FINANCE BY DAVID WALKER ACCOUNTANT & DATABASE EXPERT
I know that my column last week was likely to prove difficult reading for many. It delved into some issues that might not appear directly relevant to management of our economy today. It was, after all, an extract from an academic paper written for people studying at the very highest level in Accenting Finance and Management. Yet I believe that it has important lessons in any attempt to understand not only how dysfunctional our financial reporting has become, but also to understand that we are presented with huge opportunities that our leaders ignore, and the reasons why they are ignored.
We have failed miserably to account for hundreds of billions of dollars of public expenditure over decades. Yet almost on an annual basis we have been told that improvement is around the corner. Sometime early in this millennium, we began two projects that promised accounting salvation. They were IFMIS (Integrated Financial Management Information System) and IHRIS (Integrated Human Resource Management System). Over the years several hundred million dollars are reported to have been spent on them and the expensive consultants that sold them to us. Yet on a depressingly regular basis we have been told that these two products will soon solve our financial reporting system failures.
The paper discussed the problem in the context of Caribbean nations, almost all of whom suffered in a similar manner albeit to varying degrees. It went on to recognise that our analysis also applied to most small developing nations, thereby creating a vast commercial opportunity. It then made clear recommendations as regard to how the right initiative could benefit us through improved financial reporting and exploitation of an export market worth billions of dollars.
What we sought to show, was that in Trinidad and Tobago we are better placed to develop solutions for ourselves than expensive consultants from big countries selling us inappropriate systems not designed with our needs and practices in mind. We can save vast amounts of money while delivering world class financial reporting. Even better, we can create solutions that can become generators of foreign exchange. Improved financial reporting in turn will result in better financial decisions and performance of the economy.
Our failure to conceive and develop is not insurmountable
While we made the point in relation to financial reporting software, the principle applies also to many types of software that could benefit public sector management and reporting across the board. But do we have the vision at the top that is needed to drive such an initiative? I can confirm that several other technology projects are stillborn for lack of financial and other necessary support from both the public and private sectors. Our failure to conceive and develop world-beating apps and other IT products is not insurmountable. With the right vision and leadership, a great deal is possible.
Our great failing is not a lack of intellectual capacity or entrepreneurial spirit, especially by our younger citizens. We can and do compete successfully on the world stage just as we do in so many other fields. Our nationals and the wider diaspora are designing and building world-beating solutions for international companies and governments while we dither. Our failing is with the ability or lack thereof exhibited by our leaders. The solution lies in selecting the right leaders, a matter I cannot address today. I have no doubt that competent leadership will result in success.
In our paper, we spoke of the extent of the proven expertise of our nationals overseas. Through them, we have an enviable pool of expertise which can help to drive our quest for leadership in IT solutions for smaller developing nations. We have everything that we need other than leadership.
Sadly, the leadership weakness is not confined to the present ruling administration. In fact, it was even worse under the last administration. My evidence for that is simple. My co-author of that academic work was none other than Winston Dookeran, former Governor of the Central Bank and who subsequently became Minister of Finance. If anyone should have led the way in correcting our financial reporting woes and championing a new export platform it should have been him. There could never ever again be a better opportunity for a bold move into a wonderful new world. Instead, he and his colleagues did absolutely nothing to improve our financial reporting or our venture into this huge new international
It is time to embrace change
I can only guess as to Minister Dookeran’s reasons for not following through on the ideas that he and I had so recently championed. What I do know is that once in power, he never responded to even one communication from me on the subject, either by email or phone.
We know that none of our expensive diversification investments over decades has borne fruit. We spent literally billions of dollars on tech parks, growth poles and all manner of bottomlessness with great fanfare. Yet local technology products are considered too risky to be supported. The riskiest thing we can do now is to continue with more of the same. It is time to embrace change and some sensible risk.
I openly state my belief in this particular project as one that has great potential to bear fruit for the nation. At the same time, I am aware of several other projects by our youngsters that present cause for optimism. Every so often, against all odds, one succeeds. We have the example of Wipay. Should that not encourage us to invest as a nation in other similar products?
I see very few alternatives. Our current crop of leaders will continue to present us with more foreign made solutions that will take us forward to a truly diversified economy. In a follow-up column, I will delve into some other great ideas from our local youngsters that we should be supporting. It is they who can lead us out of the morass in which our leaders delight in keeping us.