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.