Sunday 29 November, 2020

Economist on agriculture: $500 million not enough

Economist Indera Sagewan-Alli said the grant of $500 million for the development of the agricultural sector is not enough to transform the industry.

Speaking at today's post-Budget forum held by the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU) in collaboration and the Co-operative Credit Union League of Trinidad and Tobago (CCULTT), she said the focus on agriculture is good, but asked exactly how the monies will be channelled.

‘A lot of it we have heard year on and have seen little done in terms of implementation. This is the first time agriculture has gotten so much talk in any budget. The Minister was adamant that food security is the number one priority.’

‘Agriculture is an area where employment can be generated. We’ve heard about a Centre of Excellence and Bio-Technology, but why is the Ministry wanting to get into such a centre when the UWI has an entire faculty dedicated to agricultural research? Why not direct that money into the UWI to that purpose rather than spending money within the state, it seems like a duplication of effort.'

‘A lot of emphasis is clearly going to be put into agriculture but when we look at the allocation in the budget, it’s only the extra $500 million in addition to the allocation normally put into agriculture.’

‘$500 million is nothing, we’re grateful, but it is not enough to transform the agricultural sector in the way we need it to transform. I don’t know what the plan is but that needs to be thrashed out. I thought this was an election promise and therefore would have been separate and apart from a major allocation in the budget.’

Finance Minister Colm Imbert noted in the 2021 budget presentation that plans are underway to invest in a Centre of Excellence in Agriculture and Bio-Technology at the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries, the University of Trinidad and Tobago, CARIRI and other state agencies.

He said government will also ensure that state programmes and facilities purchase local produce and locally made and grown foods, for example through the School Feeding Programme, public hospitals and the protective services.

Government has estimated a total of $1.1 billion for the agricultural sector in the 2020-21 budget.

Sagewan-Alli also commended the fact that government's social support programmes will continue with the introduction of other programmes for vulnerable groups, but said these must be structured in ways which can bring value back to communities. 

‘We need to be creative and should not just be looking at the handouts and grants but should be looking at how can we convert our social spend to a programme where we can give back. Let us find ways in which they can contribute to community development for the grants they get. We need to break the dependency culture that is entrenched and needs to change.’

She agreed with the urgency of improving the country's global 'Ease of Doing Business ranking in order to assist business development and growth.

'We do take a long time to do things but COVID-19 fell upon on us and very quickly we were able to do so many things that we've been talking about for years.'

She said overall she thought the measures were a good attempt at balancing the variables involved.

'Under the circumstances I think a lot of us expected way worse. I think we expected that the burden in terms of financing the expenditure would have placed a lot more heavily on the citizenry. I felt that the Minister of Finance attempted as far as he could to balance that. 

'There are things where I would have taken a bigger risk, but on face value, if the Minister is able to deliver on what he has presented, I think we can see the country being put on a decent footing. The problem continues to be the implementation deficit that the country suffers.'

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