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Natural disasters, politics and leadership

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In the aftermath of the destruction wrought by hurricane Tomas in the Eastern Caribbean, it is only natural that there are political repercussions and implications. Our competitive two-party system lends itself readily to any major issue becoming a political one and with general elections just around the corner in the two countries most affected, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, every development takes on a political coloration.{{more}}

Indeed even before Tomas struck, there had been political divisions over the response to flooding in the Dennery area in St. Lucia, just over one month ago. There were even separate assistance packages provided by both the Government and the Opposition. This is in keeping with a long tradition in our region. I recall for instance, that after the volcanic eruption of 1979 in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, there was a big political battle over the response to the crisis and charges of manipulation of the crisis for political ends. In the process, there was some display of political irresponsibility on the part of the then Parliamentary Opposition and blatant politicking by the then Labour government. It took the maturity of the then extra-Parliamentary opposition (which became the United People Movement in August 1979) to urge a national, non-partisan approach to the disaster.

Political shortsightedness and opportunism can be dangerous enemies. They can lead to persons not only completely confusing themselves, but also creating public confusion as well. Take the well-publicised statement of the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Ms. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, that any hurricane relief assistance granted by her country must be to the benefit of her country, “contractors and companies,” being her operative words. Incidentally, her Deputy, Mr. Jack Warner of footballing fame, has now come out in support of his leader, even though she was forced to retract during a visit to St. Lucia last week.

Perhaps, Ms. Persad-Bissessar’s understanding of “benefit” is narrow in scope, for surely, the non-financial benefit of relief assistance often out-weighs the purely financial returns in terms of purchase of goods and services from the donor. The political goodwill so generated from such an act in fact leads to significant economic rewards for a long time to come. But above all, surely T and T’s two top political leaders ought to be able to distinguish between humanitarian assistance, which is what is required urgently, and the normal form of development aid. Such humanitarian gestures ought to have no political/economic bias. Thus the USA, violently at odds with North Korea, has granted food aid to that country in the face of starvation of many of its people. The politics of the state is not the issue.

One can detect some confusion in the political leadership in T and T over the nature of its relationship with the Eastern Caribbean, occasioned by its understandable concern over what it may view as the profligacy of the past Manning government in its generous assistance to its smaller Caribbean neighbours. No problems there. But the new regime in Port of Spain must not allow anti-Manning sentiments to guide its policies towards SVG and other Caribbean nations.

There is some thinking in St. Vincent and the Grenadines that there are equally short-sighted persons who are trying to prod the government of Trinidad and Tobago into scaling down its assistance to this country, on the entirely spurious notion that such assistance will benefit the Gonsalves government. Such charges have been made also in relation to possible support for the Argyle International Airport project. If this is so, then such persons are not only seriously misguided, but they are also guilty of working against the national interest. The known charlatans who go about speaking about “Ralph cannot be trusted,” are themselves demonstrating that they cannot be trusted, not even to cipher out what is in the best interest of our people.

That is why political leadership is so important in countries like ours, even more so in times of crisis. The maturity of our leaders and their capacity to provide a sense of clear direction, to grasp what are the essential features of a crisis and to be able to formulate an intelligent response, are vital factors in ensuring our survival. I was appalled and saddened to hear the response of the Opposition Leader to government’s preliminary assessment of storm damage. In a time of crisis, broad consensus and national unity are important prerequisites for being able to formulate a programme for survival and recovery which satisfies the needs of all our people.

There will always be the temptation, whether the ULP, NDP or whoever is in power, to attempt to reap political benefits for the party in power, but only the shortsighted can fail to see that the greater the number of people who are assisted or who benefit from the process, the greater the political returns to those leading such a process. It is patently unwise to be publicly throwing cold-water on preliminary assessments and trying to create doubt in the donors that we are trying to hoodwink them. Who will suffer as a result?

We have to lift ourselves above narrow, counter-productive considerations. The degree to which we came out of the crisis successfully depends on our broad co-operation and our ability to put our country, and in particular the needs of those suffering most, above all else.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.