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EDITORIAL - The ascendancy of political pork

Published:Thursday | April 8, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Few things excite politicians as much as the opportunity to deal in pork - to garner and garnish it, and then to dole it out in dollops to beholden and grateful constituents.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the scramble for an additional $300 million for parliamentarians to spend in their constituencies contributed to last week's embarrassing $4.6-billion adjustment to the 2010-11 budget less than a week after it was tabled.

With the extra amount, $1.2 billion has now been budgeted for the so-called Constituency Development Fund (CDF). So, each MP will be allocated $20 million, 25 per cent more than in the recently ended financial year.

We are certain that the Government wanted to do more, but Prime Minister Bruce Golding's pork barrel, like many other government programmes, has had to face the realities of the country's economic crisis. The CDF is half the amount that Golding's administration initially allocated to the scheme in 2008-2009.

Yet, the CDF is doing better than most other areas of expenditure in this year's Budget, increasing nominally by a third, when many things have had to take big cuts.

The CDF is, in many ways, a metaphor for much of what is wrong about governance and government in Jamaica, despite the fancy-speak by the prime minister and other apologists, on either side of the political divide, about the worth, worthiness and efficacy of the CDF.

They like to claim that the fund allows MPs to respond with speed, and directly to the needs of the constituents, bypassing a slow and inefficient civil service. There is much drumbeat, too, about the accountability in the management of the CDF's resources.

But stripped to its core, the CDF is nothing more than the old Social and Economic Support Programme of the former administration, conceptually writ large but squeezed by current circumstances. It is a way for politicians to 'appropriate' public resources and distribute it as though it was subject for personal benevolence from their own pockets. The underlying effect is the perpetuation of a paternalistic politics.

Moreover, schemes like the CDF blur the lines between the executive and the civil service and run counter to what Prime Minister Golding claims he hopes to achieve in the public-sector review now under way - an efficient and accountable public sector.

Political executive

As we understand the process, legislators ought to frame laws and advocate on behalf of their constituents; the political executive should set down policy to be executed by professional public servants who are to be held accountable for implementation. Politicians, unfortunately, have been allowed to usurp the functions of the civil service and run down its capacity.

The upshot is an incompetent and inefficient public sector as well as more excuse for the usurpation of their jobs by politicians. Such attitudes do not define one side of the political spectrum, but is true of the Jamaican political class, illustrated in part by the fact that neither side could find fault with the CDF or its predecessor. They both defend the slithery trough to the hilt.

Indeed, the administration, with no quarrel from the Opposition, couldn't wait to stuff the additional $300 million of pork into the barrel, once financial secretary Wesley Hughes confirmed the resources for the CDF, and a handful of other programmed expenditures "were assured".

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