Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn (centre) is flanked by senior leaders of the Social Policy Research Institute, UNICEF, and his ministry. (Photo: PROVIDED)

A four-month project funded by UNICEF will review social assistance benefits and grants in the Virgin Islands with an eye toward strengthening such programmes in keeping with the reforms recommended by the Commission of Inquiry.

“The main purpose of the review is to support a shift in the design and administration of social assistance benefits, as well as the issuance of grants from the government of the Virgin Islands,” according to a Sept. 7 press release from the Ministry of Health and Social Development.

The reviewers are expected to deliver a reform plan for “strengthening the design and administration of social assistance benefits and services” to needy residents, the release added.

HSD Minister Marlon Penn said the consultants will also prepare a guidance document to govern government-funded grants across various government agencies.

The review is in keeping with the recommendations of the COI report, which repeated auditors’ longstanding criticisms of the way assistance grants have been awarded at the unchecked discretion of elected leaders for decades.

Shortly after the COI report was released, the grants were removed from elected leaders’ discretion, and they are now being administered by the Social Development Department following a three-month transitionary period announced in June.

Coming review

The coming review will be conducted by the Belgium-based non-profit Social Policy Research Institute Global, which provides research-based consultancy services in the field of social protection, according to the ministry.

SPRI Global will concentrate on poverty and inequality research, as well as capacity-building activities, the ministry added.

Leading the team is SPRI Director Dr. Chris de Neubourg and Senior Researcher Julia Karpati, both of whom arrived in the territory on Sept. 5 for initial meetings with government officials, according to the press release.

UNICEF Social Policy Specialist Dana Rose King also took part in the discussions.

“This work is made possible with the support of the Sustainable Development Goals Joint Programme, which focuses on engaging and training the youth and strengthening integrated social protection sector delivery in Anguilla, the Virgin Islands, Grenada, and St. Kitts and Nevis, together with additional technical and financial assistance from UNICEF,” Ms. King said.

In July, Mr. Penn said that the review would be designed to ensure the territory has a social system that is transparent and meets the needs of the people.

In keeping with the National Unity Government’s reform framework, the report was commissioned by the governor, and is scheduled to be submitted to him and the premier by Nov. 30 — a goal that will not be met if it takes four months to complete as expected.

The NUG’s reform proposal also calls for the auditor general to conduct a full audit of all House of Assembly and ministerial assistance grants made in the last three years, with a report deadline set for Dec. 31.