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Self-Help Commission under financial strain

Published: 
Thursday, April 26, 2018
Edgar Zephyrine, Chairman of the National Commission for Self-Help Limited, during yesterday’s JSC meeting. PICTURE OFFICE OF THE PARLIAMENT

The National Self-Help Commission has spent half a billion dollars in the last 10 years and has emptied more than $14 million from the Abercrombie Fund at First Citizens.

Now officials are saying a lack of funding is impacting its work, and there are issues including poor management, lack of accountability, a poorly managed business which is severely impacted by acrimonious relationships among senior managers are all taking their toll on the work of the Commission.

Chairman and members of the Commission appeared before Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Public Accounts for the second time in under a month, where concerns were raised about the Commission— which was set up 31 years ago to assist the poor, needy and indigent— as it seemed to have lost its way.

Commission chairman Edgar Zephyrine said the Commission approves grants for home maintenance, minor repairs and reconstruction to citizens who apply individually and the Commission also gives emergency grants which arise after disasters or unforeseen circumstances.

Under the concept of self-help, the commission provides the material and the applicant provides the labour.

The Commission also approves grants for community projects — once five or more households are affected and may need bridges, drains or roads. In these instances, some level of expertise is required.

Figures supplied by the Commission to the JSC indicate that in 2016 the Commission issued only 865 grants, in 2017 408 and in the first three months of this year approximately 55 grants were issued.

As at the end of May last year, the Commission had a debt of $13.5 million, an increase of $2 million to the debt it met when the Board chaired by Zephyrine took office in December 2015. The bulk of that money is owed to suppliers and contractors. One contractor is owed $6.5 million. The administrative costs have also climbed from 25 per cent of its budget to 48 per cent.

Finance Manager Nicola Humphrey-Hamilton admitted because of the outstanding debt “our relationship with suppliers is not as we want it. Zephyrine said in the past “if there were a million hardware dealers we dealt with all of them and in a time like this we could not go to anyone because we owed everyone.”

Currently, some suppliers are refusing purchase orders from the Commission “based on mounting debts which we had not serviced to their satisfaction.” But he assured the debts are being repaid. “We paid off all the small debts, those owed $25,000 and below that we paid off, we have moved to another stage but essentially we are now constraining our relationships to a smaller, manageable number of suppliers.”

The JSC heard that the investment unit of the Finance Ministry has been conducting an audit at the Commission. The first draft of the audit is expected to be ready next week and should be available to the JSC within a month and a half.

QUERY ABOUT $20M INVESTMENT

Several Committee members including Mark, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus and David Small raised concerns about the Abercrombie Fund which the Commission invested $20 m at First Citizens.

“How does a company on a tight budget have $20 million to invest?” Small asked. Zephyrine said the investment in the fund “has been a bit of a mystery.”

But Baptiste-Primus noted Zephyrine himself had signed off on two withdrawals from the fund. Baptiste Primus expressed concern that money from the fund was used to pay suppliers without approval from either the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Community Development.

Zephyrine said the board took the decision to use the money “based on the fact that the money in the account was under the Board’s control. We had exigencies, we had a serious situation, and the Board acted.”

Baptiste-Primus said she was “very troubled,” when the Commission’s Corporate Secretary and Legal Advisor Kendra Thomas-Long who had earlier admitted that there was “acrimony” among members of the management and that this had rendered the operations of the Commission dysfunctional, informed the JSC that she recognised “certain breaches of control,” by the Zephyrine-led Board and “sought to raise it via a Board note but I was prevented from doing so.”

That advice she said related to the Board’s decision to create positions, an authority which was not in keeping with the structure of the organisation approved by the Cabinet.

Mark informed Zephyrine that the Board abrogated to itself responsibility which it did not have and directed that it should “reverse those decisions because they are not proper.”

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