As we prepare to celebrate in grand style the 40th anniversary of the recovery of our Independence, it is my hope that we find time to reflect on the road we have been traversing. The economy is an area of concern. In the final analysis this is about the people, about providing the proper environment, securing their involvement, and bringing the benefits to them.
Recently in Kingstown I saw a lady, well dressed, appearing to be in the late 40-age bracket, standing on the side walk. As I attempted to pass, she quietly beckoned me and asked if I can assist her with some money. I was initially shocked, but realised she was doing something with which she was not comfortable. Do we ever wonder how some people live? I have on occasions interacted with domestic helpers and their stories amaze me. Some travel from as far as Fancy and are paid low wages out of which has to come the cost of transportation. One or two of them told me that their employers do not even pay their national insurance, taking advantage of the limited alternatives. Our people are naturally resilient and find ways of coping, but under very demanding circumstances.
Ours, like other Caribbean economies, face serious challenges as we try to function in the global environment. What happens there affects what we are able to do, often providing financial conditions with which we have to cope. The recent IMF preliminary report was quite optimistic, but based on a number of things remaining positive. It claims that the economy has been recovering based on increased tourist arrivals “boosting tourism-related services (such as hotels, restaurants and retail). This is something we have to look at carefully, because the overwhelming number of visitors are Vincentians returning home taking advantage of easier access. I suspect that this might even be peaking, but in any event the impact on hotels expected might not have been as was anticipated, since most of them would have been staying with relatives and must have welcomed having home-made food, although of course venturing out on occasions to restaurants. The benefits from tourist arrivals have to be balanced with arrangements made with international airlines to meet quotas. The Report warned too that for the economic benefits to “reach broader economic sectors beyond tourism the authorities need to make further efforts to foster private activity by improving the environment and strengthening physical and human capital”
There are of course many other serious challenges, some of them longstanding, “a narrow production and export base, limited physical and human capital that constrains potential growth”. There is also the matter of infrastructure. The private sector is still not a very vibrant one, so that the burden remains largely with the government. This calls for creating the kind of environment that can facilitate the building of the private sector. In one of the IMF reports concern is expressed about agriculture, which has to move from subsistence to a more agri-business focus with strengthened tourism links. This has been talked about for a long time, but little has been done. Other challenges affecting farmers have to do with the dearth of feeder roads, inadequate water supply and irrigation and technological gaps. The question of sustainability should be of primary concern given our exposure like the rest of the region to natural hazards.
Much is hoped for from the potential of geothermal power, “stronger than expected tourist arrivals, investor interest (and) concessional financing for capital projects’. One of the downsides for the people is the call for containing the wage bill and curbing the growth of public pensions. There are obviously other large challenges, but there is often the tendency to downplay these or to pretend that they don’t exist.
Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian