(note: this article was published in 2003 but is worthy of reprint for its level of insightfulness on our being or not. Administrator)
Nearly 23 years ago our constitution took effect. Its preamble, the part that explains the reasons for its adoption and the objects sought to be accomplished, ends with these words: “We venture into the future with full reliance on our own efforts and the divine guidance of almighty God.” As another birthday for our Constitution dawns and we once more attempt to rally one and all for a celebration, let us ask ourselves on that day as we celebrate: What exactly are we celebrating that we can point to and say: “Yeah, that is the product of my own efforts!?”
It is certainly not an understatement to say that we face many daunting challenges today. At this point in time, the single most worrisome feature of our national life for our leadership and those gainfully employed by the Government is the dreadful prospect of a treasury gone dry. This is understandable given our inability to take stock of our financial resources and heed what the experts have told us time and again we must do to solve our short term as well as long term fiscal problems. Whether we like it or not we must come to terms with the fact that the funding assistance which we get annually from the U.S.A under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) will stop in 2009, just six years from October 1 this year, and unless we start doing what the experts have told us we need to do, instead of just talking about them, we will be in a deeper hole than we are in now. From year 2010 and onward our funding will come from the COFA Trust Fund, whatever local revenues we may raise through taxes or other local sources such as the long-shot prospect of discovery of oil or other resource, and whatever funding we may raise through our annual begging treks to the doorsteps of other nations of the world. We might try to go back to U.S.A. to beg for more funds but our problem is that we have bargained away to the U.S.A. our only negotiation chip allocated to us in this world and in this life — our lands and waters — in return for funding and other assistance under the COFA, the U.S.A. has bigger headaches to grapple with, and nothing in life is free.
Reduction in our local revenues in recent years has “forced” us to raid our COFA Trust Fund – twice at $5 million per raid thus far – to supplement our budget, ignoring in the process two fundamental facts: 1) the COFA Trust Fund was meant to provide for us starting in year 16 of the COFA or exactly the year 2010, a point still some 7 years away; and 2) the COFA Trust Fund investments have not yielded the 12% return that was anticipated under the COFA, having plummeted from a high of $160 million just slightly over four years ago to under $130 million in January this year and forcing us once more to re-consider our investments policies. At a time when we should still be expanding our Trust Fund we are instead plundering it to supplement a budget which the experts have warned us time and time again is unrealistic, in order to fund items some of which are of questionable value to our Republic, not to mention the fact that they are not among the programs identified by the experts as being essential for the long-term health of our nation. Arguably, the COFA envisioned that we would be able to draw out $15 million starting on the fourth anniversary of the COFA to supplement the operations costs of our government. However, as we now know, that vision was premised on the erroneous assumption that the Trust Fund investments would yield a 12% annual return.
One of the impediments to our success at solving our fiscal problems is our inability to do what the experts have told us we need to do. For instance, our own Master Plan and the 3-volume JICA report issued in 2000 have pointed out that our government is over-sized and needs to be trimmed down to size in order to rein in our expenditures and bring them in line with our revenues. They’ve also recommended we undertake certain short term and long term economic programs to diversify our economic base and build a stronger, more sustainable economic base. Yet, year in and year out, though we speak ad nauseam about the need to “down size” or “right size” the government and to forge ahead with sustainable economic programs, we continue to fund items of questionable value and ignore what the experts have told us we need to do. A good case in point is the Central Market recommended by our National Master Plan. Though such a project was determined by the experts and approved by the Palauan leadership as one of those necessary projects Palau should start – yes, the OEK in 1997, approved the Palau National Master Plan, which recommends the establishment of a Central Market for Palau – many of the same leaders who were part of the leadership that approved it are now singing a different tune! So each year we appropriate money and squander them on needless junkets around the world and on other unnecessary items, but the Central Market which many Palauan people need to develop and carry on their way of life remains in the realm of hopeful prospect for them. Many other short term programs which require funding have not received the attention they richly deserve. Instead of directing our meager financial resources to fund them we opt to spend the funds on questionable items or activities, fund trips abroad of questionable value and exorbitant salaries for people whose job description defies description, to name a few of some of the abuses that permeate our oversized government system.
A close cousin of the first problem I have noted – mind you these are all closely related family members in a very close knit extended family of Palauan government ills that afflict our government – is our tendency, developed over the years, to look elsewhere or to someone else for solutions to our problems. We often hear, for instance, high level government officials say “Bodoungewaoul” (Palauan for fishing in the open sea), a Palauan euphemism for begging when used by government officials. While I understand that a small nation like ours needs to rely on assistance from bigger nations to develop important infrastructure and other major programs, we ought not to get into the habit of always looking to other nations to solve problems which we, in good conscience, ought to be able to solve ourselves if only we can get our act together and prioritize how we expend our scarce financial resources as the experts have told us repeatedly we should do. Many of our problems are self-inflicted, if you ask me. The solution to them is not to try to beg for help from other nations – they, too, have their own people to take care of and I am sure they get tired of our begging requests — but to stop the self-infliction habit that creates them.
The fiscal problems, along with dwindling financial resources I have noted, are just among the many we face as a nation. There are many others, but let me just mention a few as food for thought. Our increasing dependence on foreign labor to perform work that we and our parents and grandparents used to do as part of our learning and training process has led to an increase in the presence of more alien laborers in our nation. This has caused an outflow of cash out of our economy and increased our alien population that may one day lead to bigger social and economic problems. More importantly, it has led us to abdicate some of the most important means of training and disciplining our children to be hard working, to develop that industrious and fighting spirit that they will need to survive in today’s ever increasingly competitive world. In the old days, we worked the farms and went fishing with our parents and grand parents, collected firewood, cleaned house, and did other house chores to assist our parents and grandparents. Though we complained when we were young about such work we know now, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, that all that did tremendous good for us. Nowadays I am shocked to find Bangladeshi and Filipino men tilling our taro patches, work our mothers and grandmothers used to do, always with us tagging along to assist and learning as we went along. Today we see our elders and parents partying, dancing, cutting ribbons, and coloring their hair (in a hopeless attempt to reverse time’s inexorable march) and whatever it is that seems to be the current fad while our children are left to tend to themselves eating processed foods and watching T.V. shows that are unsuitable even for delinquent adults, or playing violent videogames that leave them physically and mentally weak. Do you ever wonder why our children no longer excel in sports, or academic subjects for that matter? How can they excel, if we neglect them? How can they excel, when we give them the impression that they aren’t more important than many of our customs whose relevance in today’s money-driven economy is increasingly being questioned that we squander our money and efforts on, and whatever activities we partake in in this insane cyclical process? These children are our future. They need our constant daily care, guidance, and help until they have developed the values that they need to succeed in life. It’s enough to make a grown up man cry to see how terribly we are failing our children. In this vein, I should note that our dismal failure to help in the education, proper training and disciplining of our children in the areas that truly matter in today’s competitive world (if you don’t believe me just look around you to see who is doing our engineering work, our accounting work, our legal work in our government agencies, etc.) has left a huge void in our professional ranks that can only spell deep trouble for us over the long term.
The journey which we as a nation must make has to begin with taking that single step of moving from talk to action. We have talked long enough. Now it’s time to “walk the talk,” unless, of course, we prefer surrendering our fate and destiny to the good will and mercy of others. So, on the day that marks the birth of our nation, let’s think long and hard about the issues which face us today and really what it means to be a sovereign nation created under a constitution whose preamble contains these words: “We venture into the future with full reliance on our own efforts and the divine guidance of almighty God.”
By Senator Yukiwo P. Dengokl