Jamaica is on a slippery slope. The level of corruption unfolding before our eyes is unprecedented. In my last column, entitled “Why we must not relent in the fight against corruption”, I sought to explain the social, economic costs of corruption, highlighting what the $100B lost per year really means in the deprivation of education, health, and public safety.
Since the publication of that article, we have learnt of the staggering developments, again, at the Ministry of Education. Corruption involving public funds at the Ministry of Education hit a high and ugly note in 2019 resulting in the resignation of the Minister of Education, Ruel Reid. After Reid’s removal the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) was embroiled in a corruption scandal which was apparently tied to Reid. Former President of the CMU, Fitz Pinnock and Reid are now before the court on various criminal charges.
At the time of Reid’s removal, Prime Minister Andrew Holness promised to put measures in place to prevent a recurrence of what happened with Reid. This clearly did not happen for in this latest scandal, involving the Joint Commission for Tertiary Education (JCTE), the Auditor General, in a report to Parliament dated October 11, 2021, found, among other things, the following:
“…the MoEYI transferred $124 million to JCTE over a 32-month period, of which $94.9 million related to the COS for the OAD Programme. To date, the MoEYI has not been able to account for the utilization of the $124 million by JCTE. The MOEYI did not institute a reporting mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability for the use of the funds transferred to JCTE. Whereas the MOEYI provided evidence of the transfers made to JCTE over the period, and invoices prepared by JCTE, the JCTE has not provided any supporting invoices to allow for a determination of how this money was utilised….” (Para, 7, page 8)
The Auditor General further found that:
“…between February 2019 and June 2020, the MOEYI transferred sums totalling approximately $78.5 million to JCTE using the government institution’s -JCTETRN that was issued in 2017” (page 8)
The Auditor General thus concluded that:
“…it is our view that all sums transferred using the TRN registered for the Advisory Committee must be accounted for by the MOEYI and JCTE. If the MOEYI is accepting the position of the Chairman that the Ministry did business with a private entity, then this is a matter which must be further investigated to determine whether a fraud has been committed by a private institution using a TRN for a government institution to receive money under false pretenses” (Para 8, page 8).
Inability / Unwillingness to Protect the Public Purse?
Recall, as I mentioned above, that the Prime Minister promised that following the millions that went missing under the stewardship of Ruel Reid, he would have taken steps to prevent a recurrence. But it must be asked whether the Prime Minister was truly in the dark during the time Reid was engaged in his questionable acts. For if the Prime Minister were in the dark then the Prime Minister would be said to be sleeping on the job in the dark. Reid’s actions were neither clandestine nor small, he had established a Foundation in his name and was soliciting funds and was busy campaigning to run against Dayton Campbell in Northwest St. Ann. It is to be also recalled that the Prime Minister had inserted Reid into the constituency displacing Othniel Lawrence who appeared to have been compensation for his displacement with a consultancy position at CMU, the purpose of which was rather obscure. All these things were in plain sight.
Six Questions for the Prime Minister
Since the Prime Minister claimed that he would have taken steps to prevent a repeat on the Reid saga, now that the Auditor General has found what she has in relation to JCTE where $124M was transferred to that former government advisory committee turned private company, the Prime Minister owes the country an explanation.
So, I have six questions for the Prime Minister, as follows: Prime Minister, with respect to the measures you promised to put in place to have prevented a repeat of events like that which took place with Ruel Reid in 2019, I ask:
- What exact measures you put in place?
- How did you monitor the effectiveness of those measures?
- Did you detect any unusual happenings that gave you concern as you monitored those measures?
- What, if any, were those happenings?
- What he did about them?
- Can you give a guarantee that there will not be further hemorrhaging of public funds from the Ministry of Education?
Some positive signs of increased alertness
The frequency and ferocity are corrupt activities and damning reports from the Auditor General are wearying. The carnage of our public institutions and the pilfering of our scarce resources must end.
Thankfully, we are seeing the expression of concern from some who are normally nuanced or silent, as well as collaboration in voicing concern from others. Jamaica is blessed to have a fearless and professional Auditor General as well as organizations like National Integrity Action and Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal. Recently I received a video clip on a CVM TV interview as well as a press release from someone on the top leadership of the PSOJ who wanted to make the point that the PSOJ has not been silent but has been calling on government to act to end corruption, nepotism, and poor governance particularly of public bodies. I also received a copy of a press statement put out by a group which calls itself “Advocates Network” and in that statement they catalogue a list of acts of bad governance and corruption going back to 2015 and demanding “…more accountability for our hard-earned money”.
In addition, several dancehall artistes and other social media commentators have been highlighting gaps in our governance and accountability systems and decrying acts of poor leadership manifested in double standards, nepotism, ineffective management, waste, and mistreatment of citizens.
Required further steps: Citizens’ leadership
While welcoming the positive signs of increased public awareness and alertness, there is much more than we need to do as citizens as we exercise leadership. Renewal will not come from Gordon House or Jamaica House or any government office. Citizens must take leadership. I offer four suggestions for taking leadership to four important sectors of our society. While the suggested modes of engagement are similar, they have nuances of difference.
- That the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) expands the work of its Governance Sub-Committee to examine, on an ongoing basis, the reports of the Auditor General and other anti-corruption bodies and taking the findings into account to make public demands for action designed to ensure accountability and prevent recurrence. The fact is that the PSOJ is a powerful lobby group and the one feared (or respected) most by the government. While the government may dismiss concerns raised by others, it is not likely to do so with the PSOJ.
The linkages between the government and the PSOJ cannot be overlooked. Many companies provide services to government and some benefit from public corruption. But this is where the leadership of the PSOJ must show its commitment to the larger cause and mindful that its members’ businesses cannot thrive forever under corruption but take steps in its own interest and Jamaica’s to be a real anti-corruption campaigner.
- That the Jamaica Teachers’ Association, with its 25,000-member strong organization, establishes a “Corruption Monitoring and Prevention Taskforce” to study reports of the Auditor General and anti-corruption bodies and offer recommendations for accountability and prevention (like that proposed for the PSOJ).
One may ask, “why have two (or more) organizations doing the same thing?”. The answer is simple: Strength in numbers and the complexity of having groups which do not have natural affinities work together and the time likely to be lost in trying to merge processes.
- That the Guild of Students at the UWI and other student-organizations like Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF), mindful of what corruption is doing to their chances of a decent education, a safe society, and prospects of a decent job, take steps similar to those above and convene periodic townhalls with heads of agencies and ministers of government to seek answers to what is being done in response to the repeatedly reported acts of corruption, mismanagement, and misappropriation of public funds.
I invite our students to remember the leadership example of students in places like Tiananmen Square, the Arab Spring, Hong Kong, South Africa, the USA, and the UK. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is dominated by students.
- Finally, I wish, with some measure of reservation, to appeal to my colleagues at the The University of the West Indies. In the heyday of intellectual ferment at the UWI, in the 1960’s with Walter Rodney and his colleagues, the UWI was a place where scholars were activists who used their intellectual outputs to inform vigilant and vigorous promotion of perspectives decrying injustice locally, regionally, and globally and advancing alternative approaches. These intellectuals, even if fearful at times, were courageous, and the assassination of Rodney in 1968 did not deter them.
In 1979 when Thatcher was first elected Prime Minister of the UK, and 1980 when Reagan was elected in the USA as well as Seaga in Jamaica in 1980, the tide of intellectual ferment and contest of ideas began to wane. There appeared to have been a systematic attempt to silence alternative ideas. By the mid-1980’s Seaga had succeeded in putting a damper on public intellectual challenge to authorities. Since then, the dominant culture at the UWI has been one of reservation and not sticking out one’s head. This has got to change. The UWI has a duty to lead the way in promoting a more educated, just, equitable, peaceful, clean, and prosperous society, and a more accountable and transparent government.