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Agriculture not an engine of growth?

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Editor: I was absent from St. Vincent for the weekend of January 27th, and soon after my return I was referred to C.I. Martin’s article in the Searchlight newspaper. It was reported to me that Martin said there was no future in agriculture. Well I said that if that were true, I being a farmer may as well pack my bags and head for the grave or the U.S.

So I made great efforts to get the article, eventually by buying a late copy from the offices of the “Searchlight.”

Martin stated: “As far as development policy is concerned, agriculture cannot now be regarded as an engine of growth” and later on, “on a larger scale, given the shortage of labour in the agricultural sector it is family operated farms that will have to do the bulk of the production…”{{more}}

C.I.Martin to my limited knowledge has been a significant figure in the formation of government’s policy for a number of years. He is currently government’s fiscal advisor. One can very well say that his input into any budget whenever he has been around has been significant. In fact at the time he was manager of Development Corporation, Financial Secretary or Cabinet Secretary, it was said that Martin wrote the budget.

A country, however small is like a big ship, once set on its course, it is very difficult to stop or change course. So policies set thirty years ago are still having their effects despite some hitches.

Having set that framework let us come to the main subject.

Martin is substantially wrong on both counts – (a) engine of growth and (b) labour supply. For the socio-economic development of any country, one uses first of all the resources one has. And if one does not have, one invents or captures, and any sensible government’s policy takes note of this point.

This has little to do with the likes or dislikes of people. If the people do not like government’s policy they vote against it. If government changes its policy, the people suffer eventually.

What does Martin mean by “engine of growth?” After all, it was agriculture that has produced directly or indirectly all the brains that are flooding the Civil Service. Agriculture is the base of any and all civil societies.

St. Vincent without doubt has some of the best soils anywhere in the world. It has good rainfall throughout the year.

Why on earth does St. Vincent not produce agricultural goods as cheap as anybody else? The simple answer is that the wrong people are at the production end (perhaps at the decision making end also).

Some years ago I advertised for workers with three O’Levels subjects. Most people thought I was crazy.

While I was in the Ministry of Agriculture and again on the banana board, I advocated that we should only employ as extension officers in those organizations people who were qualified at the tertiary level. Then again I was thought to be insane.

At the time St. Vincent’s gained independence I wrote that St. Vincent could be the food basket of the Southeastern Caribbean. To achieve that objective, the right policies, education, communication facilities, financial resources were required.

Twenty six years on and our fiscal advisor tells us that agriculture is not now an “engine of growth.” Why not? Have we exhausted all our land resources as well as our intellectual, technological and financial resources? Do we have our best brains involved in the production of fifty tons of bananas per acre per year or a million pounds of cucumbers per acre per year or forty tons of sweet potatoes per acre per year? Are our dairy cows high yielders? Are we self-sufficient in broilers and egg production? Are we, in short, producing to our capacity? If not, why not?

At that time also there were connections with Europe and North America where substantial amounts of agricultural produce were being shipped.

We cannot stop growing if we do not pay attention to the questions of using our lands.

If the policy makers, notwithstanding their short-comings, make the right decisions, agriculture will always be an engine of growth. In fact, an efficient agriculture provides resources – financial and otherwise – for the very projects Martin considers important. It is however folly to think that construction per se can be the engine of growth (construction has always been in support of something else – e.g. roads for agriculture and tourism; factories for the production of goods; ports and airports for tourism and agriculture, and trade; etc. Thus, construction standing alone is puerile economics.

I come now to the “shortage of labour in the agricultural sector.” Every adult individual is responsible for himself and the first requirement is for food, followed by clothing then shelter, then entertainment. The whole purpose of life is to achieve these goals. Left to themselves, people would pursue these objectives.

However, if a government for one reason or another, volunteers to satisfy any of the above objectives, by various policy initiatives, the society becomes skewed.

A government should only do for the people what they cannot do for themselves – famously “communication and defense”, in their broad sense, using the common resources of “taxes” present and future.

But when people are encouraged to look forward for “a two weeks,” or “a security job” or “a hold on” in the YES programme, wherein the impetus to be productive (in the agriculture sector)?

Who says that one person should end up in the Ministry of Trade, say, and another on the farm? Man. It is only in the Caribbean that the scorers (financial comptrollers) are paid more than the players (engineers and agriculturists). It is only in St. Vincent that people employed with the government believe that they should be paid higher than everyone else, ignoring the pivotal role of government i.e. facilitator and umpire.

So if a government had the right policies, agriculture would have been flourishing, fewer people would have been working with Government, people would have been building their own houses (at cheaper prices), more children would have been at school (and going on to university to study etc.), agro-processors would have been flourishing, there would have been viable ship companies, and exporters, the supermarkets would not have had to import watermelon, cucumber, sweet pepper, chicken, lamb, pork and milk etc. from North America, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines would indeed have been the bread basket of the South Eastern Caribbean (with cheap food). People would have been glad to come to St. Vincent because we would have had properly constructed roads leading to well cultivated farms and gardens and places of interest.

And of course there would have been an enlightened society where projects are fully debated in and out of our parliament.

There is only a shortage of labour where there are not enough people with the appropriate skills to do the job. That cannot be said of agriculture in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

We can go on and on and on, but with such thoughts at the head of government people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines have to brace themselves for years of borrowing and begging, becoming less and less independent or inter-dependent with other nations. Of course some of us will at some point say enough is enough and migrate or stay overseas at the end of our studies whether it be in agriculture, medicine, information technology or business, etc.

Hugh Stewart

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