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Tuesday 18 December 2018
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Commentary

An unenterprising state

REGINALD DUMAS

Pt II

I’M TOLD THERE are over 100 enterprises in TT wholly or partly owned by the State. Is that really true? In this little place? (And, incidentally, can someone point me to a TT law that defines a state enterprise?) What do these bodies do? How do they do it? Are they all necessary? Are they closely monitored (and, if so, by whom) for performance, relevance, duplication, management, accountability etc? What value does TT receive from them?

In 1970, Eric Williams was acting under severe political pressure (though the Third Five-Year Development Plan 1969-73 shows he was already thinking along state enterprise lines). Nearly 50 years later, what is our motivation? Have we stopped to assess and decide?

I once proposed bringing in a team from Singapore, a super-efficient Commonwealth country, to do an impartial study and make recommendations. I propose it again.

Now comes the new US ambassador, Joseph Mondello, to tell us, in his very first public address, that state enterprise investment is “clearly not transparent… not market-driven, and… not designed to benefit the people of the countries (receiving such investment).” I accept that the USA is and has been ideologically opposed to the concept of the state enterprise; it’s a very private sector-driven society.

Fine, but to leap from there and assert that state enterprise activity – which exists in many countries, including developed ones – is “clearly not transparent (or) designed to benefit the people of the (country)” is nothing short of breathtaking. “Not designed!” Is he saying that the Williams government, and others of like mind throughout the world, set out to disadvantage their populations? If so, where’s the evidence?

The ambassador adds that “the private enterprise that fuels American investment is bound by high ethical and accountability standards.” This could only mean that he has never heard of cases like Enron, or Tyco, or Lockheed, or Riggs Bank, or Lehman Brothers, and so on. Always “high ethical and accountability standards?” Or frequently corporate and individual greed? Was Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme an exercise in business purity? Where is Madoff today? Why?

Mondello says further that “corruption, lack of transparency, and needless bureaucracy are all factors that can make potential investment opportunities unattractive, which stifles economic development.” I agree that such factors can militate against investment (though, if the pickings look good, honesty, openness and ethics often take a beating. The case of oil companies in Equatorial Guinea is particularly instructive).

The ambassador must be careful, however. He was reading a speech no doubt prepared for him within the announced policy of the US Government. I understand that, but he will find – I speak as a former ambassador – that he must also do his own research.

On this issue of the state enterprise (and related subjects) in TT, he could start with the 1969-73 plan, then move on to subsequent developments. Conversations with people like Aiyegoro Ome, Raffique Shah and Ferdi Ferreira would help him grasp the background to current events.

He should also, to the extent possible, pay heed to what important organisations are saying about corruption and transparency. For instance, Transparency International (TI), a body highly respected worldwide, whose definition of corruption is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain,” has recently done a public perceptions survey of corruption in his country.

Published in December 2017, the survey found that nearly six in ten Americans thought the level of corruption in their country had risen in the previous 12 months. Forty-four per cent said that most or all of those in their President’s Office were corrupt, and nearly 70 per cent believed that their government was failing to fight corruption. Thirty-eight per cent saw members of Congress as corrupt; 32 per cent held the same view of business executives.

Interestingly, religious leaders were considered more corrupt than the police. God must be in despair.

I mention the TI study for three reasons. First, corruption isn’t only, as we generally think, the illicit or illegal facilitation or acquisition of money and material goods. Title, position, access, influence, power, and control are often considered more important. Indeed, one of the key concerns identified by the survey is “the revolving doors between government office, for-profit companies, and professional associations.”

Second, corruption is everywhere, even in sainted Scandinavia and Switzerland, and a theological horror of sin is a constant of neither state enterprise nor private sector behaviour.

Third, Mondello has offered to “partner with (us) to improve (our) investment climate.” That is generous. But because corruption is everywhere, what is really indicated is a partnership towards improvement in both our countries.

In the meantime, TT has to get its act together. Our state enterprise model needs root-and-branch reform.

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