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Major challenges facing nation


St. Vincent and the Grenadines has entered its 31st year as an independent nation with the first major issue on the national agenda being that of constitutional reform. A national referendum on this subject is scheduled for November 25, that is, less than three weeks away, and, as expected, the national debate on this subject rages. While it is a most welcome development for there to be widespread discussion on such a subject, reflecting our growing maturity as a nation, it would be amiss of us if we did not express some disappointment with the level of discussion in some quarters.{{more}} No doubt this has arisen partly by the competitive nature of the referendum, with opposing parties advocating YES or NO, but that is no reason for persons to be spreading misrepresentations, irrelevancies, half-truths, and even lies, to deceive the less well-informed.

Indeed, constitutional reform is of such fundamental political importance that it should have the effect of lifting the level of debate and understanding not just on political issues, but of matters of national import as well. The level of maturity necessary to comprehend our forward movement constitutionally should bring with it a greater sense of responsibility and the exercise of such responsibility. We must not for one instance allow the debate around constitutional reform to blind us to the fact that we face other major political, economic and social challenges which must be confronted with resolve.

This country and the rest of the Caribbean in general must pursue their thrust for economic and social development in less than ideal circumstances. Even as the cold winds from the global economic fall-out continue to cause contractions in our economies, there are also grave regional financial and economic difficulties. Just this week, for instance, the governments of the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU) were forced to make a lengthy statement on the thorny issues of the embattled British American Insurance Company (BAICO) and its parent body, the CLICO Financial Group (CL). Fiscal irresponsibility, lack of adequate regulation, and, we dare say, some laxness which may well have its source in the cosiness between certain business and political interests, have led to a serious financial crisis throughout the region.

The ECCU statement itself outlined the consequences: liabilities on the part of BAICO of someEC$1050 million, $842 million being annuities and investment contracts; the insolvency of BAICO itself with a huge deficit of EC$775 million but with only$30 million set aside to meet Eastern Caribbean responsibilities; the virtual “spiriting-away” of some EC$300 million in “inter-company transactions”. The tale goes on. At the end of it, policy-holders and investors are given the sober message that if BAICO is to be liquidated now, they can only expect to receive 10 cents on every dollar due. Resolution of this issue alone is sure to test the mettle of the ECCU to its very core, even as it represents a threat to the financial stability of the region itself.

Then, SVG has its own Everest to climb in ensuring the completion of the much-needed international airport. Having embarked on this ambitious venture, the prevailing economic circumstances could not be worse, both from the standpoint of our own ability to provide resources as well as in sourcing investments and assistance in such economically gloomy weather. Even after construction, making it a viable venture will present its own challenges, given the difficulties in international air transportation. Airlines are now even charging people for regular seat choices, impacting on the affordability of international travel, while governments, too, are increasingly milking the proverbial travelling cow by the imposition of ever higher fees and taxes. Now the British Government has added to these woes by itself imposing a highly controversial travel tax which is bound to have repercussions for Caribbean economies.

So whether in the financial, economic, investment or tourism fields, there is no easy passage. Even in terms of international trade, small developing economies like ours come up against formidable obstacles. The continued challenges to our banana sector represent poignant examples. They serve to remind us that petty politicking will get us nowhere. Like every other country based on parliamentary democracy, there will always be political differences, but it is high time we raise these to the level of strategic choices about the path to development rather than inanities and downright ignorance which in no way contribute to enhancing our ability to comprehend the nature of our predicament, much less find solutions to it.