March 16, 2003
By Raffique Shah
AN amazing commonality among politicians in developing countries is their propensity for pursuing prestige projects at inordinately high costs even as, in instances, up to 90 per cent of their citizens are forced to survive in squalor.
True, in Trinidad and Tobago, because we are blessed with hydrocarbons and a more than fair share of other human and natural resources, poverty is not as rampant as it is in so many other underdeveloped countries. Still, once political parties here come to power, their priorities shift from platform promises of urgently addressing social and economic inequities to that of constructing edifices that will ultimately become their mausoleums, since ours is not a society inclined to erecting monuments to the dead.
The issue that is currently engaging national attention is an announcement by Prime Minister Patrick Manning that the historic Red House will be extensively renovated to accommodate the Office of the Prime Minister. Citing reasons of its inadequacy to cater for the needs of a "modern Parliament", Manning added that a new Parliament building will be constructed, and he identified its location as the site that currently houses the recently renovated Magistrates' Courts.
Later, as he came under fire from quarters he probably least expected, the PM suggested that the renovated Red House could serve as a museum. He added that Trinidad House could be considered for housing the magistracy, and that his government's intentions were not to "tear down the Red House or the Magistrates' Courts".
Before I briefly express my views on these proposals, let me identify some of the "prestige projects" that have cost taxpayers huge sums of money. The Twin Towers in downtown Port of Spain (now renamed the Eric Williams Plaza) was one of the most expensive and ambitious projects that the late Dr Williams undertook. That, and the Hall of Justice, the Mt Hope Hospital and Nipdec House were symbols of the first oil boom.
They were built in the 1970s, a period when, with the price of oil rocketing to over US$20 a barrel, Williams could proudly boast: "Money is no problem." As the population grew and demands for office space grew with it, these buildings later became fully functional. Which, in retrospect, would place Williams in the category of "visionary".
Similarly, in the short six years that he was Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday bulldozed his way into constructing a $1.6 billion airport terminal that many of his supporters insist should bear his name. After all, it was he who seized the initiative to build the terminal, a project that had been on the drawing board for some 20 years.
Without getting into the controversy over the cost of the new Piarco terminal, I need merely point out that its facilities are grossly underutilised. There has been no increase in air traffic as envisaged by Panday, and on any typical day the place is like a ghost town. In years to come, though, Piarco may yet achieve the status of a "hub" for air traffic. Then, whatever the enquiry into its construction may conclude, and wherever some of those involved in the project may reside, Panday would be seen as a visionary of his time.
The problems with prestige projects as conceived in developing countries, though, are multiple. Besides their huge costs, they serve as "feeding troughs" for politicians and professionals, hence the allegations of irregularities that haunt almost all of them. And in their bid to mimic big cities in developed countries, to have skyscrapers and similar structures adorn their city- scapes, they fail to come to terms with other harsh realities.
For example, while poverty does exist in cities like New York, London and Paris, there is no Sea Lots within spitting distance of the Eiffel Tower. There are no Nelson Street-type "plannings" close to the Empire State Building. And the rickety sidewalks that are the norm almost everywhere in this country cannot be found in London or dozens of other big cities in Europe and North America.
I am not suggesting that this all-too-common flaw in the pursuit of prestige projects is limited to Trinidad and Tobago. Far from it, we are probably the least exposed in that regard. If one were to look at big cities in most of Asia, Africa, and South and Central America, the disparities are even more glaring.
The slums that overlook metropolitan Caracas, no different to the favelas that virtually surround Rio, or the "cardboard" villages a stone's throw from City Gate in Bombay, provide a most depressing retrospective look at the leaders who helped create such stark contradictions. And one wonders whether they are in fact monuments to visionaries of yesteryear, or concrete proof of the colonial mindset of the politicians who built them.
Which brings me back to the controversy over the Red House and the proposed relocation of Parliament. Prime Minister Manning was elected on a platform that placed the elimination of poverty high on the PNM's agenda. There were also promises to make housing more accessible to poor-to-middle-class citizens.
The PNM promised to make health care a priority, to create productive jobs for the thousands of unemployed. There was a commitment to provide the tools to the protective services to enable them to better fight crime. Manning vowed that with a PNM government in power, no person in the country would go hungry.
For the PM to make the restoration of the Red House a priority even as all these problems continue to bedevil us is insensitive. I sat in Parliament for five years, and I saw that Chamber reduced to a house of ill repute. What with the whorish behaviour of many parliamentarians, I don't give a damn whether they put Parliament in the Breakfast Shed!
I agree that the Red House is a historical building that should be preserved. In fact, I do not see a problem with government establishing a new Parliament building, although I think Chaguanas might be a more central location for the nation's seat of government.
But there are so many other priorities, the main one being the elimination of poverty, I cannot see why Manning would choose to make Parliament a priority. Sure, it is important to plan such projects early, and to consult with taxpayers before embarking on such costly exercises. I challenge the PM to move aggressively to end poverty, to put food on poor people's tables, to offer jobs to the unemployed—all this before a stone is turned for any new Parliament building. Surely, a successful social mitigation programme would be a far greater achievement than any prestige project.