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The challenges of developing a multi-island state

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Tue, Oct 11. 2011

The challenges of development in a small, multi-island developing country are enormous with implications for all facets of life. These are not always fully understood by the citizens of countries like ours, and the failure to grasp the enormity of the situation can often lead to grave misunderstanding, tensions, and, as in the case of Union Island in 1979, armed confrontation as well.{{more}}

The problem is intensified because we are all still trapped in the colonial legacy of the centre and the periphery, (in our case ‘mainland’ St. Vincent and the Grenadine islands), where the tendency has been towards centralisation, at the expense of rural and Grenadine development.

The multi-island nature of our state has its benefits in terms of diversity, but it also calls for a great deal of replication where services are concerned, often not justified economically, according to the number of persons thus served. Yet, all our people have the same basic rights and entitlements, and a citizen in Mayreau is as entitled to the same level of medical or other public services as one in Kingstown.

The challenges facing our state were highlighted last Friday, when a high-powered government delegation, led by the Prime Minister himself, took part in the official opening of several public facilities in Canouan. One issue which was brought into focus was the problem facing the people of that island in accessing secondary education for their children. It has been the cause of great expense and inconvenience for parents and has put students from the Grenadine islands as a whole, at a big disadvantage in comparison with students from the ‘mainland’.

There is a multi-million dollar secondary school in Union Island, but, according to reports, it is short-staffed and under-utilized, not being able to offer the full range of choices of subject areas. Canouan has an even smaller population, so a secondary school there probably cannot be justified based on economic feasibility. Yet there are fundamental issues of rights which must also be taken into consideration.

The existence of several separate islands as part of a national entity throws up transportation challenges as well. Canouan has a jet port and there are smaller airports in Bequia, Union Island and Mustique. These must be maintained, while upkeeping the main port of air entry, the E.T. Joshua airport at Arnos Vale, and struggling to construct an international airport at Argyle.

Then, there are the public services – clinics, primary schools, police stations, customs, immigration, magistrates courts etc – the provision of which to serve small populations in disparate islands increases the unit cost. But again, these are the services which, in their inadequate state, have led to charges of neglect, discrimination and denial of basic rights. We are truly caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”.

However, it is not only the fundamental issues of rights and equity that are involved; for, on the other hand, the Grenadines are a major source of national revenue via tourism services, and have tremendous marine potential and are a major marketing point for the multi-island state as a whole. They are also perhaps second only to the government where provision of employment opportunities is concerned.

For all these reasons and from an historical perspective, it is necessary that there be frank and open discussion of such challenges. The same can be said of the northern areas on ‘mainland’ St. Vincent.

It means revisiting our constitutional and administrative arrangements and, importantly, more widespread use of information communication technology, to make possible, the sharing of scarce resources, such as teachers. Honestly facing up to the facts, debating the options and finding creative solutions to our unique challenges will avoid unnecessary tensions and conflicts and should provide a consensual gel for our multi-island state.

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