Beautiful Virgin Islands

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Virgin Islands is at a Pivotal Point/Cross Road

The Virgin Islands is at a Pivotal Point/Cross Road

The [British] Virgin Islands is at a pivotal point, a crossroad, and faces many acute challenges.

These challenges include 1) small size (59 square miles spread over approximately 36 islands, islets, rocks) and small population(~30,000), 2) shortage of natural resources/resource-poor, 3) fragile serviced-based economy (tourism and financial services); economic diversification, 4) food insecurity, 5) heavy dependence on international trade, 6) high transportation, energy and telecommunications costs, 7) high import/low export, 8) high governing administrative costs, 9) limited opportunities for economy scale/scope, 10) high infrastructure, construction, maintenance, and repair cost, 11) labor and immigration, 12) healthcare improvements, 13) education improvements, 14) vulnerability to natural disasters, i.e., hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, 15) environmental perseveration and protection, 16) human capital investment, 17) constitutional review/electoral reform/self-determination, among other challenges.

Below, I will attempt to touch on a few challenges and opportunities.

Electoral Process


Every election, the cry seems that the VI is at a pivotal point, a crossroad. The territory currently faces many challenges, which may indeed position it at a pivotal moment. Hanging over its head is a commission of inquiry like the Sword of Damocles. Nonetheless, a general election is constitutionally due no later than the spring of 2023, unless a snap election is called. The constitution allows a sitting government to set an election date ahead of the constitutionally due time. This ability is an advantage for the incumbent government; disadvantage, opposition/challenger(s), and setting a date-specific, as the UK currently has, for election should be an action item for the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), chaired by attorney Lisa Penn-Lettsome. All 13 seats (9 district representatives, four (4) at large) in the House of Assembly are up for election. Political candidates roll out many promises during political campaigns, often overpromising and under-delivering. However, the electorate should 1) ask potential candidates about plan of action(s), 2) how projects will be paid for, and 3) when will the proposed projects be completed. The electorate must also demand a debate(s) on policy issues, not personal character destruction.

Constitutional Review and Amendment


The VI is an Overseas Territory (OT) of the UK and is partially self-governing, sharing responsibilities with the UK. The UK, through its appointed governor (de facto head of state), is responsible for a) defence, b) external affairs, c) internal security (including Royal Virgin Islands Police Force), civil service, and courts; local government, remaining functions, including finance. Nevertheless, the governor's reserve powers under Chapter 1, section 81 of the constitution, along with the assenting process, can thwart the will of the local government which was duly elected by the people. Addressing the reserve powers and assenting process is an action item for the CRC.

Moreover, the VI’s latest constitution came online in 2007, and much has changed in the 15 years, so the CRC has many action items to discuss. Undoubtedly, a hot item on the CRC agenda is the much-dated VI political independence. The VI is one of 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories on the UN's list. Further, under UN Charter XI Chapter 73, the VI is entitled to pursue self-determination, including political independence. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, self-determination is defined first as "having the right to choose freely its political, economic, social and cultural systems." And second as "the right of a people to constitute itself in a state or otherwise freely determine the form of its association with an existing state."

For the VI, self-determination has several options, i.e., status quo as an OT of the UK, free association, mergers, federation, political independence, etc. Political independence is a giant step. In my view, the government should some pursue economic independence before political independence; others may have a different perspective. Nevertheless, the people must address the issue of self-determination through a referendum, requiring a significant percent majority vote for 'Yes' on the preferred choice. The VI will not be the first OT to hold an independence referendum. Bermuda, the oldest OT, held an independence referendum on 16 August 1995, with approximately 74% of votes cast voting against independence.

Resources and Economy


The VI is a small, resource-poor territory that lacks the resources to support a robust primary economy [fishing, forestry, minerals mining, energy (oil, gas)]. Or secondary economy manufacturing (textiles, tools, machinery and equipment, steel, glass, electronics, agro products). Its economy is fragile, transitioning from subsistence agriculture to service-based, with tourism and financial services being the twin pillars of the economy. Financial services generate approximately 60% of government revenue, while tourism generates more direct, indirect, and induced employment for the approximate 13,000 workforce, with an overwhelming majority by necessity being expatriates.

Moreover, financial services and tourism projected the VI into having one of the highest living standards, quality of life, and per capita income in the region. However, the Covid-19 deadly pandemic exposed the weakness and fragility of financial services and tourism, especially tourism. Consequently, the government must make diversifying the economy a top priority. Further, the VI, regarding tourism, should explore developing a joint tourism marketing plan/packing with its close, friendly neighbor, the USVI.

National Development Plan


Effective national development planning is critical to the smooth, functional, and progressive growth and development of the VI. There is a significant weakness in national development planning. For example, an incoming government can substantially change projects planned by its successor(s) government. The stops and starts of projects counter-effective growth and development, slow progress, increased cost, and delayed projects and services. Consequently, to fix this problem, the government must develop a National Development Plan approved by voters and codified into law by the House of Assembly (HOA). The HoA must approve any substantial changes to the National Development Plan. Further, proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance (7Ps, military adage). This alliteration is critical to national development planning.

Infrastructure


The territory must effectively invest in and operate a high-quality, safe, state-of-the-art infrastructure to grow, develop, and vigorously compete. As such, it must possess high-quality and reliable water, wastewater, and electricity supply; functional and safe stormwater (drainage), telecommunications, combined air and seaport; and a structurally sound, secure, modern, and operating road network/transportation system. To enhance growth and development and improve economic competitiveness, the government must in First World quality infrastructure.

Human Capital


The VI is a resource-poor locale, with human capital being its most valuable resource. And to derive maximum benefit from this crucial resource, it must effectively and strategically invest in it, i.e., targeted education and training, technology, etc., to meet its growth and development and labor needs, minimising labor imports. Effectual investing in human capital is critical to better economic diversification outcomes.

Food Insecurity


The VI, up to the 1950s, albeit with a much smaller population (approximately 7-8000), was relatively food secure; it exported surplus food to the USVI. Today, the VI, with a much larger population (approximately 30,000) and its regional sister countries, is food insecure. The VI, like its CARICOM brethren, is a net food importer, importing well north of 50% of its food needs.

Moreover, many factors contribute to the VI's food production decline. These factors include younger generation(s) indifference to agricultural production, retiring of 'seasoned' farmers, transitioning the economy from subsistence agriculture to services, lack of water, repurposing of arable land to other uses, the ready availability of imports, changing standard of living and quality of life, etc. Of note is that increasing preference for imported processed foods is high in calories, sodium, sugar, and fat, contributing to many chronic health issues.

Further, though becoming self-sufficient in food production will be challenging for the VI, it must develop a robust plan and execute a well-structured effort to increase local food production to reduce the food import bill, improve its food security posture and improve food quality.

Rule of Law and Infringement


The rule of law means that no one, including the government, is above the law, where laws protect fundamental rights, and justice is accessible (OECD -library). The rule law is one of the core governing principles of the VI. However, in the SWOT (Strengths Weakness Opportunities Threats) analysis realm, a weakness is the long delay for defendants and complainants to get due process, i.e., their day in court. The long delay in getting to trial neither serves the defendant nor the complainant well. Though it is not, to the defendants, in particular, the court system's long delay in bringing cases to trial may feel almost like double jeopardy.

Moreover, to minimise law infringement and minimize/avoid incarceration, it is in the community's best interest and less costly to invest in citizens on the front end, i.e., providing adequate education and job opportunities, rather than at the back end. Investing in citizens is the total community responsibility, i.e., parents/guardians, churches, schools, NGOs, social organizations, government, etc. Further, the government must invest effectively in rehabilitating incarcerated personnel to minimise/prevent recidivism.

Land Use Plan


The VI is a small, 59 square miles, 36 islands, islets, rocks, and cays chain with limited acreage. Consequently, it needs a robust and well-structured, reasonable, and practical land-use plan to protect and preserve its use, quiet, and enjoyment for current generations of Virgin Islanders and generations yet unborn.

Moreover, with the displacing of commercial capitalism by industrial capitalism in the UK, West Indian sugar barons lost influence and monopoly. This loss of influence and monopoly, along with the drop in sugar prices, revolts, hurricanes, declining profits, etc., plantation owners took the flight out of the VI, leaving it supposedly as only good as a bird sanctuary. However, some 100 plus years later, gentrification/regentrification is rising. At the current land ownership change, present and future generations of Virgin Islanders may only be able to walk by, drive-by, sail by, or fly over and sadly lament that their grandparents once own this or that piece of prime real estate. The VI needs to bank as much land as practical and possible, i.e., national land bank.

Healthcare


Healthcare is the most critical service that the VI community provides. Every resident will need to access the healthcare system for preventative care, routine care, emergencies, or illnesses at some juncture in life. Thus, every resident at a minimum needs access to available and affordable care. Basic healthcare is a quality of life and standard of living issue and should be provided based on need, not on the ability to pay. Further, a healthy country is prosperous, promoting growth and development and lowering national cost. As such, greater focus is needed on preventative care.

Moreover, the human capital, equipment/equipage, infrastructure, facilities, etc., cost to deliver quality healthcare is expensive (dear). Consequently, based on their commensurate ability, all residents will have to pool resources to spread the cost over the broadest base possible and practical to lower the individual price. The VI population is small, its contributing pool will be lower, and the individual cost will be higher than in areas with a larger population. Perhaps, one day, the VI can join a larger regional pool, which may lower the cost. Further, every healthcare system user shares the responsibility of keeping the price as low as practical. Both government and the private sector are key players in the healthcare system, and both also share the burden of keeping the cost as low as practical without sacrificing care.

Public Safety Staffing and Facilities


Public safety officers/first responders perform critical services before, during, and after by responding quickly to protect lives and protect properties. The emergency services include law enforcement officers, fire and rescue officers, ambulance staff (emergency medical technicians and paramedics), and disaster management personnel; public works staffers too can be included in this group. Time is critical to responding to emergencies. Thus, the responsible ministry should set practical, proven average response times for first responders, i.e., from receiving a call to arrival on the scene. Consequently, to meet these critical response times, first responders must be a) adequately staffed and trained, b) adequately outfitted facilities, and c) adequately equipped. All first responders provide critical lifesaving and property protection services. Nevertheless, I will focus a little closer on fire and rescue and ambulance services.

To the maximum extent practical and possible, all areas of the VI should have relatively equal response times for fire and rescue services and ambulance services. For example, residents at West End should expect on average the same response time as people in Brewers Bay. On average, residents in the North Sound should expect the same response time as residents in the Valley; residents in the Hope should expect the same response time as those in East End. Response times on the smaller outlying will be more challenging. Moreover, to achieve the relative response time for most areas, the government will have to remap and fund fire and rescue and ambulance stations.

Park and Recreation Department


Park and recreations contribute immensely to making a community a great place to live, work, and play. Further, recreation contributes to improved physical well-being, emotional health, etc. Consequently, the VI should invest in and operate high-quality parks and recreation facilities. Thus, thinking outside the sandbox, I suggest creating a Park and Recreation Department under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour. The department's roles and responsibilities can include managing and operating beaches, parks, sports and athletics fields, Ellis Thomas Downs, park mowing, roadside tree trimming/ditch mowing/landscaping, scheduling sports and athletics events, scheduling plays and concert series, managing Festival(s)(?), etc.

Environmental Protection and Preservation


Tourism is a vital sector of the economic twin-pillars (tourism and financial services). The fulcrum of tourism is the environment, primarily the sea. Other environmental resources include archaeological sites, historic sites, historic facilities, heritage attractions, nature tourism, marine dive sites, etc. Tourism is both land and marine-based, with the sea being a significant draw for both bareboating and land-based visitors. Consequently, actions must be taken to maintain it in a healthy state, i.e., maintaining high water quality, protecting reefs, seabed, mangroves, and marine flora and fauna.

The protection must also extend to the 12-mile territorial sea and the200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EEZ may offer blue economy economic opportunities, i.e., fishing, aquaculture, renewable energy sources (wind, thermal, wave), non-renewable resources (oil, gas), pharmaceutical products, and so on.

Thus, the government must effectively manage environmental resources for economic growth and development yet protect and preserve them for the use, quiet, enjoyment, and benefit of current and future generations. Polluting, contaminating, and degrading environmental resources pose the risk of limiting domestic use and enjoyment and driving visitors away to competing destinations.

Air Transportation and Tourism


Accessible and affordable civil air transport has substantial economic and social benefits, especially for small, remote tourism destinations such as the VI. Tourism is one-half of the VI's economic twin pillars; financial services, the other half. The VI, like other regional tourism competitors, is heavily dependent on air transport. However, the VI does not currently have any direct or non-stop flights from major markets, i.e., London, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Toronto, New York, Atlanta, Miami, etc., into Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (TBLIA)(EIS). Non-cruise visitors to the VI fly into VC Bird International, Antigua; Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Martin/Sint Maarten; Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, Puerto Rico; etc., taking smaller aircraft into TBLIA. Or fly into Cyril E. King International Airport, St. Thomas, USVI, and take a marine ferry over to Road Town or West End, Tortola, VI.

Moreover, to enhance its competitiveness or perhaps to promote its national sovereignty, independence, pride, bragging rights, etc., Virgin Islanders have a burning yearning for direct or non-stop flights into TBLIA. The VI faces numerous challenges in making this happen, i.e., passenger load factor (PLF), air and land sides challenges (runway length), environmental issues, refueling capacity and capability, maintenance service capability, cost, etc. What is the cost per capita for a passenger/visitor to disembark/embark at TBLIA?

Nonetheless, acquiring and sustaining direct or non-stop flights into TBLIA comes down to simple airline economics, especially PLF. Typically, the air transport business is capital- and labor-intensive, highly safety conscious, providing a razor-thin profit margin. Consequently, a structurally sound, comprehensive cost-benefit analysis is necessary before committing to the substantial potential investment that may be needed to bring direct or non-stop flights. Nevertheless, few, if any, airlines will start or continue a direct or non-stop flight(s) if the profitable PLF is not sustainable. And without a sustainable, profitable PLF, the government has to subsidize the airline operations to attract carriers. This cost will be in addition to the land and air sides investment.

Finally, the right to vote is foundational to other rights and is a vital part of the democratic process. Consequently, all Virgin Islanders regrettably and curiously didn't always have the right to vote; it was the province of landowners who could pass a literacy test. Peaceful protests, agitation, and sacrifices by many national heroes, i.e., Theodolph Faulkner, etc., brought about universal suffrage in 1954. As such, all eligible Virgin Islanders must exercise the hard-fought-for right to vote by registering to vote, voting on election day, and staying engaging post-election. French philosopher Joseph de Maistre is credited with, "Every nation gets the government it deserves;" Thomas Jefferson, "The government you elect is the government you deserve."

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