Editorials | Grace under pressure/Absolutely right

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SINCE 2015, the administration has had to respond to one catastrophe after another. In March, it was confronted with a new strain of virus that, by now, has brought many of the world’s most prosperous and powerful countries to their knees.

But so far, the CNMI government’s handling of the still raging Covid-19 pandemic has been exemplary.

A task force led by medical experts has been formed. Quarantine sites have been identified and are being utilized effectively. Emergency directives have been issued and are updated and/or amended as the need arises.  Much needed supplies — gear, equipment, ventilators, test kits — have been acquired, and more will arrive soon. A medical care and treatment site is up and running. Community testing is underway. The latest vital information is being sent out as soon as it is available. Rumors are dispelled as quickly as possible. Each day, first responders and other front-liners are clocking in, and doing the best they can.

These are the hallmarks of competent leadership.

As of Thursday evening, there were no new Covid-19 cases. But once new ones are reported, we can expect that they will be handled as ably as the earlier cases.

Meanwhile, the governor and his team continue to effectively reach out to federal authorities as shown by the significant amount of federal assistance the CNMI is receiving. On Capitol Hill, Congressman Kilili is tirelessly ensuring that the Commonwealth obtain an adequate share of the emergency federal funds appropriated by Congress.

Some say the CNMI would have received the same level of federal attention even without a congressional delegate or direct lines of communications from the governor’s office to key policy-makers in Washington, D.C. But that is a highly doubtful supposition in light of how politics works in the nation’s capital — and the NMI’s experience in interacting with U.S. authorities since the end of World War II.

To be sure, we’re not yet out of the Covid-19 woods, and we still have to deal with the economic wreckage that the pandemic will leave behind. But once again, the administration has taken the initiative by enlisting experts from Graduate School USA to help local leaders address the NMI government’s ever growing financial problems, including those whose roots can be traced all the way back to the American administration of the islands under the Trust Territory government.

Despite all the pressure, the distractions, the jeering and the political posturing, the CNMI administration has maintained its composure and remains focused on performing urgent tasks to ensure public safety and protect people’s lives.

Absolutely right

IN his welcoming remarks during the Fiscal Response Summit, the governor noted the “accumulation of obligations, expenses, and practices that have been left unchecked since the Trust Territory government….”

Indeed. Prior to the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Jan. 1978, the NMI was directly administered by the U.S. through the Trust Territory government.

Here’s how the 1966 Nathan Report, which was commissioned by the U.S., described the condition of the NMI and the rest of the Trust Territory districts under American rule:

During the 1951-1962 period, the report stated, many islanders “were employed in [government] positions for which they did not qualify, and neither funds nor personnel were available to provide the necessary training or supervision to enable them to learn to do the assigned jobs. Productivity and performance on many programs were low, and costs…high.”

In 1962, the report added,  the budget ceiling of the TT government was increased from $6.5 million (equivalent to $55.5 million today) to $15 million ($128 million) which was further increased to $17.5 million ($147 million) in 1963. (Take note: the TT comprised the NMI and Palau and the Marshalls and what is now known as the FSM.)

The result, the Nathan report stated, was “a new surge of government…. The three-fold increase in the budget was generally used for doing about three times as much of the same kinds of things, in the same general ways in which they had been done during the previous decade” of U.S. rule.

Under the TT administration, “government is by far the largest source…of employment and income. As such, it sets the conditions of the labor markets of Micronesia. These government-determined conditions consist generally of relatively low performance standards and relatively high wages. Most of the few [islanders] who could perform important roles in developing private enterprises have been absorbed into government employment, and they have been frequently overrated and overpaid…. Inefficient and ineffective methods and procedures have been learned and perpetuated. For this and other reasons, government programs in [the Trust Territory] have not always operated efficiently or effectively and have not provided a good training ground to develop highly efficient or productive [local] workers.”

An American economist hired by the TT government, William Stewart recalled that there was basically no economy on island when he first arrived here in 1970. But the TT government provided plenty jobs. “We will hire them,” Stewart said, “and they’ll sit at a desk; [there] won’t be very much to do, but we just can’t have them going out sitting under a coconut tree somewhere. They’re going to have to sit there eight hours a day and do the typing or push the paper or whatever it was that had to be done in order to justify this pay.”

In the summer of 1978, the Washington Post reported that “31 years of American trusteeship…has created a society dependent on government jobs and benefits, an island welfare state whose people are so inundated with free handouts that they are abandoning even those elemental enterprises — fishing and farming — that they had developed before the Americans came.”

Working for the government was “easy,” the Post report added; “the wages excellent by island standards, and the bosses undemanding. ‘They're really not required to do anything,’ says [a] Palauan politician. ‘They know they'll get their paychecks, no matter what. No one takes attendance to see if they show up. They're not accountable for any mistakes.’ An American agrees. ‘Government jobs in [the islands] are looked upon as welfare. It sort of reminds me of a small southern town in the United States where the courthouse crowd has everyone on the country payroll and they all just sit around the courthouse lawn all day.’ ”



November 2020 pssnewsletter

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