused by the board.

We find interesting that an institution that writes off hundreds of millions of dollars for the farm sector that it knows from its own managed portfolio has had perennial payment problems would find it difficult to find a settlement for a much smaller amount to a small start-up microfinance company.

It is public knowledge that the board of the DBJ is appointed by the Government and I know that there are experienced, balanced and measured professionals in the composition of that board. Nonetheless, in a very politicised Jamaica, some people close to the DBJ and the Government may want to take a hard line against NationGrowth because the weekly column of its chairman in this newspaper often holds the Government on a tight leash concerning economic growth and jobs creation.

It is ironic that while these hardliners go after NationGrowth and flatly refuse to arrive at a negotiated settlement, NationGrowth negotiates, reschedules, renegotiates and reschedules again loans for persons very senior in and close to the PNP. There are scores of missed payments along the way.

In other words, we know that times are hard even for powerful persons in the ruling party. So can you imagine how hard it is for very poor farmers whose crops are constantly invaded by worms, diseases and drought? The dynamics of the relationships and refusal to arrive at a settlement arrangement with NationGrowth are probably the bigger story.

- Aubyn Hill is CEO of Corporate Strategies Ltd. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.