AS we are locked in and under strict curfew for at least the next month, there are thousands of families in our own country living in poverty and going hungry in this pandemic period.
How are we helping struggling families in Trinidad and Tobago during this time, one may ask?
Apart from the public assistance grants, food cards and salary grants disbursed by the Government on a monthly basis to thousands of deserving households, there are also facilities of the one-off food cards, three months rental grants, clothing grants, book grants.
But the most recent government initiative since the pandemic hit us in 2020 is the much sought after food hampers. Thousands of hampers have been distributed mostly to deserving families by the State through MPs and Councillors over the past year.
During the pandemic last year, as the sitting Member of Parliament for Couva North, I would have received from the Ministry of Social Development 500 food cards and 300 hampers for distribution to needy families.
The 500 food cards were targeted, in each constituency, at the households of the children who were beneficiaries of meals from the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd. In Couva North, 1,800 children were on this school feeding programme which put us at a disadvantage in distributing this insufficient aid.
It proved to be a logistical challenge since there were issues such as getting the school feeding lists from the schools and determining those most needy from the full lists submitted by teachers and principals in spreading the cards over the 14 schools within the constituency.
I remember raising the issue with the line minister at the time, Camille Robinson-Regis, seeking to shift the food card distribution to the school principals.
This of course never happened. In having the full unfiltered lists with which to work, I was left concerned when I personally saw several individuals driving in with SUVs to collect $500 food cards for their children, their names having appeared on the lists we were given.
When it comes to the hamper distributions, it is up to the MPs’ offices to distribute to the needy families in their constituencies. However, this is where ALL the problems arise.
Lists of names from the councillors are submitted and it is no secret that needy supporters of the party to which the councillors belong are the names easiest to find.
Now to balance the distribution, politically, the party in power would find ways to get to their supporters in constituencies not controlled by them. It happened under the former People’s Partnership government where affiliated NGOs/ Sport Clubs/ religious bodies got hampers to distribute.
This is just the way it has been done since we became a Republic and has been practised by successive governments since then.
Is this a wrong practice? You judge for yourselves.
As it stands there is no government policy on hamper distributions and this is why there is total chaos and government agencies in charge find themselves in ‘hot water’ as we saw with Namdevco and a letter issued to the Mayor of Chaguanas refusing his request for hampers, citing “only MPs will be receiving” when in fact NGOs were also in receipt. It turned out to be pure political bacchanal since it was a UNC mayor vs a PNM affiliated NGO.
I don’t think this is the time to be “fighting down” hampers however, since there are thousands of families who need help and every Chairman and Mayor would have a fund for these initiatives. Has the Mayor’s Fund at the Chaguanas Borough been depleted of funds for a hamper drive?
I have a few recommendations.
We need a government policy on hamper distribution since this initiative is undertaken by Ministries, Regional Corporations, State agencies for the Christmas season and during times of national disasters.
We cannot have millions of taxpayers’ dollars being spent annually with no clear policy on the “who, when and why” of relief. We also have hundreds of deserving families falling through the cracks when elected officials are in charge of these hamper distributions.
The Ministry of Social Development has the data on all those families who depend on the state’s social safety net. There are regional offices across T&T where distribution of these hampers can be undertaken by the Ministry’s staff in an effective and practical manner.
Of course a decentralised distribution is easier from the MPs and councillors offices but a list of those deserving families from the Ministry of Social Development should accompany the hampers. It would be more effective if the hampers can be labelled with their names for ease of distribution.
The Ministry has the responsibility to keep updated data on those persons most in need. Those very MPs and councillors should help to keep such lists current.
The role of the private sector is also crucial. Its corporate social responsibility over the years has been able to reach far more deserving families than the government alone. In my ten years as MP, corporate Couva and Chaguanas partnered with me every step of the way in helping deserving families. In 2020 they assisted 2,000 families with hampers in Couva North alone and for that I am eternally grateful.
Government policy must continue to encourage such through tax breaks and other incentives.