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On being small

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Small islands have several special characteristics. At least one of them is very relevant at the moment. It is that a small island is a little piece of land surrounded by a lots of water. Looked at in this way, a small island should not have a water shortage. Utilizing the vast quantities of water surrounding our particular piece of land, however, requires desalination and pumping. These processes can be costly, and we have been accustomed to getting our water dead cheap under a cent per gallon for domestic users. Until the long term implications of climate change are clear, we are hesitant to obtain our potable water from our most abundant water source.{{more}}

Fortunately, things are not as bad as they could have been for two reasons. SVG has not lost as much of its forest cover as some of the other islands. The Government has to continue its campaign to eradicate the activities that lead to deforestation. Secondly, the Jennings Valley Water Project has so far shielded the heavily populated Windward coast from the worst effects of the drought. The project was implemented during the ULP administration.

Another and perhaps even more important feature of a small state is that it is able to rely on the Rest of the World to an extent that a country of moderate size dare not even contemplate. Such dependence in our case takes the form of aid and remittances. Ideally development projects should be financed from government savings. These savings, of course, come from the excess of government revenue over its expenditure. As we all know, there has never been any time in our island’s history when our Government’s revenue significantly exceeded expenditure. This is not because we do not tax our people heavily. If you got the same salary in America or England as you got in SVG, you would pay far less tax there than you do here.

The crux of the problem is that once you are running an independent country you have to have a judiciary, police, schools, health service and central administration. These all cost money and it is hard for a tiny economy like ours to generate enough revenue to cover all these costs and still have a surplus to finance the construction of schools, roads, airports and water catchments. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that SVG depends on grants and loans from abroad to meet more than half of its development projects. In this year’s Budget, about US$75million is needed from abroad to fund such projects. To us this may seem large but in international terms, where they deal in billions, it is peanuts. The comparatively small sums we need for development have emboldened our Prime Minister to try to get assistance from abroad to build an airport. We all believe that such an airport can do a lot to improve our economy.

Remittances are another indication of our dependence on the outside world. I need hardly state the amount of these we receive. The queues outside the Post Office and other money transmitting centres, as well as the huge number of barrels we receive at Christmas are clear evidence of this.

Remittances, however, depend on emigration, and we all know that emigration outlets are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

The ULP administration appreciated this from its very inception and realised it would have to adopt special measures if it were to enable people to emigrate. One such measure was the training of nurses for emigration. As a result it increased the intake of nursing students from 33 to 100 per year, raised their stipend to almost $1,000 per month, recruited additional nursing tutors and almost completely rebuilt the nursing school. A delegation, including the Governor General and Minister of Health, went to Virginia to seek assistance as well as placement for nurses. The scheme has been a success. Nurses trained under the programme have so far emigrated to Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua, BVI and Saba. Arrangements are in train for others to go to the USA. The St Vincent programme was conceived in 2002 and implementation started in 2003. In June 2009 the World Bank published a paper drawing attention to the shortage of nurses not only in the Caribbean but worldwide, and advised Caribbean countries to train nurses for export. The Report specifically states that St.Vincent is the only island that would not have a shortage of nurses. There can be no clearer vindication to the soundness of the ULP policy on this issue.

Indeed the International Airport, the Education Revolution and the Nurses for Emigration are among the soundest policies ever devised for SVG. It would be interesting to learn what better alternatives are on offer. The late Paul Southwell, one-time Premier of St Kitts, used to say: ‘when you are running a nation of 100,000 souls or less the options for development are indeed very few’. Incidentally it was the same Paul Southwell who built the St Kitts international airport.

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