SLIDE DOWN FROM NOBLE HEIGHTS
July, 2006, when the Government announced its plan to move
its social services to the new Smart Card system, this newspaper
lauded the initiative, but there were reservations.
There is much to commend the Smart Card as a means of trickling
down the wealth of the country to those who need it most.
The card was offered with value limits of TT$300, $400 and
$500 per household, depending on the number of persons in
each eligible home.
Tobacco and alcohol products were specifically disallowed
as products that could be purchased with a Smart Card, and
it was expected that monthly reports from First Citizens
Bank on Smart Card use would be reviewed for discrepancies.
This was a good plan, but one that would be still vulnerable
to abuse by those who were determined to extract the value
of the cards in ways and in circumstances that were not
The success of the Smart Card system was always going to
be tied to the level of diligence and the commitment to
transparency that would be necessary to keep the system
faithful to its intent, and the Social Development Minister
of the day, Anthony Roberts, was cautioned in that editorial
to be particularly careful about policing such infringements.
It seems appropriate to repeat that caution for Dr Amery
Browne, who is now responsible for the governments
social development and catchment programmes.
The last thing that Dr Browne should oversee is the descent
of the Smart Card system into another means of political
It should only be necessary to mention other appalling lapses
in government programmes, such as the shadier dealings of
the Unemployment Relief Programme and the reputed HDC Ghost
Gangs to make it clear that the Smart Card, as valuable
as its potential might be, can easily make the short journey
from laudable initiative to public embarrassment.
Our Sunday Guardian report offers examples that suggest
that there is clear, if not necessarily widespread, abuse
of the system, with instances of each family member is a
household carrying their own Smart Card and properly employed
persons supplementing their income with the financial instruments.
Things have slid some distance from the noble heights of
the 2006 launch when the card can now be referred to as
the Smartman Card.
The Social Development Minister simply cannot preside over
a situation in which people who do not need these financial
services feed at the trough of government generosity, while
those for whom the instrument was devised cannot get access
to this crucial lifeline of support.
And let there be no mistake; the responsibility for this
potential debacle belongs properly at the door of the Ministry
of Social Development and its political leadership.
Its time for the minister to leverage the smart
aspects of the card to make use of modern technology and
track down the bad apples that threaten to spoil this barrel
of well-intentioned government support.
The exercise of controls that can be built into the card
to track down the identities of users and cross reference
their status as employees in the tax database would be a
first, admirable start in taking the monitoring of government
largesse into the digital age.
The response of Gilma Jack, national director of the Targeted
Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, the oversight monitoring
body for the programme, that client registration monitoring
would involve lengthy and readily circumvented site visits
is untenable, given the basis on which these cards were
The taxpaying public has a right to expect that the technology
smarts in these cards would play a role in ensuring that
their use is legitimate and in alignment with the objectives
of the Ministry of Social Development.
A door to door evaluation of Smart Card use suggests thinking
that is better-suited to the monitoring systems of the 19th,
not 21st century.