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The poverty debate in SVG: facts or fiction

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Editor: A famous statistical quote by Mark Twain is that “there are lies, damn lies and statistics.” Another quote is that of Rex Stout, who said there are two kinds of statistics: “the kind you look and the kind you make up.” In any academic work and article, it is often critical to define a concept. In another hyperbolic definition, Evan Star defines statistics as “the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.”{{more}}

Those three quotes can encapsulate speeches made at the “Fisherman’s Day” ceremony at the “Calliaqua Playing Field,” heralding the achievement of the Unity Labour Party (ULP) government in improving the nutritional intake of Vincentians and reducing the incidence of poverty in this country.

This article seeks to examine the veracity and the narrative postulated by the ULP on poverty based on data found in the Country Poverty Assessment ( CPA) Report 2007/08. The CPA states that 30.2 per cent of the population was deemed to be living in poverty, with 2.9 per cent being indigent or dirt poor. These figures are/often compared to the period 1995/96, the last time such a survey was done, and at the height of New Democratic Party (NDP) governance in this country. At that time, 37.5 per cent of the population was deemed to be poor and 25.7 per cent indigent.

Taking a much deeper and closer look at the aforementioned statistics, a number of pertinent issues can be raised or inferred when examining those figures and claims. Firstly, it can be argued that a time-gap of 12 years between these two surveys makes it comparatively erroneous to aver such achievements. Secondly, if we are to compare statistics over two different time periods, then adjustments must be made, for instance, deflating the price levels over the said period.

Given as it may be, it is easy to posit a number of other arguments that may expose bare many of the statistics surrounding poverty in this country and promoted with much fanfare. For instance, how can the indigence level fall at such a drastic rate, while the level of poverty has only fallen by five per cent? One can only reckon that the rate of poverty should be dropping prodigiously for the indigence level to have dropped at that rapid rate. Furthermore, one can only assume that many indigent Vincentians were able to leapfrog straight out of poverty, rather than move along a progression or continuum from indigence to poverty, then into the lower middle class etc.

Such touted achievements and claims made by the Government can be better viewed through the prism of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures. Moreover, the use of World Bank data on economic growth for St Vincent and the Grenadines, during the NDP and ULP reign of governance. For example, in the period 1985 to 2000, the NDP reign, the average economic growth rate was 4.33 percent. It is is important to note that the year 1984 was ignored because that was the year the NDP assumed office. During the period 2002-2012, the reign of the ULP, the average economic growth rate was 2.56 per cent. If we were to look at the NDP figures over a comparative 10 year period (1985 to 1995), the average economic growth rate was 4.16 per cent.

A clearer picture will emerge of the ULP’s performance and claims made, when examining the time period 2002- 2008, the latter year being the period of the global recession. The average economic growth rate during the zenith of ULP’s governance was 4.7 per cent, not much different from the average performance of the NDP administration. It is well documented that during 2008, there was the global recession, and an accompanying three years of negative economic growth in this country.

Based on this World Bank data, it is clear to see that the economic performance of the ULP falls far short of the NDP mark, as the average growth rate of the ULP administration, hovers a bit over half of that achieved by the NDP administration. This begs the question, how can poverty be reduced under this ULP administration given a less than impressive innings of its governance compared to that of the NDP?

There are other attending economic features which characterize ULP governance that would have impacted on the level of poverty in this country. During the ULP term of governance, there is the palpable decline of agriculture, tourism and financial services, the main pillars and drivers of economy. The relocation of students of the St George’s Medical College and the loss of millions of dollars of consumption spending was a further blow to the economy.

During the 14-year rule of the Unity Labour Party, a number of fiscal policy initiatives and measures were adopted that would have been inimical to the Vincentian consumer and household spending and disposable income. For instance, a 15 per cent Value Added Tax was introduced that has impacted on general price levels of goods and services in the economy. Over the same time period, individual driver’s licenses and car licenses have increased twice. The excise duty on motor vehicles has moved from an egregious 105 per cent to around 140 per cent. The property tax has been unceremoniously increased, after much denial by the ULP government during the referendum. The electricity bill has skyrocketed for the consumer with the advent of the inexplicable surcharge. Recently, the sin tax was heightened on cigarettes and rum, resulting in a more than 50 per cent increase in those proverbial products.

On the statistics available and given, it is unfathomable to believe that poverty has decreased in this country. To the contrary, it is wise to surmise that the poverty rate of the population may have doubled and hovers in the range of 60 to 70 per cent of the population.

Nilio Gumbs

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