Editorial | Scrap the Constituency Development Fund
Two years ago, during their claim that Prime Minister Andrew Holness was parachuting in an unseasoned supporter to lead the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), this newspaper advised the People’s National Party (PNP) that the real problem of the CDF was not of oversight, but of its existence. The CDF should be abandoned.
It is the same insight that we, even more forcefully, offer to Pamela Monroe Ellis, the auditor general. Her office has just released an audit of the CDF, which discovered that the fund’s accounting and reconciliations are, at best, murky – and probably worse.
There may be some doodling around the edges to provide an impression that Mrs Monroe Ellis’ recommendations to fix the problems have been taken seriously and are being acted upon. We would not hold our breath that anything fundamental will happen. Certainly not what needs to be done. The CDF will continue. It is a trough for political patronage that enjoys bipartisan consensus.
Politicians dipping into state resources to vulgarly deliver the spoils of office to supporters, or as paydown on votes, is not new to Jamaica’s governance arrangements. It was, unintentionally perhaps, formalised and given new status in 2008 when then Prime Minister Bruce Golding created the CDF to give members of parliament (MPs) easier and more direct access to state resources to spend on their constituents.
Supposedly, the state bureaucracy was too slow and unwieldy to quickly respond to the needs of people in communities. That left MPs, the argument went, impotent. Rather than fixing the institutions of government to be responsive and efficient, a scheme was hatched to allocate J$20 million a year (a total of J$1.33 billion in the 2019-20 fiscal year) to each parliamentarian, which they would cause to be spent, based on requests for help or what they established as priorities in their constituencies.
MEEK AND FLACCID
Ostensibly, there is oversight of these expenditures. There is a special unit at the Office of the Prime Minister tasked with the job, as well as a committee of Parliament. But as this newspaper has always believed – and often suggested – which has now been confirmed, the watchdog process is meek and flaccid.
For instance, for the five years from 2015-16 to 2019-20, the OPM’s records showed that more than J$4.458 billion was disbursed for CDF projects. However, seven agencies analysed by the auditor general, through whom projects were implemented, reported receiving only J$4.211 billion. It gets worse. The records of the CDF Management Unit (CDFMU), the oversight group at the OPM, showed payments totalling $2.237 billion. In other words, over J$200 million is somewhere in the cracks. Or somewhere else.
One explanation offered by the OPM and the management unit is that the funds, possibly, were incorrectly posted in ledgers, giving the impression of an excessive payout. Or monies were disbursed, not spent, refunded, and subsequently redistributed. They have promised a “comprehensive reconciliation to … resolve the anomalies”. That is likely to be the end of that.
This failure in basic oversight and breach of basic accounting standards by the presumed guardians of the scheme were not the only ones, as the auditor general discovered. Between April 2015 and December 2018, of 273 projects being undertaken in constituencies, for which CDF monitoring unit officers were to provide monthly reports, only 140 (51 per cent) were delivered. There were also significant gaps in reporting in subsequent years.
The management unit blamed staffing problems. But said Mrs Monroe Ellis’ report: “There was no evidence to indicate that the CDFMU took the necessary steps to request the outstanding reports or implemented alternative measures to monitor the projects in the constituencies without an assigned monitoring officer to ensure that the planned activities were executed, and the intended objectives achieved within the estimated budget.” We did not expect that they would.
Such laxity, allied with an absence of transparency, not only provides the opening for the unrestrained doling of petty patronage, but what seem to be, on the face of it, cases of cronyism and nepotism. For example, between 2015-16 and 2018-19, an unnamed parliamentarian allocated J$2.465 million of his CDF funds to 21 students attending private institutions, However, of that group, a single student received J$1.17 million, or 47 per cent of the amount. The father of that student worked in the MP’s office. There were also other cases of connected parties benefiting from the CDF, including an employee of the monitoring unit who had support for university fees, and another whose child received educational grants.
Mrs Monroe Ellis has made a draft of recommendations to bring greater accountability to the CDF, which the authorities have pledged to implement. We, however, have a better suggestion: scrap the pork barrel. The concept is irredeemable.