By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Opposition’s leader yesterday warned the Government not to “alienate” non-profit groups and their donors by creating a “political stink” around the $51m COVID food assistance initiative.
Michael Pintard told Tribune Business that the Davis administration’s effort to cast vague “aspersions” over the work done by the National Food Distribution Task Force and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) threatened to “sideline” those who had been helping to assist impoverished Bahamians even before the pandemic struck.
Hitting back at the statement released by Latrae Rahming, director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office, he argued that the Minnis administration had sought to keep the food programme’s administration costs as low as possible with just 8 percent of monies used for this purpose on New Providence.
This rose to 12 percent on the Family Islands, and 18 percent on Abaco where infrastructure had been devastated by Hurricane Dorian. And Mr Pintard said both the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme had been involved in helping to structure and execute the initiative, and drawing up the criteria used to determine who would receive help.
Mr Rahming, in his statement, said some $9.139m in payments were “made out to a beneficiary that did not appear to be classified as an NGO”. However, Mr Pintard said that based on his recollection, the entity involved was the Cates & Company accounting firm, which was brought in to provide financial oversight to the feeding initiative on Grand Bahama.
The Grand Bahama food assistance programme was structured differently to the rest of The Bahamas, with the Office of the Prime Minister partnering with the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) and the island’s Chamber of Commerce to ensure Bahamians were able to put food on the table. There is no suggestion that Cates & Co or its executives have done anything wrong.
Mr Pintard, meanwhile, questioned why the Government would release “partial” findings from what is understood to be, at present, a draft report when the accounting firm compiling it had yet to interview Susan Larson, the Task Force’s head, or request information from her. This newspaper understands that meeting was supposed to take place yesterday.
And he also suggested that the “timing” of Mr Rahming’s statement had less to do with “transparency and accountability” over the COVID food assistance initiative and was more connected to efforts to deflect, and distract, media and public attention from the ongoing furore over the Government’s Dubai trip.
In similar fashion, the Government released the Bahamas Public Parks and Beaches Authority report a day after issues surrounding the Christmas Carnival’s cancellation surfaced, again seeking to throw the spotlight back on the previous administration and its actions.
Mr Pintard, though, argued that more important questions relate to the current status of the COVID food assistance initiative, which was taken back in-house by the Government through the Ministry and Department of Social Services and Urban Development.
Addressing the controversy stoked by Mr Rahming’s statement, the Opposition leader said the former administration sought to partner with NGOs such as Hands for Hunger, the Bahamas Feeding Network and the Red Cross on the COVID food assistance because they were “already operating in this space” and had networks and contacts on the ground.
He explained that the Government would have merely increased bureaucracy and costs had chosen to handle food distribution itself. So the Minnis administration decided to contribute “the lion’s share of the funding” with the National Food Distribution Task Force created to act as the co-ordinating and focal point through which these monies were disbursed to the NGOs.
“What we don’t want to do in this discussion is sideline these groups,” Mr Pintard said of the NGOs, “or cause them to be caught up in a political drama when their goal is to meet residents’ needs. The last thing donors want is to be caught up in a political stink. The Government ought to be careful not to alienate such groups.”
He argued that the questions the Government needs to answer involve the food programme’s current status, namely how many persons is it now serving; how different this is from figures prior to the September 16 general election; and whether the economy has improved sufficiently to reduce distribution and the number of sites used for this.
“Are they seeing people and keeping their dignity intact,” Mr Pintard asked, adding that the COVID food assistance initiative was initially only supposed to be a 12-week programme but “ultimately mushroomed into 20 months” to provide Bahamians who had lost their jobs and all incomes due to the pandemic with food security.
“It is unfortunate that the Government has picked this time to cast aspersions on a programme that benefited from the input of NGOs,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is create an unnecessary furore over a situation where the Government has access to the information, and can get the information if it so desires.”
The Opposition leader explained that past Cabinet papers set-out the mandate and structure of the COVID food assistance initiative, together with costs and the participants involved. In addition, the Government would have access to the permanent secretary and accounting officer at the Ministry of Social Services, who could provide details on the flow of funds.
Any “gaps”, Mr Pintard added, could be filled by the Task Force, which would have financial records and audit-ready paper trails in its files. “There was no need for them to release a partial report with gaps in it knowing all parties had not been involved in the discussion,” he said.
As for the $9m that did not go to an NGO, Mr Pintard said: “Again they have a paper trail that the funds went to service the Grand Bahama programme.”
Mr Rahming, in his statement, said: “Early accounts indicate no evidence that an internal control environment related to the food programme, and the Task Force was designed and implemented by the office of the financial secretary of the Ministry [of Finance] and the Department of (Social Services).#
“Furthermore, there was no evidence that the office of the financial secretary of the ministry, the Department of (Social Services), and the task force collaborated to design policies, procedures and best practices aimed towards the execution of the task force’s duties, inclusive of reporting and monitoring.
“There was no evidence of authorised contracts in place with the NGOs under the food programme. There was no evidence that controls existed for financial reporting and monitoring. There was no evidence that the Department of (Social Services) obtained an understanding of the task force’s policies and procedures related to the food programme.”
Mr Rahming added that the Department of Social Services “did not appear to have received and/or maintained sufficient and appropriate documentation and support” related to the task force’s operations and execution of the programme specifically for verification of resource allocation; beneficiary data; expenditures incurred and settled;, and minutes for meetings held.
“There was no evidence of controls in place to address personal data protection and data integrity. The Department of (Social Services) noted duplications of beneficiaries at the end of the food programme,” he said.