Parliament, on Tuesday, approved EC$117 million for response to the humanitarian situation that has resulted from the eruption of La Soufriere volcano last month.
“… we are talking about roughly 23,000 Vincentians receiving some form of direct cash support from this government in the coming months,” Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves said in presenting the fiscal package.
“That is a comprehensive and compassionate response to the twin challenges of COVID and La Soufriere, an unprecedented expansion of the state’s social protection apparatus,” Gonsalves said.
“Even amidst these challenges, we’re managing to directly touch well over one-fifth of our population with income and social supports. And despite our challenges, we are proud of the breadth of our support and the depth of our commitment to our citizens in their time of need.”
He said that from that EC$117.9 million, the government has crafted in the supplementary estimates 30 distinct and immediate responses to the most pressing demands of the catastrophe.
The largest 18 individual responses, in order of expenditure, are as follows:
Ash clean up, debris removal and river cleaning — EC$28 million.
Income support to farmers in the red and orange zone — EC$10.5 million
Meals for shelters residents — EC$7.5 million
Building materials for homes that have been damaged and affected by the eruption and mudslides — EC$6.5 million
Agricultural production support to get our farmers back on their feet and to expand production — EC$5.5 million
Construction and reconstruction of homes — EC$5 million
Community brigades and road cleaning crews — EC$5 million
Rehabilitation of bridges and roads — EC$5 million
Income support for non-farmers of the Red and Orange zones – EC$4.5 million
Income support to farmers who live outside of the Red and Orange zones — $3.8 million
Enhancement of SET Programme — EC$3.5 million
Payment of hotel and guesthouse occupancy by evacuees — EC$2.5 million
Logistics and trucking of supplies, waste, and debris — EC$2.4 million
Purchase of pre-packaged food boxes that are being distributed by the Ministry of Social Development — EC$2.25 million
Purchase of heavy equipment and vehicles — EC$2.25 million
Food vouchers for people who are vulnerable nutritionally — EC$2 million
Reinvigoration and restart of Love Box programme — EC$2 million
Enhancement of the work done by the Ministry of Social Development — EC$2 million
The finance minister said:
“Those 18 initiatives of the 30 that are in this budget total $100.2 million. And therefore those 18 initiatives represent 85% of the entire budget that we’re bringing before the honourable house today.”
Of the EC$117 million in the budget, EC$70 million is from money set aside from the Contingencies Fund, and the catastrophe, drawdown deferred Option (Cat-DDO).
He said that despite all the spending, the Contingencies Fund was sufficiently robust, and still contains EC$15 million, in case the country experiences a storm or a hurricane in the coming weeks and months.
Gonsalves said that as a result of the volcanic eruption, his government would have to reprioritise and reschedule not only the plans approved in the 2021 Budget, in February, but also its near term developmental timetable.
“For example, we are reprogramming our entire World Bank allocation of resources that we had booked for certain projects… and focusing all of that world bank money on volcano-related budget support and reconstruction and that money, which is not in this budget, but will come later,” he said.
“That money will total close to $180 million, additionally, and we will be able to use that money in the coming months in the coming years to continue to rebuild and respond to this catastrophe…” Gonsalves said.
“So this supplementary budget is just the opening salvo is the first phase of the government’s response. And we are targeting this supplementary budget narrowly, to humanitarian issues, to clean up costs, and only to the most urgent reconstruction demands.
“We will have secondary and tertiary budget allocations to deal with reconstruction, after we have fully ascertained the extent of the damage that we face, but there is money coming for that even as we programme this $117.9 million, we are already in active and advanced negotiations, to bring additional resources on board to deal with the reconstruction of this great country.”
Gonsalves said that even as he said what the budget is for, it is important to say what it is not for, so as to avoid criticism that certain things were omitted.
“While it has money for the most urgent and pressing reconstruction efforts, this is not a reconstruction budget. And while it has money to build in excess of 50 homes, and to purchase a million dollars worth of land, to relocate people who are living in dangerous areas, this is not the relocation budget, more of that will come. And while it has money for SET, and YES and PRYME, that is not the purpose of the budget, it’s humanitarian. And while the budget is primarily focused on the next three to six months, it is not, therefore, a long term budget. It is a short-term budget to deal with short term needs and demands,” he said.
The budget also includes EC$13.4 million in low-interest and highly-concessional rapid emergency financing from the Caribbean Development Bank, $16.1 million from the International Monetary Fund, and $4.9 million from the World Bank’s International Development Association.
“While other financing is being negotiated with development partners that will far exceed this initial $117.9 million, we have chosen to restrict this urgent supplementary budget response to the resources that we have at hand and the resources that are available in the shortest possible time,” Gonsalves said.
The supplementary budget was approved in the absence of the opposition, whose members left the chambers after Opposition Leader Godwin Friday was ordered to leave.
House Speaker Rochelle Forde ordered that the opposition leader leave for breaching the house rules as he advocated for the exclusion of government senator, Ashelle Morgan from the house.
Friday was asking that Morgan leave or be made to leave the house until the conclusion of a criminal investigation into the shooting of Cornelius John, 60, at his home in Diamond, on April 13.
Commissioner of Police Colin John has said that Morgan and Assistant Director of Public Prosecution, Karim Nelson, are “persons of interest” in that investigation.
Nelson has taken leave of his post, pending the outcome of the investigation.
After leaving the house, the opposition told the media that they would have supported the budget and would have asked for more for citizens.