Wednesday, April 03, 2013

If a government can't provide licence plates... Part 2

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the Honduran government’s baffling inability to get licence plates into the hands of drivers.
I saw scads of cars and motorcycles without licence plates, and thought at first that people were just ignoring the law. 
But it turned out the government didn’t actually have the plates, and hadn’t for almost a year. That was a major hassle for drivers, who had to keep going back to the licensing office every month to get temporary permits, a process that took hours. 
And in a country with a big crime problem, some 330,000 vehicles and motorcycles without licence plates was unhelpful. 
The news stories were never clear why the government couldn’t get its act together.
A year later, and the story is back in the papers.
There are still about 200,000 vehicles without plates because the government can’t supply them.
The president mused about having prisoners make licence plates, but then learned the government is too broke to buy the needed equipment. 
It can’t afford to order plates, either, even though drivers’ licence fees should cover the costs (less than $20 to make a pair of plates).
This is new to me. In Canada, governments can borrow what they need. Deficits are debated, but, ultimately, if governments need licence plates or money to pay teachers or buy medical supplies, they just borrow a bit more, at pretty good rates.
Not in Honduras. Teachers plan a one-day strike tomorrow because they say they haven’t been paid. Buses weren’t running in the cities today, because owners say the government hasn’t paid promised subsidies. 
Road repairs have been stalled for a months, because the government can’t pay the contractors’ outstanding bills. It offered the companies a combination of cash and government bonds, but they weren’t keen. 
That’s not surprising. Honduras went to the international bond market this month to raise money. The rating agencies put them deep into junk bond territory. The issue raised $500 million, at 7.5-per-cent interest. (B.C. borrows at less than half that rate per cent.)
The president said the government could have sold more bonds, but he was worried the money would just be wasted. And a commission is to be set up to manage the money, to ensure it isn’t squandared. (Commissions are big here. Anytime a public body fails to perform, the response to seems to be to create a new one to oversee it, instead of just fixing the original governance problem.)
Anyway, back to the licence problem. No money. Prisoners can’t make them. 
So the government is looking at a public-private partnership, hoping to find a company that will take over the whole process in return for the chance to make a profit on licensing cars and drivers.
Those 3P agreements are very big in Honduras right now too. The government has signed a contract to hand over management of the country’s main port for 30 years. 
And I suppose model cities are a way of privatizing government itself.
It’s an appealing concept for Honduras, much more than in North America. Private companies can borrow more cheaply than government for infrastructure, a significant saving on large projects. Government is judged corrupt and incompetent. So the idea of handing responsibility to a third party is appealing.
But there’s an obvious problem.
A government that can’t manage the problem or deliver the service - like licence plates - probably can’t negotiate a good private-public partnership deal either.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Do-it-yourself gated communities and police in Honduras

Gated communities are different in Honduras.
New subdivisions in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the two big cities, tend to be built behind walls and gates. But that happens in North America too.
But people in existing neighbourhoods also throw up their own barricades and gates, blocking city streets into the neighbourhood with concrete blocks or corrugated steel and allowing limited, controlled entrance.
There are no permits, or traffic studies. One day you can drive through, and the next you can’t - at least without showing ID and explaining where you’re going.
La Prensa reported 18 San Pedro Sula neighbourhoods have blocked traffic so far, with more making plans.
The people who live in the barrios say crime has fallen, and they’re happy.  
Urban residents have no confidence in police or the justice system, so they come up with their own solutions.
Of course, the people in other neighbourhoods, who now have travel another 20 blocks to get to work aen’t so keen. Neither are bus and taxi drivers who don’t know from week to week which roads will be closed next.
And of course, the barriers don’t actually reduce the number of criminals or crime. They just shift it from one neighbourhood, where people have enough money or organization to put up barriers, to another where they don’t.
When the justice system doesn’t work, people eventually take measures into their own hands.
By building barricades. Or by paying for their own surrogate police forces.
And Honduras has a ton of them. Last month, a UN Human Rights working group on mercenaries urged the Honduran government to get a grip on the explosion of private security forces.
There are more than 700 registered private security companies, many more unregistered, and some 70,000 armed private guards. That’s five times the number of police officers in the country, and twice the police and military forces combined.
You get used to armed guards outside the banks, or riding shotgun - literally - on the delivery trucks.
But 70,000 is an astonishing number. And the UN group noted they are at risk of becoming “a substitute for competent and accountable police.” It’s deeply flawed, but there is at least theoretical accountability for real police that doesn’t exist for the private police forces.
And, again, private police forces only protect those who can pay. 
Or, the UN group warned, they may go farther. “Human rights violations allegedly committed by private security companies are not investigated, perpetrators remain unprosecuted and victims do not have access to remedies.” 
None of this is easy to sort out. If your store has been robbed a few times and you can afford a guard with a shotgun, then it becomes a wise investment. If people are riding through your neighbourhood and committing robberies, maybe killings, then barricading streets seems a good idea.
Or if you live in a remote community and a couple of guys keep stealing things from the rickety houses of everyone else in the community, it makes sense to deal justice directly.
What all these responses to crime have in common is that they don’t change the reality of life in the country. They create a bit more security for some, and less for others, and increase injustice, rather than restoring it.
Barricades and private security guards are no substitute for a police and legal system that actually works.