Post 346.

Finance Minister Imbert caught my attention at the words “gender issues” in the 2020 Budget Speech.

Over the last three years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI has been amplifying the women’s movement’s call for gender-responsive budgeting (GRB). We’ve been collaborating with state agencies, and hoped that the Ministry of Finance would step up to lead this process. Leading from the top is absolutely essential for nothing happens in fiscal policy-making, good idea or not, unless the Finance Minister says so.

So, Mr. Imbert got me excited. Thus far, he didn’t seem to understand gender or its relevance to budgeting, throwing responsibility over to Planning, and making fiscal decisions about cuts to tertiary education or spending on construction as if these wouldn’t differently affect women and men’s access to income and opportunity, or at least as if he didn’t care to know what their impact was.

A turn to gender responsive budgeting could put Trinidad and Tobago on the map with countries such as India, Austria, Canada, and the Ukraine. I was almost ready to congratulate the Minister as much as he congratulates himself.

Alas, not a word about GRB.

Rather, what followed in the speech is a good example of superficial take up of “gender issues”, which reduces gender to women and women to welfare, and provokes both backlash to feminism and misrecognition of valid women’s needs.

Following his speech, commentators felt compelled to champion the fact that “single fathers” and men need access to daycare facilities too. Implicit in this is the assumption that men need champions of “men’s rights” the way that the women’s movement appears to have successfully fought for recognition of women’s issues. Implicit in the public emphasis on exclusion of men’s issues is the assumption that the vast range of women’s issues were wholly solved in two meagre proposals.

In contrast, the fact is that Caribbean feminists have always argued that safe and affordable daycare facilities need to be available for poor families and “single” parents. They have also, always, followed data on experience on the ground when making recommendations regarding the different needs of girls, boys, women and men.

If you jump up clutching straws without knowing this, however, you’ll get headlines for appearing to right a wrong against men, rather than wrongful take up of what the women’s movement has instead been advocating all along.

It’s so ironic, even the invisibility of women’s issues and advocacy remains invisible. The role of male allies in highlighting this – rather than a separatist male-centred politics – remains as urgent and necessary as ever.

However, hastiness to give primacy to “discrimination” against men means that the much sought after “male voice” is unlikely to use his widening platform as an opportunity to insist on solidarity with and greater visibility for women’s historical call to count and value the work of raising families, to support low-income homes with accessible day cares and after-school centres, to think about the economy in terms of work-family balance, and to find solutions that encourage men and women to more equally share the labour of family and community care.

“Single mothers” carry an unequal burden of time, care, educational, emotional and financial responsibility for children, and are the poorest and most vulnerable category of families in the region. Providing free or affordable daycare would profoundly impact their lives by enabling them to earn a living or pursue additional education knowing that their children are safe. It would profoundly protect children too, as children’s risk to child sexual abuse and neglect is made worse by being left in the wrong hands when better options are unavailable.

However, such day care should be available to all low-income families. Low-income couples may also need such support, particularly if they have elderly or ill parents they are also looking after. Even poor women in partnerships may stay home with their children, partly because child care is so risky and unaffordable, ultimately undermining their own earning power in the future. Fathers with primary responsibility also face challenges to their ability to work while securing reliable child-care.

This has been the women’s movement’s position all along. Men may feel they are excluded in the budget, but the reality is that women’s issues have never received sufficient recognition in state policy and budgets and still do not today. A gender responsive budgeting approach would solve this problem and build solidarity. Truth is, when it came to gender, disappointment soon replaced excitement as I listened to the Finance Minister’s budget speech.

 

 

 

Post 345.

With Monday’s “election budget” delivering promises to increase CEPEP and URP wages by 15%, ethnographic look at some of these workers shows the realpolitik of expenditures and elections.

The workers appearing here are members of a neighbourhood of squatters who often petition their political representatives for basic amenities. They also participate as women and men whose area of residence carries social stigma. They participate in general and local-level election campaigns and voting. Yet, they do not do so out of civic virtue or for an imagined greater good.

Through informal actions such as talking to a party activist or formal actions such as registering for a party group, these low-income workers-voters establish personal and reciprocal networks with higher-level party loyalists woven into government offices and practices.

Indeed, contacts with a party activist is key to employment. Leroy explained that an extended family member was “expecting PNM to be back in power and told me I could get a CEPEP work because he knew people and was in the campaigning thing”.

As Baby Girl described, “The URP was passing around to get names, they was using a voting list and asking people if they were voting or not. I say why vote if I not getting work and just before the election I get a ‘10 days’. I took it and then for the election helped them campaign by going around with a list asking people to vote and organising a car for them. They gave us breakfast, lunch and even dinner. All campaigning people got a promise for a ‘10 days’. I got mine and they told me I would get one every other fortnight. We had to wait to see who won the election…UNC and PNM wasn’t giving jobs to who was seen in a PNM or UNC rally or t-shirt or with a flag”.

Baby Girl had secured successive URP jobs through campaigning for the UNC, but could not turn around and openly support the PNM. She, therefore, had no contacts to turn to when the UNC lost power. However, she felt she secured a URP job under the PNM because she declared she would vote for the party.

The elision between squatters, voters, party activists and workers also plays out in CEPEP and URP work teams. As Leroy reflected, “I feel working CEPEP, if a person want to say he belong to a different party, he will keep that to himself. Either belong or keep silent. You supposed to hush your mouth if you are a UNC on the job”.

Renegade agreed, “you have to act like you belong to one party, that is how de contractor puts it to you. He tells you “is PNM gave you this work and if you don’t support them, your job could be jeopardized”. He tells us we have to go to rallies. He told us we had to join the party, but that was nice to now have a card and number”. Josanne added that workers are “mainly PNM, but half the workers are UNC playing PNM to get a work. If they a UNC we run them out”.

After getting a CEPEP or URP job, joining a party and helping campaign is common practice. Usually, the work involves sticking posters, handing out fliers, bringing in people, going to rallies, helping to set up tents, and being “up and down night and day” with the party. The Constituency Executive also encourages workers that are members of or join party groups to see themselves as “agents of the party” and as “PNM representatives there every day in the wider community”.

In a context of high unemployment, economic discontent, scarcity, and difficulty accessing social resources, governing parties rely on these patron-client relations to win elections, control dissidence, and secure loyalty and dependence.

Giving high visibility and higher wages to CEPEP and URP is not simply about assuaging poverty and destitution, distributing income and providing social security. Deployment of state funds between those in authority and those that need their help is a means to electoral ends. Formal state channels are merely structure for extending political influence through informal contacts, especially in marginal constituencies.

Partisan allocation, however, creates the threat of resentment among those excluded, and fears of loss of power among those who benefit, fueling the election battle as citizens are mobilized into voters. Taxpayers will fund Colm’s campaign strategy. If they get their politics right, at least some workers in insecure communities gain a better chance of making ends meet.

 

Post 333.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert might as well have said, “let them eat cake”. The phrase has historically symbolised disregard for struggling masses ketching to afford even basic necessities by suggesting more expensive alternatives out of reach except to the rich. It’s his buoyancy in the face of obvious, everyday economic challenges that smacks with such disdain.

Commonsense tells us that unemployment has significantly risen, and this has led to contraction across the economy. Statistics can’t disagree with commonsense as we haven’t collected unemployment data since the end of 2017. Are “revenue and expenditure now in broad alignment”? If you are spending more than you are bringing in, doesn’t even an ordinary housewife know that this is mere robber talk?

When our children look back at this moment of creating a “solid foundation on which transformation and growth would now be anchored”, will they see creation of an economy with the capacity for self-sustaining growth? Currently, 63% of government revenue comes from taxing agriculture, manufacturing, construction, finance and insurance, but the majority of foreign exchange comes from energy. Non-renewable fossil fuels, converted into state spending, corruption and patron-clientelism, enable us to sustain our import-dependence, but what happens when prices fluctuate or when the fields empty?

Will there be less reliance on foreign investment and more on investment supported by national savings? Commonsense also tells us that increasing our deficit increases our debt and decreases savings, leaving our children to pay in the future for politicians to gallery today.

Finally, will they see a more resilient and diversified economy? Where? How? Construction is a standard stimulus strategy which assumes that putting more money into men’s hands, as the sector is 80% male, will lead to equitable development, sustainable diversification and socio-economic resilience.

Is this a valid hypothesis in Trinidad and Tobago? We don’t even collect the sex-disaggregated data to track the unequal impact of such a strategy on men and women, and on trickle-out across communities. When the construction money disappears like rivers in dry season, what will contractors do?

Experience tells us that this sector will then fall into some of the highest levels of unemployment, with predictable effects on man-woman relations, family insecurity, and domestic violence. Luckily, as money is being released, this will happen after the election, ensuring the local contractocracy plays the role it always has in financing an incumbent’s campaign.

To draw on Caribbean thinker, William Demas, who I knew as a child, will my own daughter see structural transformation of the economy with growth of inter-industry linkages, reduction of dualism (an-offshore and in-shore economy with different realities), and complete eradication of open and disguised unemployment?

Economic stabilization of our kind relies not only on necessary belt-tightening, but on young graduates remaining unemployed and supported by parents because joblessness is real and entrepreneurship isn’t an easy or always realistic fix. It relies on labour becoming increasingly precarious as health and other long struggled-for benefits are cut by the new regime of short-term contracts even for long-term public servants.

It relies on hospitals, prisons, courts, social services, and schools simply not working as they should for so many. It relies on people surviving through the informal economy. It’s great to hear that food inflation was kept low, but what does that mean when local fruit prices are so high? It’s joyous to hear the Minister Finance pat himself on the back, but what are NGOs saying about the everyday suffering they see?

I know self-congratulation is the key language of the hustings, but I’m tired of it before it’s even properly begun. There’s areas of revenue and GDP increase, there’s profit at the banks, and there’s big projects to disperse the dollars, but there’s also a reality in households at odds with the table-thumping in the House. It’s like how we report 98% literacy when any teacher can tell you that’s not the true story.

There’s no updated survey of living conditions nor household budget survey data to turn to in order to empirically applaud a story of turn-around on the ground. I suppose it’s too much to ask for a little humility just in case those who can’t afford bread are also not yet celebrating with cake.

 

Post 303.

A family can buy a sofa or a washing machine.

The sofa will benefit everyone, will be shared by all and will be in the collective interest. However, without a washing machine, the woman who has unequal responsibility for laundry will be laboring outside, with less time for sharing leisure with family, and unequal benefit from the sofa. Buying the washing machine will mean she has more time, and the whole family benefits from being together.

Of course, everyone could fairly share the household burden, but as life isn’t yet like that in Trinidad or Tobago, the financial decision both recognizes and addresses inequity, seeing its greater benefit to all. The sofa seemed like a development that could be equitably shared, but its wealth would not have been distributed that way.

Gender responsive budgeting, or GRB, brings exactly this lens to national budgets. It recognizes that women and men unequally experience development and wealth.

Globally, even women who work in the labour market put in more unpaid care labour than men on families, children, the elderly and the ill. This affects their career advancement, incomes, employment choices and expenditures. Women are also more vulnerable to a wide range of forms of violence, which affects how they experience transportation, and their needs from health and social services.

On average, in Trinidad and Tobago, women earn about $100 000 less than men each year, and they own significantly less property in their own name. Agricultural funding increased from $.054 billion to $.078 billion, but grants and programmes that rely on land ownership won’t be as accessible to women, even if they seem to benefit everyone.

This is because our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood are not add-ons. They shape every aspect of our lives – from how we labour in our households to the decisions we make at home or in the Ministry of Finance to our work in the economy.

What are the implications of a budget that doesn’t recognize this?

Stimulating the construction sector, in which 80% of workers are men, puts wealth directly into men’s hands.

An apparently gender-neutral stimulus strategy could worsen women’s economic dependence on men, reduce their power in negotiating money and household decisions, and increase their vulnerability to violence.

A ‘game changing’ government should track the disbursement of such resources and their impact because money shapes gendered power relations. A GRB approach would transparently trace whether revenues and expenditures improved gender equality and justice, fail to do so, or make it worse.

No government ministry systematically tracks, from planning to implementation, whether every dollar is advancing equal benefit from public funds among women, men, girls and boys. Fuel subsidies are not sustainable, but responsible fiscal policy should anticipate how its social costs will land on man-woman relations, and children’s lives.

Allocations to the health sector dropped from $6.02 billion to $5.69 billion, and we have to see where was cut, but a balanced budget often transfers burdens for care of the sick to households and women, from having to stay with patients while they wait two days for a hospital bed to greater reliance on private tests for quicker diagnosis.

The Petrotrin lay-offs will cause extreme social dislocation and economic insecurity. Yet, the national strategic plan to end gender-based violence is still not approved or resourced by government. How will it ensure the Petrotrin refinery closure doesn’t worsen intimate partner violence and injury? Increased fines for child abuse are mere lip-service.

The maid and gardener jobs to be created by Sandals are globally considered stable, but low-income and dead-end, without opportunity for upskilling or advancement. Indeed, women still dominate in such low status work in the service sector, and this doesn’t change such labour market distribution.

In contrast to a gender-blind budget, and small spending targeted to women or men, GRB would ask:

What is the labour, health, mobility, security and equality situation of women, men, girls and boys? How will all budget proposals impact their specific and persistent vulnerabilities? What data will track and measure this impact? Are there any proposals which, from a GRB perspective, should be changed or accompanied by other necessary strategies? How can government be held accountable for proper implementation of this ‘better budgeting’ approach?

A Finance Minister should be able to explain his understanding of gender inequities in the national family, and how his budgetary decisions account for these. Just as it takes understanding of and commitment to gender justice to decide on a sofa or washing machine.

Post 285.

Terror is tightening its steel-knuckled right hand around our throats, and when steel talks everybody listens. Yet, somehow, people continue to try to live as they are used to, raising families, contributing to communities, and nurturing creativity.

That alone is a miracle. To provide a sense of normal amidst the not-normal, for another generation which wakes up not knowing anything else, but deserves so much more. To raise children as if this is still a place where they are safe from meeting murder on any junction.

This seems the best we can do when politicians and police jump up with criminals and abandon citizens, causing collapse of the city.

This long-established and well-known honour among thieves is what most powerfully sets the difference between our reality and our ideal, leaving mothers to tie their belly against such a war federation.

We cannot live as if this terror is only of Lego and Play Dough, not people’s future, family, and daily food. Perhaps this is why people everywhere are committed to children’s collective learning and exuberant joy, knowing that it is to them, not God, we will turn to save our nation.

I thought about all this while sitting in the dark of Queen’s Hall as Lilliput Children’s Theatre, led for decades by Noble Douglas, put on this year’s production of Juliet and Romeo – A Tobago Love Story. Tobago Love, as we all know, is a deep love beset by continuous feuding. Sounds like us, fighting over drug block, over maintenance payments, over votes and over kickbacks when, deep inside, all our children want is more love.

It is a claim to pride in which we are almost failing, which is why Terrence Deyalsingh’s well-meaning, but clueless, insistence on children playing outside fell on so many deaf ears.

After almost fifty years of PNM power, even in the neighbhourhood streets where we’d once played rounders and rode bikes, few parents feel their little ones are safe outside, even supervised. ‘I go tell meh mama don’t send me down dey’, sang the children, already wise, and almost in answer to Deyalsingh’s mocking pretense at their generation’s strange and tragic tale.

But, we may not be there yet. Held in the arms of the darkness, my heart could only lift and lift at the sight of little ones growing up with a chance to dance traditional steps, cooperate in theatrical story-telling, and learn music from the decades that led us here.

The whole audience of adults seemed to feel that if we could just enable them to shine, we could invest all our hope in their Lilliputian light. As Mighty Shadow long told us, it’s clear that we must believe in the little children.

The whole wide world is caught in the mad war between Is and Ought” seems the truest line of the day, as it best explains the fire raining down on temple and town, with so many unfortunate deaths already met and still to come.

Like with the Minister of Finance, the whole country wonders if the charts and graphs of the ambitious King of Is are a lie. Meanwhile, like the King of Ought, few of us can find a way beyond hopeless delusion to how the revolution we need will be done.

Much of Shakespeare is about a play within a play, and about life and art imitating each other. On stage, Juliet repeatedly comes to her senses as she knows Romeo for far too little time, has far too much going for her to sacrifice, is too young to choose both marriage and death, and therefore decides against violent delights that have violent ends.

Romeo acquiesces, setting an example of how to act that big men murdering their women still haven’t learned. Indeed, in the larger national story, its not just women’s subordination, but their empowerment, not just their choice to get into relationships, but their choice to leave, that lead to violent ends.

On stage, communities feud while wanting respite while being threatened with death by authorities with a say over their lives. Seeing it play out before our eyes, perhaps this is why we try to lift our children, despite the trauma of our reality today.

So that they can dream, imagine, create together, nurture, encourage, support each other, challenge, grow, dare to be bold and strong, and engender the principles of discipline, hard work and love.

Maybe we continue to empower our children because we wish that when they talk, everybody will listen.