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Feb 15, 2006

Social Security at 25: seeking to clean up its act

Story PictureWith its fund at over three hundred and fifteen million dollars and counting, the Belize Social Security Board stands as the undisputed financial goliath of the nation’s economy. Today that jolly green giant, whose recent history has been mired in controversy, paused to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary. News Five’s Stewart Krohn reports.

Stewart Krohn, Reporting
As ceremonies go, today?s anniversary observance was mercifully short and to the point. The S.S.B., according to those who run it, has come a long way.

Yasin Shoman, Chair, S.S.B.
?Social Security started on June first 1981, with a staff body of twenty-six and a government loan of fifty thousand dollars. Today, we boast a staff of some two hundred and sixty-three employees and audited figures in 2005 state that Social Security paid out almost thirty-three million dollars in benefits and collected some forty-nine million dollars in contributions from insured persons and employers.?

And while most Belizeans would agree that the Social Security operation is perhaps the best run of all government entities, its record as a custodian of workers? and employers? money has been severely criticised, particularly the granting of loans and guarantees to political favourites. Despite ample evidence of Belmopan?s prodding to make questionable investments, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Said Musa, says the board?s decisions are entirely its own.

Prime Minister Said Musa
?It is very independent of government. In fact, as you know, we have a board now that is very transparent and open, representing the trade unions, the workers here on the board, representing the employers, they have representation. And I think there is nothing that goes on in Social Security without board approval. First of all, it goes through the investment committee and then it?s approved by the board. In fact, as Minister of Finance I can tell you, I don?t interfere at all in Social Security matters.?

And while most observers would take that high-level denial with a ton of salt, there are signs from sources inside and outside the organisation that last year?s antigovernment upheavals have shaken up what was once an all too pliant and comfortable board of directors.

Dylan Reneau, Employee Rep., SSB Board
?Since being on the board I recognise that they do make decisions professionally. There is a lot of information provided and if the information is not there you can request it and it?s given to you. And I think that sometimes you have to make decisions in the exigencies of the society and sometimes that is what drives certain decisions.?

That?s the surprising opinion of P.S.U. President and past S.S.B. critic Dylan Reneau, who along with the B.N.T.U.?s Elena Smith are the new employee representatives on the board.

While praising the body?s professional procedures, Reneau says that the days of government dictating policy are over.

Dylan Reneau
?We are not going to uphold any decisions that are not in the best interest of the scheme itself because the scheme is there to secure workers? future. And if we do things now it may seem insignificant, but they will mount up and at the end of the day the scheme can be jeopardised.?

And what will Reneau do when confronted by a decision he doesn?t like?

Dylan Reneau
?Even now at the board, we have been clarifying a lot of the legislative changes. One of them was that a quorum of the board cannot be considered?a quorum cannot be there if one of the non-government members is not present. We do have a good relationship: myself, Miss Elena, and Mark from the Chamber. We do meet and we discuss things and come up with frank positions like what was envisioned before. And that is what we?ve been practising. Whenever there is something that seriously merits some discussion, it is funnelled to our membership, we get a firm position, and if we want to stall it or change it, we have that right to walk away from any meeting and the quorum is broken and that decision will be halted?.

Another deterrent to the board?s departure from sound financial management is the influence of its general manager. Strangely, although she was often cast as a scapegoat during last year?s Senate hearings, Narda Garcia?s hand may have been strengthened by the ordeal, as her personal opposition to some questionable moves by the board was made known to many. Her remarks today demonstrate both her resolve as well as the fragility of her position.

Narda Garcia, General Manager, S.S.B.
?As we have grown and our experiences have shown, there are more or better decisions are being made now in the way of investments. But we have to live with what we have and that?s what the board is doing.?

Stewart Krohn
?Narda, what do you do when you see the board making a decision that from your position you know or you strongly believe to be a bad decision. How do you deal with that situation??

Narda Garcia
?Well I am paid to make a recommendation, to guide the board, and that?s what I do, but I don?t decide for them. So the board is actually the one that makes the decision … or for example in an investment issue, we go through the investment unit, we crunch the numbers so to speak and we give our recommendation. That recommendation can either be taken or rejected or reformatted or whatever. So that?s the way it works, I am paid to implement the decisions of the board.?

But ultimately only an engaged public can safeguard its own interests.

Dylan Reneau
?People have got to have a listening ear whenever issues come up and we need the public support. They need to play their role because it?s important that they voice their disagreement or agreement with whatever is going on at the board.?

Stewart Krohn for News five.

A new Social Security benefit to be introduced later this year is unemployment insurance for those who are laid off due to natural disaster.

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