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25 years of nationhood

25 years of nationhood

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On October 27, 1979, St. Vincent and the Grenadines became a sovereign, independent nation-state after 216 years of unbroken British colonial overrule.

In that historic moment our new national anthem was played, our national flag was raised aloft and unfurled in the midnight wind, and our nation’s Constitution was proclaimed. The immediate Founding Father of our Nation, our country’s first Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Robert Milton Cato, in his speech to the many thousands at Victoria Park, reflected on the solemnity and the significance of the occasion. He charted the course to meet the challenges ahead.{{more}}

The journey from pre-Columbian times, and more particularly from late fifteenth century, European conquest and settlement to independence has been a most remarkable odyssey for our nation. It has been filled with triumphs and defeats, achievements and disappointments, upliftment and pain, joys and sorrows, setbacks and advances. Our nation’s history has been marked by splendid achievements from outstanding individuals, including our political leaders, but our progress over time has been as a consequence of the combined efforts of individuals of all walks of life – the so-called ordinary people.

The people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have accomplished much in their 25 years of nationhood, but much more remains to be done.

Each succeeding generation of Vincentians has built upon the efforts of those who went before them. Each period, each epoch, each age has had to address the unfinished business of earlier times, and to face the on-rushing challenges or new demands of their extant circumstances. Our country’s history since its first encounter with European colonialism some 500 years ago has been fashioned not only by its internal evolutions, but also by the alterations in the regional inter-connections, and the phenomenal changes in the political economy internationally.

Our nation’s Constitution, which was proclaimed on October 27, 1979, sketches in its preamble the fundamental truths and values that we embrace as guiding principles, thus:

“Whereas the Peoples of the Islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines who are known as Vincentians:-

(a) have affirmed that the Nation is founded on the belief in the supremacy of God and the freedom and dignity of man;

(b) desire that their society be so ordered as to express their recognition of the principles of democracy, free institutions, social justice and equality before the law;

(c) realise that the maintenance of human dignity presupposes safe-guarding the rights of privacy of family-life, of property and the fostering of the pursuit of just economic rewards for labour…”

These precepts and ideals constitute a consensus for governance in our nation. To be sure, we acknowledge the weaknesses and limitations in our existing constitutional arrangements, and these prompt us to embark on the current process of constitutional reform. But the strengths and possibilities of our liberal democracy unite our people in our quest for the best governance possible.

Since independence, governments have been chosen through six well-conducted general elections which have all been free and fair. In 1984 and 2001 there were changes in government as a consequence of the general elections. The rule of law is alive and well in our country. There is a sound, non-partisan public service. These are solid achievements.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines after 25 years of independence is a middle-level income developing country, which ranks number 79 out of nearly 200 countries worldwide in accordance with the measurements of the Human Development Index put out by the United Nations Development Programme. Although we ought not to be smug or complacent about this, such a ranking is fairly good, especially for a resource-challenged, small-island state in an increasingly hostile international environment. Still, we can certainly do better.

What are some of the socio-economic indicators of which we ought to be proud after 25 years of independence? These include the following: universal primary education; universal access to secondary education by September 2005; a sound primary and secondary health care system; a life expectancy in excess of 70 years, on an average; a 100 per cent immunization of children under the age of five years; the delivery of a quality, affordable water-supply to 95 per cent of the households; the delivery of garbage collection and disposal services to the entire population; the delivery of regular, consistent, affordable electricity service to almost all households; the provision of telecommunication services to the entire population – there are, for example, 70,000 cell phones in use for a population of 110,000 persons; and an extensive and sound social security system both through the contributory National Insurance Services (NIS) and the non-contributory programmes provided by the government.

Still, challenges and problems abound in the socio-economic sphere. In 1996, poverty was assessed as existing among 37.5 per cent of the population. Poverty remains a major difficulty despite a commendable focussed approach to poverty reduction over the past three and a half years, which have seen a decline in poverty level. Inequality of incomes and opportunities remain a challenge. Unemployment, though declining in recent years, is still at an unacceptably high level. Even in the areas of social services where there have been solid accomplishments much work remains to be done to consolidate the gains and to extend them.

At the level of the central government fiscal prudence coupled with a carefully, calibrated “counter-cyclical” fiscal stance to stimulate growth are sensible,

non-ideological, practical measures designed to facilitate economic advance. The macro-economic fundamentals are in order: a stable currency, low inflation, current account surpluses on the central government’s accounts, and economic growth. Last year, real economic growth of 4.06 per cent was recorded; this year, a growth rate in excess of 5.5 per cent is projected.

Yet modern globalisation and trade liberalisation are undermining our country’s productive apparatus especially in agriculture (including bananas) and the manufacturing sector. Our nation is on the frontline of this global trade war and the fall-out from the revolution in information technology. Our nation’s creative efforts in tourism, international financial services, and information technology amidst our continuing resoluteness in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors keep us more than afloat. But the challenges are immense, and we cannot thus afford to succumb to the debilitating social and political disease of learned helplessness.

Our nation’s material, social and technological progress over the past 25 years has not been matched by similar advances in the spheres of discipline, law-abiding conduct and devotion to country. There is too much ill-discipline, vagabondry, criminality and lack of patriotism. To be sure, the ill-disciplined, the vagabonds, the criminals and the unpatriotic remain a very small minority, but the society accords them too much tolerance and space to flourish. Decent citizens of all walks of life must combine to fight relentlessly this anti-social conduct in our midst including the behaviour of those who abuse and misuse the technology of the FM radio stations in their planned or unwitting, defence of the socially indefensible for partisan political purposes.

By and large, our people are maturing politically, but there needs to be a greater focus on creating a social individual, not an atomized individual in quest of self mastery. Our people are becoming more sophisticated and self-confident in themselves as individuals and in our nation as a socio-political entity. We see a reflection of all this in the huge achievements in business, production, academia, the creative arts, sports, culture, designing, modelling, architecture, housing and lifestyles generally. Still the very modern lifestyles unnecessarily reject some critical, traditional core values and give rise to unhealthy living in terms of what we eat and in behaviour which lead to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

So, we have done reasonably well in 25 years of independence, and we ought to be proud to be Vincentians. Still, on every single front much remains to be done; and the challenges are getting no easier. We have travelled far and well. For this we must thank Almighty God and our forebears. It is great to celebrate this twenty-fifth anniversary of independence. Our quest is to further ennoble our Caribbean civilisation in every sphere of human endeavour. More particularly we must build the Vincentian component of that civilisation. It is a requisite of our life and production, individually and as a nation. In this on-going effort let us be reminded of the message in the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“Whoever watches the wind will not plant. Whoever looks at the cloud will not reap…

“Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well”.

As your Prime Minister I pray to Almighty God to continue to bless us and keep us safe now and in our days ahead. Ours is a small country, but a great nation. We have done well so far, but much better is left to be done. I take heart from the prophet Isaiah:

“I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem, they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and make her the praise of the earth.”