Yesterday morning I answered the San Pedro Food Bank’s call for volunteers to help sort donated clothing for distribution to Hurricane Earl victims.
By the time I got to the Lion’s Den in San Pedro, shortly after 9 a.m., the sorting process was well under way.
This is a pretty experienced group. Only a bit more than a month ago, 88 San Pedranos, businesses and property owners were left homeless by a downtown fire and the local Red Cross, Lions Club and Food Bank seemed to click together in bringing relief to fire victims. Including clothing distribution.
Now they were doing it all over again.
Fortunately, the overwhelming response to the fire left the local service groups with plenty of boxes and bags of clothing donations that never got sorted and distributed — and frankly didn’t need to. They were ready and waiting for Hurricane Earl’s victims. Which is why the Food Bank was urging only donations of non-perishable food and bedding this time. (Still needed, by the way.)
The Food Bank’s Brittney O’Daniel is spearheading an effort to raise $20,000 for lumber, zinc (roofing), nails etc. to rebuild homes of 49 families in San Mateo “half-destroyed” by Hurricane Earl. Read about it here.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, as we sorted out clothing for hurricane victims — and the many fire victims who are still trying to recover — a second gathering was taking place in the Lion’s Den.
The funds raised for the Middle Street fire victims were about to be distributed by the Red Cross, Lions Club, National Emergency Management Organization and San Pedro officials.
But not without some drama.
Apparently a story in the San Pedro Sun about the distribution mentioned that some of the victims were anxious about receiving some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars donated and pledged by people around the world. This touched some frayed nerves among officials, apparently.
Before the assembled victims could receive disbursements they listened to lectures from Eiden Salazar and Mayor Daniel Guerrero.
Never heard anything quite like it.
Like displeased fathers, Salazar and the mayor sternly berated the victims for taking their concerns to the media, which they say “sensationalized” the situation. Read the story for yourself.
I get it. They have been working very hard to assemble and account for all the money that has been pouring in, then to come up with a fair system for distribution. While it has been only a little more than a month, some people were questioning when and if they would get funds.
And that hurt some feelings.
But Belize as a nation has a history of questioning the distribution of funding for all sorts of matters — hospital construction, road building, stadium construction — lots of cash in that never becomes cash out, or goes to pay for projects that are priced way over their actual cost and value.
One whole government was toppled because of personal enrichment programs within government agencies. The opposition would like you to think that the current government is going that way as well.
So, there is always suspicion when government and cash are involved.
Salazar told the fire victims that San Pedro is unique in how it handles things, not like the rest of the country. The town has its own system, which works, and they are going to mess it up if they keep complaining publicly, Salazar explained in a very stern and paternal manner.
He added that during victim fund committee discussions some people did not want to give renters any payments. They wanted the money for businesses and property owners, who took serious financial hits.
The committee decided, he said, to aid property owners, businesses and renters in proportion to their needs. And renters, he added, would probably end up better off after the distribution than they were before the fire.
I don’t know enough about local politics to explain these statements. They could be threats. They could be rebukes. They could be simple statements of fact. They could be the wounded statements of people who have been working very hard for the people and now feel they got dumped upon.
I’m going with hurt feelings.
Having worked for news organizations for nearly 40 years, I know it didn’t have to come to this.
Government will always be suspect. It is true here and it is true in the United States, Canada, Russia and oh, hell, just name a country.
But there are things any honest government can do to make the public less suspicious:
Communication — find a way to inform the public. It is tough in Belize, as most of the media is blatantly partisan. (The San Pedro Sun is the only legitimate news organization on the island and it may bump heads with incumbents and egos but it is non-partisan.) Nobody in Belize government is big on communicating. Even during Hurricane Earl, official news was hard to find.
Government and institutional agencies should be in “conversation” with the public all the time, especially when their is not a disaster brewing. Belize Electric stunned the island after the last major blackout by holding a public forum to explain what happened and what they are doing to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future. Hardly anyone showed up, unfortunately.
The power of the press release is amazing. You get to frame the conversation, create your own quotes and hit the points you want to make. An overworked and grateful press would thank you ….. (See a BTL press release below, as a good example.)
Transparency — When the public can see decisions being made it will be less suspicious. When the public can look at the books and see to whom and where the money is going, they will begin to trust government. If somebody, lets say for discussion’s sake, carves up swampland and distributes parcels to loyal party members — who can you trust?
Open the process, open the books. Hold public meetings, frequently. Pretty simple. Let the sun shine in on government.
Empowerment — Get the public involved in the making of decisions. Hold public meetings. Hold public hearings. Listen to the public and incorporate their concerns and issues into the decision-making process. Publicize when and where meetings and hearings are to be held. Especially, encourage San Pedranos who have the greatest stake in this island’s future to speak out.
Get ahead of issues. Coastal management is a topic that should be on the agenda somewhere every month. Deputy Mayor Gary Greif started holding issue-based hearings a while back. A great idea.
Embrace controversy — every decision comes with controversy. That is life in the public spotlight. Make the tough calls and live with them. But make sure everyone gets a say first, even your enemies. (You can incorporate their ideas, if you like them, and make them your own.)
Validation — that comes with the next election.
I mean, I know our mayor and his council already and always are in a non-stop conversation with the public. But institutions are fragile things. Public perception is a fickle wave against the foundation. When in doubt rely on the big T’s — Talk, Transparency, and Track Record — these build the strongest foundation: Trust.
There are so many decisions that need to be made quickly in the wake of Hurricane Earl — dock rebuilding, erosion control, water taxi relocation, victim relief, and more. Now is a good time to open up the process, let some light in, roll up our sleeves and get it done — together.
And by the way, here’s a very nice press release today from BTL, in its entirety:
BTL Pledges $100,000 Toward Hurricane Earl Relief
Belize Telemedia Ltd (BTL) is pleased to pledge $100,000 toward the relief effort, with a commitment of $50,000 each to the Red Cross, and to Hand in Hand Ministries.
The Belize Red Cross will use the BTL contribution principally to help fund their innovative cash transfer program (CTP) where impacted families will be provided with cash contributions directly via prepaid credit cards, to enable them to purchase their restoration supplies and products themselves. The contributions from BTL will benefit some 400 persons according to Red Cross estimates.
The contribution to Helping Hands Ministries will assist in the construction and reconstruction of houses for persons whose dwellings were compromised or destroyed by Hurricane Earl.
“We want to commend the Belize Red Cross, Hand in Hand Ministries, and the many Belizeans from all walks of life for all the efforts and initiatives in support of hurricane victims. Many homes were devastated by Hurricane Earl and many persons – including a number of BTL employees — lost much of their material possessions as a result of the storm,” commented Anwar Barrow, Chairman of the BTL Executive Committee.
The entire BTL team is saddened by the calamity and will continue supporting Belizeans in times of tragedies by any means possible. With the Hand in Hand Ministries in particular we will mobilize our BTL team members to come out and assist in the construction of the homes for displaced persons. I am proud to say that our contributions will thus be both in terms of money and in terms of hands-on work to assist with these restoration efforts.,” Barrow concluded.
Nice job, BTL.