The vulnerability of small island states exposed yet again
Another heated debate has broken out in the Caribbean over the conflicting interests of CARICOM states in attracting foreign investment to their respective countries. The foreign entity concerned is the American offshore medical college, Ross University, and the relocation of its campus from Dominica to Barbados is the contentious issue.
Ross University has been operating from Dominica for the past 40 years. It has weathered even the destructive hurricane David of 1979 to become a major generator of economic activity in Dominica, contributing significantly to employment, foreign exchange earnings and an estimated 20 per cent of Gross Domestic product (GDP). It dominated economic life in the north of Dominica where the country’s second city, Portsmouth is located.
However the ravages of hurricane Maria which struck Dominica last year forced the university to close, temporarily it was thought at the time. Students were relocated to St Kitts and to the American state of Tennessee. Efforts were made to have the Dominica campus reopened as soon as possible and as late as last month the Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit had indicated that Dominica would be ready to accommodate the reopening of the campus by January 2019.
However on August 3, there came the bombshell in the form of announcements by Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, and confirmations from both Ross University and Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, that the university campus would be relocated to Barbados for the start of operations in January 2019. Those announcements have created a storm, in Dominica itself quite naturally, but also in the rest of the region.
Barbados has been accused of “poaching” the university from Dominica, an allegation strongly denied by both Prime Ministers Mottley and Skerrit. Other criticism raised included questioning the value of solidarity in CARICOM when such conflicts are allowed to fester. Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has publicly stated that he does not think that any of his colleagues are to blame for the relocation.
There are still many unanswered questions concerning the Ross University relocation but it brings into focus a critical issue for CARICOM members and other small island-states. For all of us, foreign investment is an important element in our development strategies, but on what terms has long been a burning question. Our very size and level of underdevelopment render us very vulnerable to foreign manipulation in our desire to attract such investment.
There is more than enough evidence over the years to indicate that investors and foreign states have tried, often with success to play off the interests of one against the other. This is used as a broad strategy to extract concessions from a would-be host state and to secure terms of maximum benefit to the investor at the expense of the people of the country seeking the investment. Our lack of unity, particularly our partisan politics further contributes to our weaknesses in resisting such tactics.
The result is that the real offenders often get off scot-free as we blame each other and expose our divisions both nationally and regionally. The role of the respective governments in this relocation is still not clear and therefore subject to much speculation. Also unanswered is the role of Ross University itself. Was it a reasonable decision which, while very damaging to Dominica, had been forced on the university? It has been pointed out that both Prime Ministers involved share the same political advisers, Barbadian by nationality. Were they involved in the decision?
As we seek answers to all these questions let us never lose sight of the critical need for solidarity within CARICOM, for governments and opposition parties to try and put national interests first and hold discussions with a view of placing the national interests above those of foreign investors.