By Jomo Sanga Thomas*
(“Plain Talk”, Nov. 8, 2019)
In politics, it will do us no good to replace the arrogant with the ignorant, the overconfident with the incompetent. We need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We need the best and brightest who have learned some humility along the way.
These are serious times. After 40 years of Independence, real and meaningful development has eluded us. What we have is really progress on the margins.
The British colonialists left us a broken down education system where few had the chance to advance or excel, and a large percentage of the population remained functionally illiterate, a broken down mono-crop economy in which, by 1990, banana production was under pressure and given a death kick by the Clinton led Dole/Chiquita “ree trade” push in the World Trade Organization (WTO), a physical infrastructure, particularly a road network that left us in the dark ages, a population that was mired in poverty with well over 40% of the people experiencing difficulties to reproduce themselves, a dangerously high infant mortality rate, and a political system that promoted and exploited the divisions among our people.
Today, 40 years after we reclaimed our patrimony and independence, the words of the English novelist Charles Dickens ring true: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”. In SVG, as in the rest of the world, growing equality confirms Dickens observation that “these are the best of times and the worst of times”.
We have trained more Vincentians than ever before, but we do not have the capacity and remain unable to absorb and keep them at home to assist with the development of our country. It is estimated that more than 70% of the university-trained sons and daughters live and work abroad. We remain satisfied with the millions of dollars received annually from our diaspora.
Our road network, projected to receive some attention, remains in a dilapidated state. As we move away from agriculture and into services, especially tourism, the Windward and Leeward highways receive attention to allow for the shuttle of tourists around the country; the village and suburban roads experience benign neglect, while the mountain arteries, so vital to our farmers, have been and are callously disregarded. The colonialists built some vital back and mountains roads to allow our farming communities access. Today, many of them are overgrown by forest. Agriculture be damned! A study of the millions of dollars spent on vehicle spare parts due to the bad roads, will indicate that neglect of the roads amount to an excessive and expensive tax on the people, which further reduces their spending power.
The Vincentian population of 110,000 people can be broken down thusly: approximately 45,000 falls between the ages of 1 and 18; about 10% of the population is over 60 and past retirement age, but many of them are compelled to work in order to survive. The public service employs just over 5,000, and the private sector, in the best of times, employs another 25,000.
Therefore, in a potentially working population of 55,000, just over 30,000 are gainfully employed. A very small percentage of the population carries the awesome responsibility to cater for the rest. This difficult financial situation allows for the growth of “respectable” social prostitution where quid pro quo has become the order of the day.
In 2008, the last Kiara Consultants pegged the country’s poverty rate at 30%. This represented a 7% reduction over the previous study done in 1997. The report also indicated an impressive reduction in indigence from 25% to 2.7%. However, the 2008 study was completed just as the worst world economic and financial crisis since 1929.
This crisis continues unabated, especially for resource starved economies like ours. We can be certain that many of the gains made in the previous decade have been reversed, even in the face of the thoughtful and necessary Zero Hunger Initiative. Proof perfect of this dismal situation and looming problem is evident in the number of vendors on the streets in Kingstown and the roadsides in our towns and villages, and well the frequency with which citizens are forced to beg to make ends meet.
In SVG, Bob Marley’s refrain “We belly full but we hungry” rings loudly. As food joints that sell cheap carbohydrates and oily, fatty foods gain in popularity, the health of our people plunges. Non-communicable diseases such as diabetes (sugar) and hypertension (pressure) have risen sharply. Recently, a respected doctor made the startling, but unsurprising disclosure that more than 70% of the population suffers from these diseases. Childhood diabetes, unheard of a generation ago, is now common.
The economy is more stutter than start, and all of us must have exhaled and said a loud thanks as November rolled in. Yes, we are more fortunate than our Bahamian neighbours, and were spared the wrath of nature’s fury with another devastating hurricane. But there is always next year. Climate change, which accelerates because of global warming, is truly an existential threat.
This then is a sketch of where we are 40 years after the attainment of independence. We have made lots of progress, especially in education, but forced to export our treasures. We have a long road to hoe and could only do so if we recognise that the things that should unite us are far more important than the things that divide and separate us.
We must realise that none of us have all the answers to the many problems which continue to batter us as individuals and as a society. Therefore, the mindless partisanship which sweeps our nation must be arrested. In this regard, our leaders have a most important role to play. A crucial test is upon us as we move closer to the general elections.
Now more than ever, we must demonstrate that we care for our people much more than for the assumption of power or the retention of power. It is not too late for us to undo our undoing.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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