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Needed: big hearts and unity of purpose

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Many persons in SVG as in the rest of the Caribbean must have followed closely President Obama’s address to the US Congress on Tuesday evening. Apart from the fascination we have with Obama, the first Afro-American President, it would have dawned on many of us that whatever happens in the United States of America would send a signal to the rest of the world. One of the criticisms made of earlier addresses by the President was that he was too pessimistic.{{more}} He put this to rest on Tuesday evening and came out blaring, declaring that the US will rebuild, recover and emerge stronger than ever. This was a welcome tone for a majority of Americans who were beginning to lose hope. Many people in the USA worry about the time when the crisis is likely to bottom out and the country able to get on a recovery curve. The Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernarke suggested earlier in the week that recovery was at least a year away. Two things desperately needed in these times are hope and a restoration of confidence, and both men might have gone some way in providing that.

But we are to a large extent bystanders looking at a situation unfold elsewhere. We are certainly not players but are nevertheless vulnerable to what unfolds on the stage, so we have to stay tuned and keep looking. An IMF Press Release following the conclusion of the 2009 Article IV Consultation discussions with this country indicated that economic growth fell from 7 percent in 2007 to around 1 percent, pointing to ‘weakened activities’ in Tourism and agriculture. It noted that “Declining tourism-related receipts, remittances and lower foreign direct investment will adversely affect output growth and constrain banking sector liquidity.” Enough has happened in the region in the past two months to convince us that we are beginning to feel the effects of the global economic crisis.

The World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects 2009 stated as follows; “Should credit markets fail to respond to the robust policy interventions taken so far, the consequences for developing countries could be very serious. Such a scenario would be characterised by…substantial disruptions and turmoil, including bank failures and currency crises in a wide range of developing countries. Sharply negative growth in a number of developing countries and all of the attendant repercussions, including increased poverty and unemployment, would be inevitable.” All of this is frightening when it is widely believed that the worst is yet to come in the developed countries. This means that we have really not begun to seriously feel the effects. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 saw the beginning of the Great Depression, but the Caribbean Countries did not feel the real effects until the mid 1930s when disturbances rocked most of the English speaking countries.

Since last year, civil unrest has broken out in a number of countries throughout the world in response to worsening unemployment and other factors related to the economic crisis. In our part of the world Haiti had been engulfed by violent protests last year and now the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are faced with strikes and protests. When St.Vincent had its share of disturbances in October 1935, the Governor then was highly annoyed that no member of the Legislature was able to warn him of the impending crisis. The truth is that the disturbances were unplanned and so took every one by surprise. Clearly there are often grievances seething below the surface only awaiting minor incidents to come to the surface which was precisely what happened in 1935.

I make this point because we must never take the apparent calm for granted. I believe that our people are facing serious problems which we don’t seem to understand, and clearly many of us think that all is well. Our problems are huge and require intervention by a united people. These things are happening at a time when elections are getting on to the national agenda. Elections are likely to intensify our divisions at a time when the situation is crying out for unity of purpose. This is what is frightening about the situation as it now stands for it is so easy to begin to try to score political points which in the end will do no one any good. A drop in economic growth from 7 per cent to 1 per cent is serious business, especially when the prospects for this year and next year for remittances, tourism related products and agriculture appear very dim.

The time calls for big hearts and a unity of purpose. Are we able to provide this?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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