DON’T BANK ON IT: THE QUES­TION OF CON­FI­DENCE IN LO­CAL GOV­ERN­MENTS

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY ED KENNEDY, STAR BUSI­NESS­WEEK COR­RE­SPON­DENT

There’s been ex­ten­sive cov­er­age in the Caribbean and around the world sur­round­ing the re­cent rev­e­la­tions in the re­gion’s fi­nan­cial sec­tor, and its off­shore bank­ing sec­tor es­pe­cially. This is right and ap­pro­pri­ate given the im­por­tance of this is­sue to peo­ple of the Caribbean and beyond. Yet so of­ten this is a story of na­tional gov­ern­ments in­ter­act­ing with other gov­ern­ments. While this is nec­es­sar­ily a fo­cus, the heart of this is­sue is ul­ti­mately one be­tween a Caribbean na­tion’s gov­ern­ment and its vot­ing cit­i­zens. So beyond calls for re­form glob­ally, what de­vel­op­ments have been seen in re­cent times that im­pact this dy­namic?

CIT­I­ZEN­SHIP AND GOV­ER­NANCE IN THE CARIBBEAN

In broad terms, a cit­i­zen’s en­gage­ment with gov­ern­ment has only be­come more dif­fi­cult in re­cent years. This owes to a num­ber of fac­tors in­clud­ing a grow­ing frus­tra­tion with gov­ern­ment sur­round­ing global trends that hit lo­cally. Each na­tion and each com­mu­nity ex­pe­ri­ences them dif­fer­ently, but with com­mon el­e­ments.

The ris­ing cost of liv­ing, di­min­ish­ment of tra­di­tional jobs and emerg­ing so­cial chal­lenges — such as how to main­tain op­er­a­tions in ed­u­ca­tion and health­care when young peo­ple will need to learn dif­fer­ently and life ex­pectancy is in­creas­ing and re­defin­ing what a ‘se­nior’ is — have cre­ated a gulf be­tween what cit­i­zens seek, and what gov­ern­ment can de­liver.

This in turn has seen new ten­sions emerge on a deeper level be­tween cit­i­zens and gov­ern­ment. Beyond the gen­eral du­ties of gov­ern­ment in pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity, mak­ing laws and main­tain­ing es­sen­tial ser­vices, re­cent global phe­nomenons, like Brexit in the UK, have ev­i­denced a strong shift in pub­lic sen­ti­ment.

Since the end of World War II the post­war lib­eral or­der has seen demo­cratic na­tions around the world by and large sub­scribe to poli­cies that pro­mote in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment, free trade and a spirit of open­ness, wel­com­ing to peo­ple of all back­grounds.

That has changed markedly in more re­cent times. Led most promi­nently by the United States un­der the pres­i­dency of Don­ald Trump, many na­tions are look­ing anew at the idea of iso­la­tion­ism; of

‘pulling back’ from the world com­mu­nity, and fo­cus­ing on their own af­fairs at home. This aim is pur­sued even though it seems im­pos­si­ble for any na­tion in the 21st cen­tury so in­te­grated into the global econ­omy to with­draw, and it will only grow harder in fu­ture.

The same ap­plies to eco­nomics, where pro­tec­tion­ist poli­cies have looked to re­place free trade ones; again, of­ten re­gard­less of whether such poli­cies ac­tu­ally pro­tect strug­gling in­dus­try or en­dan­ger it more.

The new im­mi­gra­tion de­bate seen in many na­tions is also of­ten viewed as not merely one about im­mi­gra­tion but about a push­back against mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism by some vot­ers.

A BAD TIME TO LACK GOOD FAITH

Many vot­ers con­tinue to feel dis­af­fected and it can be­come a dan­ger­ous cy­cle. As dis­af­fected vot­ers don’t en­gage, then the qual­ity of in­put (and pres­sure when nec­es­sary) on a gov­ern­ment from cit­i­zens di­min­ishes in turn.

For many years the prom­ise of tech­nol­ogy has been fore­cast in this space as a bea­con that would make it eas­ier and fairer for cit­i­zens’ en­gage­ment with gov­ern­ment. While there is real prom­ise, there is also the re­al­ity that progress ide­ally would have oc­curred sooner. Op­ti­mists are right to have great hopes for dig­i­tal democ­racy but it’s also plain that peo­ple can­not wait for­ever, es­pe­cially as the dan­ger of voter dis­af­fec­tion comes at a time when the demo­cratic sys­tem is be­ing tested by ex­ter­nal pres­sure. Not only has the past decade seen pow­er­ful au­thor­i­tar­ian rulers as­sert them­selves anew on the global stage, but also do­ing so via in­sid­i­ous means.

Long gone are the days when a for­eign gov­ern­ment re­quired a phys­i­cal pres­ence to threaten a na­tion’s se­cu­rity in­side its borders. In its place is the ca­pac­ity to in­ter­fere in elec­tions, at­tack crit­i­cal na­tional in­fra­struc­ture and even just sim­ply un­der­mine the ca­pac­ity for cit­i­zens to com­mu­ni­cate clearly and openly with their gov­ern­ment, free of pro­pa­ganda and other in­tru­sions.

Cer­tainly there is never a good time for cit­i­zens to feel a fa­tigue with democ­racy.

But with the grow­ing tech­no­log­i­cal power of au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments to not only con­trol their cit­i­zens at home but project power abroad, it can be said that this era is an es­pe­cially bad time for such a de­vel­op­ment. Yet, as a re­sult of big global chal­lenges be­ing be­ing vis­i­ble within the lo­cal con­text across many na­tions, the in­ter­weav­ing of the two is es­sen­tially un­avoid­able.

It is here, es­pe­cially, that many peo­ple of the Caribbean can feel a unique frus­tra­tion

when it comes to the on­go­ing chal­lenges of deal­ing with the rev­e­la­tions of the Panama and Par­adise Pa­pers, and what new re­forms within the off­shore bank­ing sec­tor across re­gional na­tions en­tails.

The re­form process here not only de­mands more time and en­ergy in gov­ern­ment of­fices around the re­gion, but in some in­stances has high­lighted sys­temic chal­lenges within the gov­ern­ing process. In do­ing so, it has com­pounded the raw feel­ing of frus­tra­tion — in­deed, anger — that many vot­ers have held for a long time.

THE LO­CAL PAIN OF GOV­ERN­MENT COR­RUP­TION

Right now these chal­lenges are be­ing seen most vividly in Haiti. Re­cent weeks have seen two killed as thou­sands took to the streets in anti-cor­rup­tion protests fol­low­ing the re­lease of a gov­ern­ment re­port sur­round­ing the al­leged in­volve­ment of two for­mer prime min­is­ters in a PetroCaribe em­bez­zle­ment scan­dal.

It’s also been seen else­where, and af­firms it is not sim­ply a ques­tion of lead­ers, but of sys­tems. As Ja­maican lawyer Greg Christie has ob­served in writ­ing of his own na­tion, progress on cor­rup­tion will not oc­cur if in­sti­tu­tions them­selves are structurally flawed.

It’s also been seen here in Saint Lu­cia which, over the last year, lost ground in Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional’s Cor­rup­tion Per­cep­tions In­dex, slip­ping 5 places from 55th to 60th in the world where na­tions are ranked as least cor­rupt.

De­ci­sive re­forms to ad­dress the off­shore bank­ing is­sues are not only in the in­ter­est of lo­cal gov­ern­ments in their diplo­matic re­la­tions with global stake­hold­ers, but also with their own cit­i­zenry.

After all, it’s not hard to fol­low the ar­gu­ment that cit­i­zens of a na­tion with por­ous off­shore bank­ing laws are not the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries, but in fact the great­est vic­tims, of its egre­gious and odor­ous flaws.

But any fram­ing of the off­shore bank­ing sec­tor as a story of the ‘peo­ple vs the power’ would be un­ac­cept­able. Yes, lo­cal gov­ern­ments face pres­sure abroad, but it’s their cit­i­zens who re­quire re­forms most.

Haitian demon­stra­tors ask: “Where is the PetroCaribe money?”

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