NIS situation concerns us all
R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
August 25, 2023

NIS situation concerns us all

I am but an ordinary citizen, with no great knowledge of financial matters but trying my best to understand the implications of national matters relating to the economy before I get my tongue wagging or my itchy fingers on the keyboard.

It is an approach that I would humbly recommend to my fellow citizens because often, since such matters bring with them political implications, they provoke the most noise, mostly of a partisan character, rather than trying to get a grasp of the matters being discussed.

Indeed, that approach leads to one taking political leads and jumping into the water before learning to swim. Sometimes, as we hear news about similar matters confronting neighbouring states, we get influenced by reactions before we either understand the context or get a fair understanding of the challenges facing us.

Currently a major issue facing our entire country is that relating to our National Insurance Services (NIS). That institution is in a unique position in regard to the future of the only national programme for social relief especially for pensioners and the aged. Like many in the Caribbean we have concerns over the long-term viability of the present course on which we embarked some time ago and the recommendations being made by the relevant experts. In the case of our NIS, the latest Actuarial Review, now in the public domain, has made some recommendations on which there should be broad public discussions.

In summary, the Review makes some observations about the current state of affairs in SVG. It notes that, similar to other neighbouring countries, we are now faced with ageing populations and a consequent higher ratio of pensioners to contributors. In other words, more and more people are becoming entitled to receiving benefits from the NIS than those who are regularly paying into the fund. There are also some negative factors such as what is referred to as “labour market disruptions”, including still too high rates of unemployment and the impact of migration. These factors, the Review states, point to the need for legislation to strengthen the ability of the NIS to enforce collection so as to boost income streams.

As happens in countries like ours, there is much focus on any negative observations. Steps being taken to address these are being virtually ignored in the process and alarm spreads rapidly around the projection that NIS reserves “are likely to be depleted between 2033 and 2036”. Those who fan the flames of this alarm deliberately fail to say that this “doomsday” will only occur if nothing is done to address the situation and buck the trend.

Thus, in spite of assurances from the NIS that there is no need for alarm, that its investments are sound, that monies loaned to government are safe and explanations of steps already taken or in train, the picture being painted is almost as though the NIS is on the verge of collapse.

It is therefore critical that the recommendations to ensure transparency are followed. These include sharing “openly with the public” the latest Actuarial Report, publishing it on the website of the NIS along with the most recent financial statements of the institution and a long-term Plan for survival and development. In order to enhance the capacity of the NIS to deal with the critical matter of investments, the Report urges that the NIS should revise the composition of its Investment Committee, replacing 2 of 3 of the current Board members who sit on that Committee with two non-Board members with investment and financial experience.

There are legitimate concerns not only on a broad national level but specifically among pensioners like me and those due to become pensionable in the immediate upcoming years. Among these are steps being taken to increase the pensionable age, to reduce the maximum pensionable age rate from 60% to 55% and to replace the current age – based pension with a retirement pension. Those concerns are heightened because of the constantly increasing cost of living which day by day make pensioners poorer.

These are all very genuine concerns. We are already seeing reaction and objections in other countries, including demands for transparency. These arise out of genuine concerns, and it is vital that governments listen to and consult with pensioners and those affected and CONSULT with them before introducing drastic, but necessary reforms. Governments do not constitute the font of all wisdom and must not view genuine opposition based on perceived threats to the interests of those most threatened as “anti-government”.

The approach to pension reform and the revamping of the NIS must not be construed as an act of political partisanship nor must it be abused as such. It is not beyond our capacity to work out an approach which provides for the future of pensioners and not only saves, but enhances the NIS. It is true that as a people, we do not have a history of working together on such issues, but the very future of our country requires such an approach. Let us demonstrate that we have the capacity and maturity to do it.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.