A new and improved Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) is coming, according to Margaret Sampson-Browne, the programme’s corporate communications manager, in an interview published this week. But what will the new CEPEP look like? And is it possible to reform this programme without addressing the deeper need to make it less of a grant and more of a tool to educate and empower those in need of work?
Sampson-Browne’s assurance is hardly the first time we have been promised changes in CEPEP. In January, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley lamented the programme was now “far off its moorings” and said it would be “comprehensively reviewed.” In August, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharath said he was ready to implement changes to CEPEP to allow workers to focus on reforestation, preservation, planting and rejuvenating terrain that has been damaged due to slash and burn.
By October, the review of CEPEP appeared to be still in progress, with Finance Minister Colm Imbert stating, “We have already begun to review these programmes to return them to their original mandate and to ensure they are more productive and in the national interest.”
Under the People’s Partnership, ministers had announced plans to have CEPEP workers “absorbed” into the private sector.
When it comes to CEPEP, there have been many plans, reviews and reforms. But the fundamental understanding of the programme remains more or less the same.
It is clear that successive governments, while sensing the dire need to change CEPEP, have been hesitant to rock the boat too harshly. After all CEPEP and its cousin, the Unemployment Relief Programme, account for $1 billion in State spending annually.
These employment-generation programmes have grown so large they now pose serious systemic risks.
CEPEP contractors alone employ about 12,000 workers, according to a recent estimate by Sampson-Browne.
The ills of these programmes are well known. They have been plagued with corruption, inefficiency as well as allegations of political abuse. But the deeper problem is how they remain unfit for purpose, despite the frequent rhetoric of reform and review.
If CEPEP is to be cleaned up, it must first be fundamentally reconceptualised. Is the programme a mere grant? Is it about maintaining the environment? Or is it meant to truly help people find work?
It goes without saying it is a good idea to divert CEPEP labour into the areas outlined by the Minister of Agriculture. This achieves twin objectives of providing employment while protecting the environment and bolstering environmental awareness. But CEPEP should do more.
CEPEP should help workers get the skills they need to get jobs in the long run. It should expose them to training and education opportunities. It should support efforts — by business chambers and private enterprise — to integrate workers into the labour market.
Workers should not have to depend on CEPEP to earn a living. They should turn to CEPEP to get help to stand on their own two feet.
“The change has to come from the workers themselves,” says Sampson-Browne. More than the workers, the State has to adopt a far more sophisticated view of the programme and implement bold reforms. The question is, however, whether this is something the Government can afford to do given the current economic climate. CEPEP has to be cleaned up. But all of the promises notwithstanding, will we truly see a change this time around?