National Review

Casting a cloud over the food task force 

We noted with interest and some concern the reporting by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and by the financial secretary that there was a lack of availability of “critical information” relative to the work of the National Food Distribution Task Force.

While we accept that controls are absolutely necessary when it comes to the expenditure of the Bahamian people’s tax dollars, we hope that preliminary statements in the absence of whatever review is supposedly being conducted do not unfairly tarnish the admirable efforts of the individuals who worked tirelessly to feed the most vulnerable among us at a time when many of us were safely tucked away in our homes with cupboards and refrigerators stocked, and still with income to take care of our families.

The task force was established by the former administration in partnership with the private sector in 2020.

As many breadwinners faced furloughs and job losses, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the task force operated a well-organized and effective program that met essential food needs to some 57,000 households at its peak. It was a $54 million investment by the Minnis administration.

Susan Larson, who chaired the task force, previously remarked that it will likely be remembered as the largest and most successful social aid program in our nation’s history.

When the program wound down last September, Larson, in an op-ed carried by our publication, praised the various organizations that ensured the feeding program was a success.

“The zone leaders’ dedication to helping the most vulnerable among us day in and day out, often meant the needs of people they did not know took daily precedence over their own families and loved ones — sometimes, over their own health and wellness,” she noted.

“That dedication continued for 70 weeks, over holidays, throughout lockdowns, in the face of great uncertainty, and around the clock. In this age of great cynicism, political silliness, and widespread negativity, it was singularly uplifting for me to work alongside these dedicated and indefatigable frontline workers. They are a source of profound inspiration for me. I admire them deeply and I encourage Bahamians everywhere to thank them for what they did.”

Larson added, “They averted a national crisis, and the nation owes them a great debt of gratitude.”

The task force’s zone leaders were Bahamas Feeding Network, the Grand Bahama Food Assistance Committee, Hands for Hunger, IDEA Relief, Lend a Hand Bahamas, One Eleuthera Foundation and, during 2020, the Bahamas Red Cross. 

That they did commendable work of course does not mean that there should not have been accountability in how the funds were dispersed.

To be clear, we are not now suggesting there was no accountability.

The money for the program was taken out of the Department of Social Services’ budget.

After sign off by the Ministry of Finance, the treasury disbursed the funds to support the work of the task force.

But OPM and the financial secretary have raised alarm over what they suggest was a lack of transparency and accountability over the selection of NGOs, vendors, procurement and payment by the NGOs and expenses incurred and settled by the NGOs.

In a statement on Sunday, OPM Director of Communications Latrae Rahming said early accounts indicate no evidence that an internal control environment related to the food program and the task force was designed and implemented by the Office of the Financial Secretary of the ministry and the Department of SS (Social Services).

“Furthermore, there was no evidence that the Office of the Financial Secretary of the ministry, the Department of SS, 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 authorized contracts in place with the NGOs under the food program. There was no evidence that controls existed for financial reporting and monitoring. There was no evidence that the Department of SS obtained an understanding of the task force’s policies and procedures related to the food program.”

Rahming also said, “There was no evidence of controls in place to address personal data protection and data integrity. The Department of SS noted duplications of beneficiaries at the end of the food program. Payments totaling $9,139,09 [were] made out to a beneficiary that did not appear to be classified as an NGO.”

This requires explanation.

Free National Movement Leader Michael Pintard suggested that the $9 million referenced by Rahming was likely for distribution efforts on Grand Bahama.

He said he has been advised that checks and balances were in place.

The Grand Bahama Food Assistance Committee was a member of the task force. The committee was a consortium of entities that came together to support the mandate of the task force. Cates and Co. was used to manage the committee’s finances.

Former Minister of Social Services Frankie Campbell also insisted when he spoke with a Nassau Guardian reporter this week that the food distribution program was transparent and all expenditure can be accounted for.

If that is the case, then we would be grateful that the administration of the program was indeed above board.

The thing about paper trails, if they do exist, is that the relevant agencies can make them available.

We understand that an auditor is looking into this matter, although the government, to our knowledge, has not said which auditor has been engaged.

We expect that the task force has kept its own records.

Was the former task force chair contacted prior to the public being given the impression that some corrupt act had occurred?

We find it unfortunate that, in the absence of a full review, and without an audit actually being concluded, certain aspersions are being cast and conclusions being reached. In this regard, we speak specifically to the statement from the OPM.

It is unfair to those who spent many invaluable hours in the middle of a pandemic working to help the most vulnerable among us.

We hope that an audit will be undertaken by an independent private auditor, or by the auditor general, and that a report is laid on the table of the House of Assembly.

We urge those in positions of authority to more responsibly handle these matters. We pray that the premature actions of casting a cloud over the work of individuals whose credibility has been proven over many years and in the most dire and challenging of circumstances does not discourage others from engaging in such efforts in the future.

Show More

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

Related Articles

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please support our local news by turning off your adblocker