The food program ‘audit’

Prime Minister Philip Davis yesterday gave a communication on what he said was an audit of the National Food Distribution Task Force, a particular focus of his since coming to office last September.

He has spoken to the food program numerous times in Parliament, revealing bits and pieces of information while painting a narrative of reckless spending by the former administration.

Davis went so far as to describe some members of the former administration engaging in governance as an “extractive industry”, and pointed to the food program as an example of programs used to enrich friends and associates of the former administration.

There is no question there should be accountability for public funds.

But we believe that the government can account to the public without hinting at a conspiracy that still appears to be quite opaque.

We believe many well-meaning people and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) did an overall laudable job in getting food to the public through the program during a crushing pandemic.

However, we believe Davis raises legitimate concerns about the dangers a lack of reporting and accounting mechanisms pose for the responsible expenditure of public funds.

With regard to the National Food Distribution Task Force, ATI Company Limited, which completed the “agreed upon procedures report” on the program, identified significant administrative deficiencies in the program and highlighted inadequate reconciliation procedures surrounding the expenditure of $53 million in public funds.

ATI concluded, “There was no evidence of controls in place to address data accuracy and completeness.”

The auditor also concluded, “There was no evidence of the task force’s policies and procedures in relation to vendor selections for the food program.

“No evidence was provided to support the proper execution of due diligence related to the organizations used during the food program on behalf of the Department of Social Services.”

It was also found that, “There was no evidence that controls operated effectively for financial reporting and monitoring.”

While these findings do not connect the dots of an overall picture of conspiracy to misuse government funds, they are instructive as to the need for better oversight of public money even when there is an emergency at hand.

There is often a need for government to act fast in getting relief to people.

That government financial controls are designed with built-in bureaucratic controls sometimes makes government the worst option for quick relief.

But corporate governance best practices should always be firmly in place when dealing with the people’s money.

As minister of finance, Davis has a fiduciary responsibility to account to the people how money authorized by his ministry was spent.

But the taint of scandal, with which members of the Davis administration have attempted to color the program, does not appear to be borne out by the report tabled.

This is not to say there are not things in the report that raise great concern.

The number of deficiencies and the lack of control over the funds by public officers is alarming and cannot be excused.

That two major NGOs did not respond to the firm conducting the investigation is also cause for concern and, frankly, inexcusable.

However, we believe that for Davis to conclude that their failure to respond translates to $10 million of government funds “vanishing” is hyperbole.

Davis has many legal tools to compel these organizations to comply with requests for information; and he is quite aware of them.

“We do not prejudge the circumstances we have uncovered,” Davis said in the House yesterday. “We cannot say definitively whether we are looking at jaw-dropping incompetence … or something considerably worse. For now, I encourage the Bahamian people to read the audit report for themselves.”

We doubt very much we have heard the last from Davis on the food program.

But beyond a direct outline of clearly orchestrated wrongdoing, we are not sure what new there is left to hear.

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