Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nose, meet face

Cutting subsidies

At yesterday's  RBC Financial (Caribbean)'s Breakfast Seminar on "The Trinidad and Tobago Economy: Risks, Opportunities and Outlook", two financial experts indicated that the Trinidad and Tobago Government look towards cutting down various subsidies by the State in order to address economic issues. Well it's only a matter of time really. 

For fifty years, since the discovery of oil and later, the sale of natural gas, successive political parties have used the Treasury to induce a welfare state in order to manipulate a voting public. We've had life pretty sweet with subsidised power, gas, free education....the list is quite long. It is instructive to note that Singapore, a mangrove ridden country with few natural resources went from third world to first world nation status in their fifty years of independence. We, on the other hand, invented a musical instrument. 

Not that we seem to be in any way averse to getting handouts mind you. We have a huge sense of entitlement, Trinidadians are the first to bleat when anything is taken away, never mind the reasoning. Older people still blame the late Dr. Eric Williams who was alleged to say, "money is no problem". Considering that he never actually said the words, and we've had at least 3 generations who only know of him as a historical figure, this is pretty weak reasoning to continue that school of thought. 

The global financial landscape has changed, the world moves in real time due to ever growing access to information and communications. These days all kinds of people are accessing the power of the internet, it is now keep up if you want to compete. Survival of the most cunning and media savvy. And so to the subsidies. There are many reasons for and against. 

The current business climate in the country can charitably be described as stagnant. For the last two years we have had negative growth, an oxymoron really, how can you use negative and growth in the same sentence? The Central Bank Governor has gone through great verbal gymnastics not say that we are in a recession, except that everything he's said points to just that.  The Business community, some of the most risk averse people around, have said they are not surprised by his pronouncements. 

The question then begs to be asked, if you are not surprised, what are you doing to ensure that your business is positioned correctly? How are you engaging the Government to offer meaningful suggestions on tackling the problems? How are you treating with your customers and staff to ensure that they continue to support you? So far there seems to be little evidence of this kind of thinking  but I'm always willing to be corrected. 

And then there's the Government themselves. Have they clearly articulated plans with attached implementation dates for mechanisms that will stimulate the economy? What about the much talked about Public Sector reform to enable better access to government services? One such mechanism, ttBizLink has been around for more than a year, slowly coming on, one  painful module at a time. 

There is no doubt that subsidies will have to go, but this will be brutal unless carefully timetabled. Government will have to operate more efficiently, businesses will have to streamline their processes, become leaner, effective and the people of Trinidad and Tobago might finally wake up and realise that, no, God is not a Trini. The irony in this is there are many Trinidadians doing ground breaking things, in science, literature, art, and tourism, but they're mostly doing it on their own, against punishing odds. 

Sadly, until there is collective recognition that we need to change; to respect people's time, intellectual property, boundaries, we as a nation will constantly be stuck in a rut. We cannot continue to go along as if life is one big fete. So while the country collectively waits to see the outcome of the next Cabinet re-shuffle, the second in as many years, there will be obligatory "celebration" this week of Indian Arrival Day. Here's a novel thought, perhaps we need less public holidays, less "celebrations" and more concentrated effort. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Reform this not that

Things that make you want to scream.

Calling Government Ministries for information -

Phone rings, person answers : Hello

You: Good morning, have I reached the (insert relevant dept here)? 

GE: yeah.

You: I am trying to obtain information on (insert subject)

GE:  Nah, hold on, is not here you want, is X dept. 

Alternatively: The person you need to speak to not here, call back later. Phone is hung up. 

Or: the phone just rings and rings and rings until it cuts off.

Trying to get your contract gratuity?

HR file is pulled, paperwork is checked to make sure contract is signed. Assumption and resumption of duty letters, sick leave, leave entitlement etc all in order. File is then sent to Accounts for computation. 

Accounts then checks back the dates and figures, computes what 20% of that is, minus tax.

File then travels to Internal Audit to be audited, because clearly Accounts cannot be trusted to compute correctly.

If all goes well and the planets align, file is then sent to higher powers to be signed off on. HR then forwards file to Ministry of Finance for payment.

Keep in mind, there is no set time for this process to happen in most Ministries. 

So File arrives at Min of Finance, Pensions Division. It goes to, surprise, surprise, COMPUTATIONS. So they can make sure that everything is all computed. 

From there it goes to Auditor General, to be audited, again.

Then approvals, so that someone can say, yes, please pay.

Finally, it goes to ACCOUNTS, for a cheque to be issued.

How long does this process take? Anywhere from six months to three years!

Hopefully in the meantime you will have gotten another job, and called every week to check on the status of your file. (see above)

Actually, talk to most Trinidadians and they'll tell you their version of "Dealing with Government". Now that's not to say that there haven't been improvements, they have. Sadly, the improvements are always outweighed by unpleasant people, tedious processes, time consuming waits and apathy. There are filing cabinets full of plans that will never get implemented, studies that are ignored, professionals whose opinions are sought and then ignored. In the end, the people who work, expect results or want change give up, ground down by relentless indifference or incompetence of those who have a vested interest in maintaing the status quo.  And that is what makes losers out of all of us. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Hunger Games Trini Style

Tomorrow, thousands of Trinidadian and Tobagonian children, between the ages of ten to twelve will go through an ancient rite of passage. This ordeal is so intense, that it can be likened to Suzanne Collins'  Hunger Games novel, they anticipate it for years before, parents wait with dread. As in the books, those who can afford it, prepare, hundreds of hours of extra lessons, coaching, giving up your life for that one day that will define the next seven years, those that can't, well do your best.  

Sounds pretty barbaric doesn't it? While these children do not have to kill anyone to survive, their self esteem, peace of mind and their very childhood, is marked with a stress that is at best unfair, and at worst, draconian. I am referring to the SEA, the exam that marks the passage from elementary school to high school. This is the test that "places" you, hopefully, into a school of your (parents) choice. 

Short summary of the circumstances. In Trinidad and Tobago, you do not necessarily attend school in and around your neighbourhood. Theoretically, parents can sign their kids up to go to primary/elementary school anywhere in the country.  The reality is that most parents either pick a school close to their workplace or on the basis that it will provide the best preparation for the SEA Exam. Children are often forced to get up in the wee hours of the morning, get ready for school, then sit in traffic with their parents or sometimes on their own using public transport to get to school. Now if this were 1912 that would be one thing, but it is 2012! This is reinforced when they get to high school age. Parents then pick schools based on stellar academic performance, perceived teaching standards etc. All laudable, but children are taught from a very early age that if you don't get into one of the "prestige" schools, you're literally screwed. A failure, at age 11 plus. That's the short story anyway. 

Now there is nothing wrong with testing, tests measure your knowledge and can form a basis for assessment. However, they should never be the only assessment tool. Though life can be changed by the outcome of one day, you didn't commit a crime so for something like this,why should your life be predicated on the result of one day. Why, you ask, would any parent willingly put their children through something like that? Why would any right thinking parent want to subject their child to untold stress and strain? Why aren't parents calling for real education reform? Universal teaching standards? Continuous assessment? Zoning of schools so children can form bonds within their communities? Why aren't parents concerned that all children receive the best education possible? But it appears that we are that selfish. 

As a country that says we are committed to achieving first world ideals we continue to be loath to put them into practice. Before you call me a liar, read any of the daily newspapers, follow social media or talk to anybody in a rum shop. Whether it is educational reform or our seeming ability to use a walkover instead of running across the road, we complain and moan about the same things over and over, even when the fixes are obvious and even easy.  What is even stranger, parents themselves have been through this horror and perpetuate it. Many of us have been to non-prestige schools and have not only survived but in fact gone on to be productive, successful adults. So why do we choose to keep our children enslaved? Is it to feed our egos that our little darling is "prestigious"? Is it really worth it? And if that's the case, then the taxpayer should not foot the bill, you should. Because ALL schools should offer at the very least, a high standard of education. Trinidad and Tobago has been the wealthiest country in the Caribbean for most of the 50 years we have been independent. So why is it so hard for us to accept that at least our children are truly deserving of better? Is it that we need our own version of Katniss Everdeen, a rebellion fueled by children? 

Meanwhile, in deference to all my friends who are parents with SEA aged children, and to the rest of the nations hope, Good luck to you all. May the odds be ever in your favour. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Something for the soul

Today, it is overcast, a watery sun is determinedly peeping out despite being continually  obliterated by grey clouds.  Today is a Miles Davis in the Blue Note years kind of day. Smoky, smooth, mellow and just a little sad. Miles on the horn, miles to go before the task is done. Miles makes me want to drink dark, rich coffee, taste, slightly bitter. Deep chocolate cake with just a hint of pepper, luscious and decadent, mouth feel. No, not a granola or oats kind of day.