Commentary: The UK aid charade… Meanwhile, Montserrat misses out

Commentary: The UK aid charade… Meanwhile, Montserrat misses out

By Mike Jarvis

The Don and DfID Masquerade Dance: Quadrille No. 1

An old saying cautions that ‘the light at the end of the tunnel might be the oncoming train’.

That being so then, in the case of Montserrat in current circumstances, ‘let it be’!

At least something’s coming.

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Mike Jarvis is a freelance journalist and commentator in London

Under the harsh glare of relentless critical scrutiny, it appears that the UK aid agency, the Department for International Development (DfID), might be on the verge of unblocking a number of stalled economy-reviving, job-creating projects for Montserrat.

Both the government of Montserrat and the UK aid agency have painted themselves into a corner with their excessive time-consuming (time-wasting?) obsession with reviewing the-already-reviewed and displacing the-already-in-place, apparently in some obscure claim-to-fame quest for setting Montserrat on the road to recovery.

And now we are hearing of a squeeze and even a freeze on UK foreign aid. Last call for ‘first call?’

One gets the impression that Montserrat is being made to pay to DfID’s shortcomings and outright failings elsewhere. It might not be so, but it seems so.

And now, it would appear that even the Donaldson Romeo-led Montserrat government is losing patience with this static state of affairs… and affairs of state.

It’s time overdue for them to hold hands, and rather than an attritional duel to the death, dance themselves out of this quagmire that they’ve collectively created.

In Montserrat masquerade dance parlance; time for Quadrille Number One. They’ve been circling and sizing up each other for too long.

In that respect, this month’s meeting between government of Montserrat and a delegation of budget advisors from DfID should, if anything, indicate a scope for hope.

The leader of the DfID delegation, Moira Marshall, seemed encouraged with the progress of the meeting after having to admit at the start that her agency has been castigated in a UK government audit for failing to deliver on Montserrat.

But as she reminded local ministers and civil servants: “DfID needs to see tangible progress in the strengthening of government systems.”

As she put it, in order for DfID to make a convincing argument on behalf of Montserrat to UK ministers, Montserrat equally has to make a convincing argument to DfID.

With the pressures that her agency is under to improve its performance and deliver (and not just for Montserrat), one can understand the deflection.

The message is clear: If Montserrat doesn’t ‘up’ its own game locally, DfID, now under huge pressure, will deliver while Montserrat watches on – because DfID is under even more pressure to ‘up’ its game.

The premier of Montserrat, Donaldson Romeo, in a departure from the norm, has recently been unusually strident in his demands on DfID.

“£700 million has been spent on Montserrat in over 21 years and there’s not much to show for it,” he reminded, while making the case for Montserrat to be put in a position to wean itself off UK aid dependency.

That is tantamount to calling to calling for a UK Parliamentary Inquiry – and similar inquiries have been predicated and undertaken for lesser amounts; take the recent St Helena £285 million DfID-managed airport fiasco.

However, following the most recent Montserrat-DfID consultations, Mr Romeo is now pointing to what he considers encouraging signs for the future.

“I must say that there has been a significant improvement in the way discussions went,” he said at the closing of this round of consultations.

Adding that they “worked together to lay a foundation for the economic transformation to come…”

So what’s that plan?

It reads like a manifesto and hopefully locks DfID and the government of Montserrat into a mutual dance of survival, although the DfID team leader did challenge Montserrat on a number of key areas that still require administrative attention. We are not out of the paperwork woods yet.

According to Mr Romeo, “Perhaps the most important results from this (consultation) relate to the Capital/Development Programme.”

He said the government will submit a five-year programme on priority capital projects with a timeline.

“This will help us to prioritise and sequence the timeline for transformational projects… and will give us a better idea when the new hospital, fibre optics and housing will be in place on the ground.”

In fact, the current situation in Montserrat has inadvertently presented both the government of Montserrat and DfID with a possible win-win opportunity.

Locally, the current government under the leadership of Donaldson Romeo would have/should have hit a crucial learning curve after two years into office after taking over with hardly any ministerial experience as a group.

Simply put, both Montserrat and DfID must have learnt something during this period.

If this new dance flops, Montserrat will survive (unless the volcano has other ideas, God forbid). DfID might not.

By all accounts, DfID is in survival mode. It needs a major victory. Montserrat could be it, if DfID and the government of Montserrat could clear the bureaucratic bottlenecks that have been blocking the projects to get Montserrat moving again.

(Get Montserrat Moving Again. Now that’s a good campaign slogan).

After this year’s damning audit of its stewardship in Montserrat, DfID’s next audit will be in two year’s time in 2019.

Coincidentally, that’s the deadline for Montserrat’s next general election.

The script is already been written. But, who’s writing it? Who will implement it? Will someone else inherit it? And if someone else does inherit it, what will they do with it – especially if there’s someone else’s fingerprint and name stamped all over it? Will they want to change it? Will DfID then delay it… to start all over again? Can DfID afford that? Can Montserrat afford that?

Let’s observe this new masquerade dance between DfID and Don… or, considering the above scenario, DfID and Montserrat.

This month’s ‘consultations’ was Quadrille Number One as masquerade dances go.

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