The public's thirst for improved local facilities and services such as harbours for our islands or free healthcare seems to be unlimited. There is nothing wrong with this. We do need to listen to people's hopes for the future. However we also need to recognise that we cannot do everything at once.
by Dr Hassan Saeed
Like any household or business, our country also needs to live within its means. However up until last February our government was portrayed by some as a provider of unlimited funds often provided through international donors. Irresponsible politicians were happy to make the most of this with no thought for the future.
We were and continue to be in the position of a typical Maldivian who goes from one businessman to another businessman asking for help with medical treatment. This is exactly what the Maldivian government has been doing for years with international donors and the development institutions.
This generosity has been good for us; just as at a local level a Maldivian will be very grateful for the support for that medical condition I described. However the government and that person has to be aware that the generosity may not last forever.
As a country we now have a MVR5 billion deficit. Our budget needs to increase by USD300 million a year just to keep us where we are in terms of current services and maintaining “nation’s lifestyle”. As spending has increased so have our debts and this problem gets bigger each year.
Whereas the Maldivian I described might not have to pay back the money he is given by the businessman, our Government cannot assume that will happen with our country's debts. We have a responsibility to live within our means just as any household and business has to.
So, what can we do to address this problem?
Like any household or business, our Government and the Majlis need to scrutinise what we spend very carefully. Every year we ask for developmental loans to build another jetty or improve a local harbour etc. Some of these projects will not be sustainable for two reasons; we cannot afford to maintain and repair them and they also run counter to any future policy of population consolidation in our atolls and islands that we need to address and may be forced on us anyway through climate change. We have 195 inhabited islands and we will have to recognise that all of them cannot have exactly the same modern facilities. This duplication of those facilities might look fair from the perspective of people living on an island which is requesting a new facility, but in the end it is completely unfair to those, who will in future have to manage even greater debt and financial distress if we do not address this in the present day.
As a result of this, we need to be more strategic and think carefully how we live within our means, like any family does. We therefore need to plan for the future where we focus on the development of key population centres, with a full range of facilities available and economic zones where we prioritise investment in local infrastructure to create sustainable and successful businesses. If properly applied across our islands this will be fair to all.
The Government needs to ensure it sets out what priorities we as a nation can afford now and those we cannot, whether it is in healthcare, transportation or any other area of policy. This should be done after a proper debate involving the Majlis and the people of the Maldives more widely.
Like the patient I described earlier, we should always be grateful for the generosity we have received in the past, but we also need to ensure we do not make our condition any worse than it is, otherwise there may come a time when that generosity reaches its limits.
Note: Dr Hassan Saeed is currently the Special Advisor to President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik