Imaginary harbours

Imaginary harbours
November 24 23:29 2015

The ferry to Kaafu Atoll Gaafaru entered through a narrow channel, deftly avoiding collision with the rocky reef. The harbour ahead of us, built by hand in 1998, was crooked and cracked: The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 had washed out the sand underneath, causing the concrete slab to lean into the water at a dangerous angle. When we docked, the young and elderly struggled to get off the ferry without falling into the water.

The fisher people of Gaafaru have been waiting for repairs for a decade. Some MVR65.4million was earmarked for a new harbour in 2014 and 2015, but work never began. The project has now disappeared from next year’s budget.

Gaafaru, home to some 30 fishing vessels and a 1000 people, supplies most of the fish consumed in Malé, but islanders say they are neglected by the central government.

“The government of Malé does not care for us because we are a small community,” said Ali Hashim, an island councilor. “But is it our fault that we were born to a community with less people? Don’t we deserve harbors, sewerage systems, healthcare and other basic needs, too?”

This story is not unique to Gaafaru.

Last week, I called all the islands President Abdulla Yameen had promised harbors, safe water and sewerage systems to. I found that a vast majority of projects were either stalled or had never begun. Very few had reached completion. Several projects are passed on paper, from one year’s budget to the next, fuelling discontent and despair.

Of the 54 harbor projects, only five have been completed. Work is stalled on 16, and 19 projects never started. For the promised 64 sewerage systems, 19 were stalled and 26 never started. Meanwhile, of the 31 water projects, 10 were stalled and 13 never started.

Many councilors told me their letters remain unanswered, and meetings with ministry officials only end with hollow promises.

Why does this happen?

The main reason is that the government is not able to realize expected revenue. The first expenses to be cut are the development projects. Last week, Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad said some MVR6.3billion had been allocated in 2015 for infrastructure projects under the Public Sector Investment Program, but only MVR3.7billion would be spent by the end of the year.

Halting spending on development projects may be a cost cutting measure for the government, but for Gaafaru, it is an issue linked directly to their livelihoods.

The second reason for delays, according to the government, is the scarcity of contractors. President Yameen in August highlighted a third reason – lengthy bidding procedures. He suggested doing away with the tendering and evaluation process by handing projects to companies on a government compiled list.

Critics have dismissed the government’s claims, laying the blame at the government’s tendency to promise projects for political gain, without a financing plan.

An economist, who has worked in the civil service for years, said: “The public needs to question the government: If this year’s projects were not launched because of lack of revenue, are the revenue raising measures for next year realistic? If not, be assured, they will find themselves in the same situation.”

This is a question the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party raised in last week’s budget debate. MPs noted the government has proposed to raise MVR4billion with the same measures that failed to generate income this year, such as some US$100million from acquisition fees for tax free special economic zones.

The analyst, who was reluctant to give his name, conceded difficulties in finding contractors, especially given the fact many international contractors were not interested in small-scale projects. But he said the process could be eased by relaxing conditions in the bidding processes.

“The real question here is, why is the government budgeting projects without considering locally available resources? They cannot claim, after the fact, that they just could not find contractors.”

Former Economic Development Minister Mahmood Raazee agreed, adding that the lack of contractors does not justify the small fraction of projects that are completed. “This really points to a failure by the government in managing costs.”

International financial institutions, too, have long warned the government of risks posed by rising expenses. The finance ministry has said expenses on recurrent costs, such as wages and welfare payments, will stand at a staggering 72percent of the budget by the end of the year, instead of the expected 64.8percent.

The disappearance of projects for regional development has also caused concern among MPs of the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives. Yameen has sought to placate discontent, promising today new projects in a supplementary budget in 2016, but only if the government is able to raise the expected revenue.

When questioned on why the Gaafaru harbour project was omitted from the 2016 budget, Ibrahim Muaz Ali, the president’s spokesman said: “Every single expense in the budget is linked to the people.” The government had to reprioritize this year, by allocating funds for airport development and the construction of a bridge between Malé and its suburbs, he said.

Meanwhile, Mariyam Shiuna, executive director at anti-corruption NGO Transparency Maldives, said repeated unrealistic budgets would only make the public lose faith.

“As there is limited proactive disclosure of information on the government’s part, it is difficult to ascertain why so many projects are included in the budget but fail to launch. Questions we need to ask are where does the budget allocated for these projects disappear? Or are these just imaginary projects that were never meant to materialize?”

She urged the government to be more transparent on the selection of islands. “There is no clear mechanism at the moment to understand how and why some islands are selected… It is paramount that the relevant authorities disclose information related to these projects and keep the public regularly informed.”

Back on Gaafaru, disillusionment is high.

Seventy-year-old retired fisherman Abbas Eesa complained: ”We have built everything here with our own hands. That was fine when the Maldives was poor and the government could not afford to fund development projects. But now, after all these resorts and riches, we are still left to build things from our own pockets with our own labor.”

Some fear neglect by the government is reducing the people to begging, forcing dependence on the charity of parliamentarians and the rich. The MP for Gaafaru, Faisal Naseem, reportedly funded lights for the harbor and a medical ward at the health post from his own pocket.

Ahmed Fazeel, a 31-year-old engineer, said such dependence only locks the people into systems of clientelism, where political actors give hand outs for political support, further disempowering an impoverished people.

“Some of the councilors even signed for PPM hoping that it would help us get a harbor. But maybe its time for us to reconsider this,” he said.