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Looking ahead

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I have a copy of the Prime Minister’s Budget Address, but have not had a chance to read it, neither was I able to listen to his presentation, having been travelling at that time in an area where the reception from my car radio was not of the best. I have, however, read some news items. Referring to his address. Kenton Chance’s I Witness News, in an issue of January 26, states: “St.Vincent Economy shrinks as National debt rises”, stating that the major sectors experienced low or negative growth.{{more}} The Searchlight newspaper emphasized the positive. In its January 25th edition it carried the caption on its front page- “PM sees brighter 2011 for SVG economy: GROWTH EXPECTED.” In another article on page 12, there was a caption that read: “PM confident in the face of economic challenges”. What is interesting about that particular piece was that there was little to justify the optimism. Instead reference was made to the problems associated with CLICO and British American that provided “a challenging context”. The article implies that much will depend on economic recovery in the developed world, but it pointed out that while there was expansive growth in countries such as Brazil, China, India and Russia, those were not countries from which our tourists come nor from which we got remittances.

Additional challenges came in the face of additional expenditures arising from Tomas, quoting the Prime Minister to the effect, that will take “more money from us this year and I have to strengthen the social safety net for the poor, the working people and the marginalized.” So far nothing to suggest the basis that generated that optimism, except again to quote from the Prime Minister a statement that adds nothing to the discussion: “But, in the light of the continued challenging times, Gonsalves said that he is confident that he will be able to, once again, deal with the difficult circumstances”. Again no idea of the basis of this optimism, but to further complicate things again by saying: “He, however, warned that the country was not completely ‘out of the woods’, as the road to economic recovery was ‘uneven and haltering.” Kenton Chance was of more help here when he stated that Government’s overall strategy for 2011 was the stimulation of the productive sectors and that the Prime Minister was looking to the private sector to play a more dynamic role with the help of incentives through new measures.

No one, not even those on the Opposition benches would argue that it will be easy. Instead many expect difficult times ahead. Government alone is not going to be able to do it, even though they sometimes give you the impression that they can. The people of this country will have to own the Government and give some directions. Among those who have an important role to play are those in the media. They can do so by helping to lift the debate by providing the public with the information, doing the research that is needed and raising the necessary questions. The issue of the role of the private sector is one that needs further discussion. We have been told, largely by the Opposition, that Government owes large sums of money to the private sector. We know, of the near impasse between Government and the Chamber of Industry and Commerce over the car parks in Kingstown and at the airport. We know too, of the attitude of the Prime Minister to the owners of some Super Markets in Kingstown whom he considered to be supporters of the NDP. This is well known, and the Prime Minister’s statement that these Super Markets made more money under his government than under the NDP, notwithstanding. In fact, it would have been surprising if it were otherwise. One naturally will expect these businesses to be doing better in 2010 than in 2001. I am not sure about the outcomes of the pre-budget discussions between the private sector and Government. One of the criticisms made in the past was that these discussions usually took place at a time when the budget proposals were already decided on. I don’t know how true that is today or how seriously the government takes proposals that come from that quarter. Are there areas in which the government is competing with the private sector?

If the Prime Minister is optimistic, that needs to be told, but at the same time he must be asked about the basis of his optimism. I only heard a small part of the Budget Response by the Leader of the Opposition, but one might think that they were speaking about different economies, and in fact, different countries. The economy of St.Vincent and the Grenadines must not be seen in isolation. The coming into being of the Economic Union of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States and efforts to overhaul the governance structure and operations of CARICOM will have implications for SVG. The Governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank is of the view that the economies of the Eastern Caribbean States in order to recover from the global economic crisis need to ‘develop several sectors’ and ‘operate collectively as a market’. The Governor also spoke about the necessity to “restructure and realign production and consumption patterns, in order to be more resilient and internationally competitive.” CARICOM will shortly select a new Secretary General. It has had outstanding persons holding that position before. Before Edwin Carrington there were William Demas, Alister McIntyre, Kurleigh King and Roderick Rainford. At this critical juncture it needs to put someone in place who commands the respect of the region and has the intellect and confidence to pull that body out of the doldrums. In recent years we have had persons making fun of the sad state of CARICOM, speaking about “CARICOM or Cari-Gone?”. It is at the crossroads and is badly in need of someone to steer it through the rough waters, and energize the body.

Regardless of what happens at the CARICOM or OECS level, our country has challenges to face. The task is humongous. It requires a different mindset and the ability to arrive at a national consensus. Are we hopeful that we can do it? The country is again on a warpath, a result of efforts to introduce new legislation that seems not to be needed at this time. It appears that stormy days lie ahead. There is really little to generate optimism at this stage, except that the big man says he is optimistic.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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