Belize Needs Leaders, Not Politicians

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.” -Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

Our leaders have no interest in leading, nor do they feel any pressure from the electorate to do so. This comes as no surprise to anyone paying close attention to the data that chronicles how well we’ve performed as a nation over the almost four decades since Independence.

Every five years or so we elect 31 people to legislate on our behalf. Those who belong to the party that wins the majority of the 31 seats in the House are tasked to form a government, and then -obviously- to govern Belize. Each party has, in the process leading up to elections, produced a manifesto, a list of the things they promise to do if elected to govern. In theory, we as the electorate should examine each manifesto, determine which one sounds more realistic and closer to the things we feel are necessary for development, and then vote accordingly. In reality, many voters, like everywhere else, vote on emotions or along party lines. Distressingly, those who cast their ballot after honest deliberation, or according to emotion, or along loyalist party lines are now joined by the ‘auctioneer voter’ who sits at home and takes bids from each party until one or the other meets his price.

Thus begins the corruption that inevitably plagues the rest of every ruling party’s term.

Our small economy, less than BZ$4 billion in size; less than BZ$10,000 per man, woman and child making up our small population, can’t afford to spare any of that $10,000 on vote-buying because we owe over $9,000 of it in debt incurred by our elected leaders. Yet, each election, money is paid in cash to people who ‘cheap-sale’ the right that our forefathers fought hard for them to have in the first place. The cash paid out is of course an investment made to gain control of the government. Successful investment means returns in high multiples, paid for by the very people who thought they made a deal selling their vote. We know this, but we do not demand a change in behavior, despite what it’s costing us.

The result? Corruption has reached crisis levels in Belize. A leader can host the media and, in true Trumpian fashion, deny what he has been accused of, no matter how obviously true and wrong the action is. The media buzzes about it for a few days, rarely takes the investigation deeper than the most sensational sound bite, and then it’s on to the next scandal. That leader’s boss additionally sets a required burden of proof for corruption that is so high that it can almost never be met. The results: what would result in resignation or removal in many other jurisdictions is nowadays met with silence, which we must take to mean approval, since no action is taken. We ask for, and expect, no condemnation by a court of law, and there is none even through the court of public opinion since the matter is never given more attention than -at most- an initial press conference.

Elections are battles, part of the war to take Belize for all she has. In that vein, the outcome of each general election results in portfolios being divided up, grouped and handed out as the spoils of war. No need to be qualified, just be electable. The more electable you are, the better the Ministry. And in big government (albeit poor country), every representative of the ruling party is assigned a ministry (whether substantive or as a Minister of State), a vehicle, a driver, unlimited gas, and a salary, all rewards paid for by we the beleaguered people. Hire a good CEO, take down a few to-do’s from the manifesto before throwing it in the garbage, and settle down to the business of rewarding your people and punishing ‘the other side.’

Instead of demanding that they lead, that checks and balances be developed, updated and applied, we the people let them continue to divide us. Any call for good governance, or governing of any kind, is met with derisive partisan insults encouraged and perpetuated by those who blindly follow. As a result, our leaders have no need to excel in their portfolio performance.

There is no punishment if economic growth targets aren’t met, no penalty for poverty statistics continuing to rise, no repercussions if we have low scores in education and skills development, no fines for exceeding budget commitments. There is no punishment for leaders who don’t get the work done, but there is plenty of punishment for the country.

So, just do the basics, choose a few projects that will provide jobs in your constituency, and make sure no decision is made that might cost the party votes. Because no matter how essential a reform is, that is the only barometer by which it is measured: how many votes will it win/lose?

If we don’t demand that our leaders lead properly, with integrity, and are held accountable for their actions, how can we expect them to perform any better than the employee who is left at the job site with no assignment? Over four decades, we have given our performance evaluation at the polls eight times, but done nothing in between to arrest improper behavior or modify performance to meet our requirements. We’ve simply left them to it. Small wonder our leaders begin to think themselves infallible and become utterly corruptible.

The brief and periodic essays that will follow this one will look at different issues and occasionally discuss how we can -and must- strengthen our governance. It is hoped that they will, one at a time, provoke healthy debate about how Belize should be governed.