If we fail to have a planning unit . . ., we plan to fail

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It was with some degree of consternation that we listened to the good Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Barbuda Affairs, the Honourable Samantha Marshall, yesterday morning on Observer AM. With her obligatory lightheartedness, she revealed that the Ministry of Agriculture has no planning unit. They are merely ‘winging it;’ going with the flow, reacting to circumstances and events. Sigh! This is what we have come to – the department responsible for food security and food supply has no long-term planning unit. The worst part is that the Minister made the startling revelation with a straight face, and without the slightest hint of irony or embarrassment. Remember, she has been the Minister of Agriculture for over a year.

True, the good Minister spoke about a number of this-and-that things that are supposedly in the pipeline, but one could not escape the sense that it is an ad hoc response to our teetering agriculture industry, never mind that the records show that more folks are into agriculture and fisheries on account of the Covid pandemic. Nonetheless, as per the good Minister, there is no real long-term planning unit! No overarching vision! Seems, agriculture is the ugly stepdaughter in this administration. Never mind our Prime Minister’s sudden interest in venturing into that area, what with the big developments taking place just west of Pares.

Of course, there are many versions of the oft-quoted phrase, A nation that cannot feed itself, is a nation that is not truly independent.” And you will get no argument from us on that score. If you recall, in the early days of the Covid pandemic last year, when countries around the region were shutting down, one of the fears expressed by many was that we would run short on much of the fresh fruit and vegetables that we import from other countries. As a result of our neglect of agriculture, we suddenly realised that we were very much dependent on outside sources to meet our agricultural needs. It was during those early pandemic days that the Ministry began distributing seedlings and encouraging backyard gardening, in an effort achieve some level of self-sufficiency. Oh, for the heady days of the great annual Agriculture and Industry Exhibitions at the Botanical Gardens and the former St. John’s Boys School, where the very best that Antigua had to offer in terms of agriculture were proudly on display. Agriculture was at a premium in Antigua and Barbuda! Our farmers were our heroes! This writer provided the winning slogan that became the theme for the 1977 Agriculture and Industry Exhibition – DEVELOP AGRICULTURE AND INDUSTRY FOR ANTIGUA’S PROSPERITY! This writer’s aunt, Joan Hampson, provided the winning theme for the previous year – IF IT’S LOCAL, IT’S GOT TO BE GOOD! The Ministry of Agriculture fueled our appetite and enthusiasm for all things agricultural. The people were engaged, even a sixteen-year-old boy such as I.

Back then, it was a serious Ministry under the great Sir Robert Hall, he who created the Central Marketing Corporation (CMC) that ensured that there was a market for every blessed thing that our farmers produced. Moreover, we had a serious canning and preserving unit, and a thriving export of peppers, pineapples and other local produce to markets as far away as Canada.  But that was then – the 1970’s – with committed men like the late, great Rolston Edwards involved in the planning of our agriculture effort. Sigh!

Anyway, in the aforementioned discussion on Observer AM, the good Minister of Agriculture uttered the expressions, “We’re working on it or “We’re looking at it” with great and disconcerting regularity. We could not escape the sense that this was an effort by her to placate the people and create the impression that the Ministry of Agriculture is on top of developments in the industry. Needless to say, her performance sounded like an aspirational presentation – what with an abundance of phrases such as We want a better structure in place” and No. I think we can do more; we’re making an effort” and “These things take time” and “We need to push agriculture as much as possible,” and, “The ministry does not have all that equipment,”and, “We’re looking to expand our equipment pool,” and “I can’t say that I have those numbers,” and, “It does not happen because I say it should happen,” and,  “It has never been maintained.”  She decried the fact that the Ministry of Works seems to be overloaded with maintaining all government buildings, and lamented the horrible disrepair of the Parham, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Point Fisheries Complex. Said she of the Point Complex, with an air of uncertainty, “I believe that some work has in fact started, but the work has not been completed.” Needless to say, it was a courageous effort by the good Minister.

As you can imagine, when the disclosure was made that much of what we were hearing, we’d already heard in some form or the other from Ministers of Agriculture in the past – the same old, same old, the Minister of Agriculture responded, “I think one of the weaknesses that I see within the Ministry is that WE DO NOT HAVE A PLANNING UNIT, and that is one of the things that I would like to know that I put in place. Without the planning unit, it is based on a policy of the day without fully fleshing out that policy and developing an actual plan of where we see agriculture going in the next ten to fifteen years. There has been work done; I did not feel like I was starting from scratch, but I felt as though everything was not quite put together so that you could see everything one way; but there was work done . . .  It is important that we put a structure in place so that everybody has a full understanding of what it is that is happening . . .  Without a proper planning unit . . . we will feel as though we are going around in circles. . .”.  When asked, “How soon do you think that that planning unit will be up?” She responded with her characteristic optimism, “It going to be before the end of the year; we’re working on it right now, and we have asked external bodies for assistance in terms of how we structure . . . ”. Sigh!

We wish the earnest Minister of Agriculture well. Never mind the glaring fact that she has been the Minister of Agriculture for over a year!!!  In her own closing words, “If we don’t plan, I could see in the future that we could fall into some serious problems.” You don’t say, Madame Minister!

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