PHILIPSBURG--United Democrats (UD) Member of Parliament (MP) Sarah Wescot-Williams said on Monday that when the Inter-Parliamentary Kingdom Consultation IPKO discussions get underway this Wednesday, the elephant in the room will be the draft consensus kingdom law to establish the Caribbean Body for Reform and Development COHO for the Dutch Caribbean countries Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten.
The draft COHO law is subject of debate in the tripartite meeting of the three Caribbean countries today, Tuesday, as it will be in the four-party IPKO meetings.
The Parliaments of the four countries are all at different stages of handling this law. However, all eyes are on the First and Second Chambers of the Parliament of the Netherlands, as this is where the votes will eventually fall, Wescot-Williams said in a press statement on Monday.
“In essence, the question is, are the parliaments for or against the present draft, what are they against and what if there is no consensus to be reached?” she asked.
Some proponents of the law or parts of the law equate this COHO law with much-needed reforms, she said. Others see in the law the materialisation finally of much-needed developments.
It is from this premise that Wescot-Williams addresses the draft COHO law.
In her opinion, the origin of the COHO construct was not one to aid in the development of the countries, it was “plain and simple a way to push through a plethora of matters via a (new) type of higher supervision.”
“We have seemingly forgotten that the forerunner of the COHO was the CHE, the Caribbean Reform Entity, an entity that would supervise and report on the agreed-upon reforms, that initially even included the infrastructure of the country, which was later rescinded,” she stated.
“The CHE was strongly opposed to, as its infringements on the constitutional order of the Dutch Kingdom were as glaring as day. All this taking place in a strained political environment between Kingdom partners and this strained political environment was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that had all four countries in its grip,” she said. “It must be said, though, that for emergency relief, especially in the health area, the Netherlands sprang into action towards its smaller Kingdom partners without hesitation.
“While it is a well-known fact that the initial reform entity was rejected based on its far-reaching usurpation of the countries’ responsibilities and autonomy, the spirit of this construct has, however, remained in the COHO.
“The country packages were agreed upon between the Netherlands and the respective countries via the mutual agreement format of article 38, sub 1 of the Kingdom Charter. This type of agreement, which has become all too common, escapes parliamentary scrutiny and their use needs to be revisited.
“The St. Maarten government pussyfooted around this entire matter with different parts of the ruling government on completely opposite trajectories, leading to some very embarrassing moments, such as partially denying the UN petition filed on behalf of the Parliament of St. Maarten, the embarrassing moments in the Kingdom Council of Ministers’ meetings.
“Most recently, in a closed-door technical meeting with the Prime Minister in attendance, Parliament was told how well St. Maarten did in defending its position, only to be followed by a public Central Committee meeting where we heard again how the government’s hands were twisted to arrive at a consensus between the four governments.”
She said the country package is a far cry from a national reform agenda based on goals, objectives and priorities. The country package, she notes, is a “hodgepodge” of reform areas, some urgently needed, others desirable, yet others demanded from St. Maarten and then some random actions without any motivation or prioritisation.
“The COHO project is a clever way to force the hands of the governments of the ACS countries. It is a form of higher supervision without the legalities for higher supervision and this in my view does not contribute to sustainability,” she said. “I foresee major issues when it gets to the financing of the reform packages, without a clear financial picture from the side of the COHO. Not to mention the further negative development of our debt position.
“While it is true that in the country package some long-stalled agreed-upon reforms (e.g. tax reform and financial reform) again see the light of day, unfortunately the country package is not a comprehensive and synchronised set of measures based on a vision for the country going forward.”
She said blanket reforms such as those dictated by the country package needed to be preceded by a plan, mapping out the envisaged development goals and the future outlook.
The government budget will now be vetted based on the reform package of the country and this ties the hands of government considerably.
“It’s an overarching control of the budget and infringes on the budget right of the parliaments. Parliament’s oversight role will be relegated to rubber stamping, as by the time the budget reaches Parliament, the implementation agenda, projects and capital investments will have already been inked. The now added role of the CFT [Committee for Financial Supervision – Ed.] is also cause for concern, as there will be overlaps and there are still too many ambiguities.”
She said that while the World Bank’s management of the Trust Fund is very bureaucratic, the existence of the (temporary) National Recovery Programme Bureau (NRBP) ensures the “couleur locale” and this is evidence of how, even for a temporary organisation, if it is to be sustainable, the foundation needs to be implanted locally. “The same can be said for the COHO construct. Any other setup therefore needs to be devised with attention for sustainability and capacity building.”
Wescot-Williams believes that the country package/implementation agendas need to be redrafted.
“Many of the issues that we face with the World Bank Trust Fund construct are going to repeat themselves with the temporary work organisation as well as with the COHO. Problems [will be encountered] such as reaching agreement on how and when to proceed, having the necessary local capacity to act as counterparts and lack of a public national plan in which all of this takes shape.
“In addition to all of that, if the government continues to roll out whatever and the population, stakeholders and the different sectors are not being involved in what the government is doing, it is going to create an atmosphere of mistrust and polarisation nationally.”
She said the powers delegated to the COHO organisation belong more in a type of development and investment bank structure with all the necessary checks and balances that any such institution demands; a structure for development that better fits small islands, ensuring that checks and balances are in place and all accountability has teeth.
“It’s not for the lack of plans per se, as we have had numerous plans for tax reform, we have (had) plans for education, for financial reform, we have a plan for universal health insurance, we have a status report of our youth in collaboration with UNICEF. Were these even made known at the tabling of the country package”? she queries in her remarks on the draft COHO law.
“I can only hope that we can have an open discussion with the other parliaments of the kingdom on this draft law that was birthed during a time of mistrust, impatience and antagonism, at least in the case of St. Maarten and that the consensus principle will be upheld throughout the process,” she said.