State aid to churches raises eyebrows

The Gov­ern­ment of Trinidad and To­ba­go’s re­cent de­ci­sion to fi­nance 20 re­li­gious groups to the to­tal val­ue of $TT10 mil­lion, for three con­sec­u­tive months, is ques­tion­able. Ad­mit­ted­ly, this in­ter­ven­tion is root­ed in the egal­i­tar­i­an prin­ci­ple of reach­ing the down­trod­den res­i­dents, in­clud­ing Venezue­lans, who have been un­able to ac­cess salary re­lief grants, and so­cial as­sis­tance schemes, to buffer them from COVID-19 shocks.

How­ev­er, if the Min­istry of Rur­al De­vel­op­ment and Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment is al­so be­ing giv­en a $TT 10 mil­lion grant for three con­sec­u­tive months, I am not sure that there was even a need for us­ing faith-based or­gan­i­sa­tions for the op­ti­mum dis­charge of de­cen­tralised aid-dis­tri­b­u­tion.

The Min­istry of Rur­al De­vel­op­ment and Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment has cen­tres lo­cat­ed through­out both is­lands; and pos­sess per­son­nel who are paid and trained in per­form­ing so­cial ser­vice de­liv­ery in a dis­pas­sion­ate and pro­fes­sion­al man­ner. This Min­istry could have been en­trust­ed with the task of sourc­ing of foods from Namde­v­co farm­ers, su­per­mar­ket as­so­ci­a­tions and re­lief agen­cies.

This or­gan­i­sa­tion would sure­ly have con­tacts of the food pro­duc­ers in each nook and cran­ny of the na­tion, to en­sure that tax­pay­ers gain max­i­mum val­ue. Dis­turbing­ly, the Min­is­ter of So­cial De­vel­op­ment, Mrs Robin­son–Reg­is, has not lu­cid­ly de­tailed the as­signed du­ties to the Min­istry of Rur­al de­vel­op­ment and Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment in terms of COVID re­lief.

The re­ward­ing of faith-based or­gan­i­sa­tions with fi­nances to en­gage in pas­toral care for the pan­dem­ic-strick­en com­mu­ni­ty as­sumes that all 20 or­gan­i­sa­tions have been work­ing as­sid­u­ous­ly on char­i­ty projects. Yet, the na­ture and ex­tent of re­lief ef­forts of all 20 de­nom­i­na­tions varies tremen­dous­ly.

Many of the groups cho­sen are in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor and al­so fu­el po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, on ei­ther side of the Par­lia­ment.

It seems like the Gov­ern­ment is tac­it­ly be­com­ing “pop­ulist” to the re­li­gious pro­tag­o­nists. In­deed, there is no prece­dent for this in­ter­ven­tion, as so­cial wel­fare de­liv­ery in this coun­try has tra­di­tion­al­ly been de­ter­mined on sec­u­lar grounds.

Ig­nor­ing the Con­cor­dat Re­peal of 2000, which al­lows the Gov­ern­ment to bro­ker part­ner­ships with de­nom­i­na­tion­al school boards, there is no Law that ex­plic­it­ly out­lines an oblig­a­tion by the State to pur­sue re­li­gious-in­spired so­cial wel­fare.

Al­so, it is like­ly that athe­ists, ag­nos­tics and sec­u­lar think­ing-tax­pay­ers may be dis­en­chant­ed by the Gov­ern­ment’s use of their tax­es to be sent in­to Church cof­fers.

Elit­ism in aid-dis­tri­b­u­tion has plagued pover­ty re­duc­tion schemes across the de­vel­op­ing world, as the de­serv­ing can­di­dates for wel­fare are ig­nored whilst oth­er groups are favoured. Whilst Min­is­ter Robin­son-Reg­is was quick to point out that the church­es are ex­pect­ed to pro­vide lists of ben­e­fi­cia­ries and the names of con­tract­ed busi­ness­es with de­tails of vi­tal pur­chas­es made, there will be no list to in­di­cate who will be turned away from aid.

I sin­cere­ly hope that every­one will be treat­ed with eq­ui­ty when they ap­proach a de­nom­i­na­tion for aid.

In spite of my con­cerns about the State’s dis­burse­ment to re­li­gious faiths, I des­per­ate­ly hope that this plan works and does not regress in­to a “clang­ing so­cial pol­i­cy cym­bal and sound­ing brass.”

Af­ter all, the Gov­ern­ment is not bound­ed to serve any re­li­gion, but is ob­lig­at­ed through the so­cial con­tract to pro­tect all cit­i­zens.

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