She did so in a statement in Parliament which raised further questions over the ministry’s award of $45 million worth of scholarships for the years 2003 to 2007. In a 15-minute statement, Mc Donald alluded to the fact that there have been several reports in the press of persons whose names appear on a list of scholarship winners, who have said they did not get the amount stipulated on the list.
“I wish to assure this honourable House that all such claims are being investigated by the ministry,” Mc Donald said as she urged all such persons to contact her ministry.
The minister outlined the scholarship programme, which she described as a bursary programme and traced it back to a decision of Cabinet in 2002. She said the programme was contained in Budget documents for the years 2003 to 2007 and in brochures in the offices of the ministry. The Culture Minister also noted the programme is on the ministry’s website at www.cdcga.gov.tt. However, a search of that website’s Google cache done by Newsday reveals that the material in relation to scholarships was only posted this week. “None of this has ever been a secret,” Mc Donald claimed.
Without being specific, the minister said the criteria for selection were: socio-economic circumstances of applicants and their families, the type and level of training being sought; “the benefits” of their training to Trinidad and Tobago; the candidate’s “level of commitment”, availability of similar programmes in TT or the Caribbean and evidence of involvement in a community-based organisation or NGO.
She said the programme has a limit of funding of TT$25,000 per year for local studies and GBP2,500 per year for foreign studies.
“Some of the candidates on the list the ministry disclosed to the Indo-Trinbago Equalities Council (ITEC) do not even meet these criteria or limits,” said ITEC Devant Maharaj yesterday. Maharaj had brought a court action which last month forced the ministry to release a list of the grantees. “I think what the minister did today is insult the intelligence of the citizenry. She provided more questions than answers and failed miserably to address the issue of political corruption.” He noted that several PNM party members had received scholarships including PNM Senator Laurel Lezama-Lee Sing who received approximately $500,000 over a three year period for a degree in law and politics.
“Clearly, Senator Lezama’s case does not meet the limits the minister stated and the criteria,” Maharaj noted. “The minister was trying to work backwards and she failed to answer the question of how the culture ministry got involved in awarding scholarships for things like law, which is taught here. She suggests that this programme was widely known and advertised, but all of us did not know this. She also ignored the issue of ethnic imbalance on the list,” Maharaj said.
Mc Donald yesterday claimed that part of the inspiration for the scholarships came from the achievements of cricket great Brian Lara whose rise, she said, from “humble origins” to achieve much on the world stage. She noted that a four-member team, including “a motivational speaker and facilitator” Dr Valerie Hackshaw, was charged with the programme.
In a presentation strong on rhetorical and oratorial flourish, Mc Donald also urged scholarship recepients to “stand tall”.
“You have done nothing wrong and I know you will be feeling hurt and embarrassed,” she said. “Stand proud, stand tall! No one shall be left behind.” So heated was Mc Donald’s statement that the house took tea five minutes early at 4.25 pm, after Mc Donald finished speaking.