By Kieron Murdoch
Opposition parties have harshly rebuked the administration for its supposed intention of using money donated for Barbuda relief and reconstruction to pay Barbuda Council workers’ salaries and salary arrears.
However, officials have been inconsistent when asked to verify whether the $1.5 million that the Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda, on Wednesday, approved for the Council’s use would actually come from funds donated for relief and reconstruction.
The government’s Chief of Staff Lionel “Max” Hurst spoke to OBSERVER media yesterday afternoon and was sure that “the $1.5 million was to be drawn from the Barbuda Relief and Reconstruction Fund at the Antigua Commercial Bank (ACB)”.
When asked to verify the source of the funds, Arthur Nibbs, Minister of Barbuda Affairs and Barbuda’s Member of Parliament (MP) was adamant that “$1.5 million was approved but no source of funds was identified” at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting.
Meanwhile, Melford Nicholas, Minister of Information who also attended Cabinet on Wednesday, told OBSERVER media he simply did not know from where the money was supposed to come.
Harold Lovell, Political Leader of the United Progressive Party (UPP), has warned that if the donations are used for salary payment then “people will not donate again.”
He declared, “They are motivated to donate because they want to alleviate suffering…When they hear it’s being used for budget support…donations are going to dry up and no one will give another dime.”
Lovell, also Senate Minority Leader, said the move would be “a reflection of the fact that the government is absolutely broke.”
Anthony Stuart, founding member of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), agreed with Lovell that salary payments and debts “should be paid from recurrent revenue.” He told OBSERVER media yesterday, “You can’t mix up the money and pay for expenditure. Donations should be held in trust.”
The government apparently did not wish to set up a trust to manage donations and the minister of information has espoused a starkly contrary view to that of Stuart’s.
In September, Nicholas argued that trust funds and other such entities consume a substantive amount of the sums donated in order to meet exorbitant administrative costs and consultancy fees.
Meanwhile Vere Bird III, Chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda True Labour Party (ABTLP) said, “That is the problem when the government has to pay salaries but wants to act as a charitable organisation for Barbuda.”
Bird believes that the government should not be managing the donations but that this should be turned over to a charity created for that purpose or another organisation “independent of the government.”
Following the passage of Hurricane Irma and the destruction it caused in Barbuda, the government opened three accounts for public donations: one at the Antigua Commercial Bank (ACB), one at the Global Bank of Commerce (GBC) and one at the state-owned Caribbean Union Bank (CUB). Each account was created under the name ‘Barbuda Relief and Reconstruction Fund.’
Hurst has told OBSERVER media that the money donated into accounts at CUB and GBC are being transferred to ACB. According to the Chief of Staff, CUB and GBC are being used as conduits, especially for donations originating from overseas, to channel funds into ACB.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cleopatra Gittens, Accountant General, has told OBSERVER media that thus far, approximately $4.5 million has been donated into the three accounts.
Prime Minister Gaston Browne has said that his administration is aiming to raise U.S. $50 million but that Barbuda’s reconstruction would cost in the region of U.S. $200 million to U.S. $250 million. In parliament on Thursday, Browne said that the World Bank (WB) had assessed the damage to Barbuda and given a more conservative reconstruction estimate of U.S. $150 million.
By Kieron Murdoch