By NEIL HARTNELL
Editor-in-chief of the Tribune
The investigation into the $51million COVID food aid initiative will conclude that taxpayers’ funds have been ‘best spent’ if they are impartial, a governance reformer claimed yesterday.
Matt Aubry, executive director of the Organization for Accountable Governance (ORG), told Tribune Business that the National Food Distribution Task Force and non-profit groups that have used government money to feed Thousands of Bahamians at the height of the pandemic operated with “the highest level of integrity”. ”.
Speaking from the perspective of a group that was involved in the creation of the task force and feeding program, and worked ‘to make sure things were done above all else’ in the operation of the COVID food program, he said all the groups involved had “tremendous respect for public funds and the need to use them for the best”.
The ORG chief expressed concern that the government had released the partial and incomplete findings of an audit of the COVID food aid initiative, adding that it was “hard not to come to this conclusion” that the weekend disclosures by the prime minister’s director of communications were designed to distract from the controversy surrounding the trip to Dubai.
Aubry said members of the task force and nonprofits such as the Bahamas Feeding Network, Hands for Hunger, the One Eleuthera Foundation and the Red Cross would likely welcome careful consideration of an objective audit because they had nothing to hide about how taxpayer funds were used and the program was run.
And, while arguing that the findings could provide the Bahamas with invaluable lessons on how to better respond to future emergencies, he urged keeping politics out of the assessment and its findings.
Confirming that ORG had played a role in ensuring the task force had the resources and structure up to the task, Mr. Aubry said: “They grew quite rapidly to meet a need that was far beyond the capacity of the government. This was a new entity that came forward and was trying to implement best practices.
“They continued to do so with the highest level of integrity, sharing and working in different organizations with different standards and mechanisms to find a solution to take a limited amount of money and how to get the most out of it. .”
The COVID Assistance Initiative was structured such that while the government provided the bulk of the funding, it was the task force and its members who coordinated distribution through established nonprofits who, in turn, worked with affiliates and contacts on the ground in multiple communities to determine who was eligible for aid and who needed it most.
Mr. Aubry supported the position taken by Michael Pintard, Leader of the Opposition, that the Minnis administration at the time would have simply created additional costs, bureaucracy and costs if it had tried to take on all this task by itself.
Instead, it chose to work through established entities already operating in the field of food assistance and which had networks and contacts in the required areas. The head of the ORG asserted that he “will be an example of effective PPP (public-private partnership)”.
Turning to the controversy over the vague statement about the draft audit findings, Mr Aubry told Tribune Business: “I think they themselves, the task force, would embrace the concept of an assessment of audit and assured governance. It’s part of their credo.
“This new initiative will learn, look at how we have done this and adapt, so that it becomes more efficient and can serve us better in an emergency. The hope is that this effort is made with the intention of seeing how we can learn from it and develop the partnership between civil society and government so that we can respond better in the future and be more effective and efficient.
The head of the ORG said it was “unclear why the preliminary results are released without the full context of what is happening and what needs to be looked at” in relation to the ongoing audit of the government on the COVID food aid initiative.
“It’s really important that this avoids political rhetoric as much as possible,” he added. “An objective and apolitical audit will provide most of the information. What I saw was a huge amount of information and systems in place to ensure the integrity of the food program.
“There was huge respect: these are public funds and should be used to the greatest effect by the task force, non-profit organizations and volunteers. The best use of money will be the conclusion of this verification if it is carried out in a complete and objective manner.
“Responsible governance is just that… It’s public money, so there should be full accountability and understanding of what’s been done.” The Davis administration, however, appears to have had reservations about the COVID food assistance initiative as soon as it took office.
Obie Wilchcombe, minister for social services and urban development, suggested it was too expensive, and the government brought the initiative back under his ministry. There have also been complaints that there are no documents regarding the amounts spent, the structure and scope of the initiative, as well as the protocols, controls and procedures, in government files.
However, Michael Pintard, the Leader of the Opposition, said old Cabinet documents set out the mandate and structure of the COVID food aid initiative, as well as the costs and participants involved. In addition, the Government would have access to the permanent secretary and accountant of the Ministry of Social Services, who could provide details on the flow of funds.
Any “gaps,” Pintard added, could be filled by the task force, which would have financial records and paper trails in its files ready for verification. “It is unfortunate that the government has chosen this moment to denigrate a program that has benefited from NGO input,” he said.
“The last thing we want to do is create unnecessary furor over a situation where the government has access to information and can get the information if it wants to.”