The sec­re­tary who dared pub­licly to wish for a bet­ter Saint Lu­cia

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By David Venn

The first is­sue of the St. Lu­cia in 1997 fea­tured George Od­lum on its front cover as the pa­per’s 1996 Man of the Year. Three pages later, read­ers were asked the fol­low­ing ques­tion: “What are you look­ing for­ward to in 1997?” At the time, the is­land was in the grip of a re­ces­sion, so no sur­prise that some of the re­sponses took into con­sid­er­a­tion our labour laws and the di­lap­i­dated ba­nana in­dus­try. Mr. Peter Isaac, the Pres­i­dent of the Ven­dors As­so­ci­a­tion in Cas­tries, told the his failed ven­dor busi­ness had left him liv­ing on the streets. Mr. Isaac’s hope for 1997 was that elec­tions would be called early and a new ad­min­is­tra­tion placed in of­fice that “cares and is will­ing to work to­wards pre­vent­ing the coun­try from go­ing through more re­ces­sion”. Aside from call­ing for the gov­ern­ment’s ex­ile, a priest, car­pen­ter and clerk said much the same, plus want­ing a higher em­ploy­ment rate and an im­proved econ­omy.

Then there was a house­wife named Tina. She wished for bet­ter healthcare. A stu­dent named Vale­cia wanted a Saint Lu­cia free from drug use, gun vi­o­lence and po­lice bru­tal­ity. A taxi driver had his eye out for a bet­ter tourism in­dus­try. And al­most ev­ery­one wished for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion for young peo­ple. The last re­sponse was from a wo­man named Mary Pas­cal, a sec­re­tary. Her big wish for the new year was that it would bring an end to cor­rup­tion and vic­tim­i­sa­tion. “I want to live in a Saint Lu­cia that is sim­ply beau­ti­ful in ev­ery way. Some hope, ah?”

Two decades later Mr. Isaac’s wishes re­main in limbo. At the time he spoke to the

in Jan­uary 1997, Saint Lu­cia’s GDP sat some­where just over US$662 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank (WB). Now, the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency (CIA) says it’s around US$1.7 bil­lion. That’s about a 250 per cent in­crease and ranks Saint Lu­cia 138th in the world. A size­able in­crease, yes, but it’s noth­ing spec­tac­u­lar be­yond in­fla­tion and a re­fur­bished tourism in­dus­try: 65 per cent of Saint Lu­cia’s GDP comes from tourism and for­eign busi­ness. Un­der prime min­is­ter Allen Chas­tanet, the tourism in­dus­try has un­de­ni­ably im­proved and is ex­pected for the fore­see­able fu­ture to be this coun­try’s lead provider.

How­ever, that doesn’t mean other in­dus­tries can’t in­crease their share of the GDP. Agri­cul­ture is also im­per­a­tive to Saint Lu­cia’s econ­omy as it is the coun­try’s main ex­port. The ’97ers would be pleased to know that the ba­nana in­dus­try is ris­ing again, with the most re­cent up­dates com­ing in Jan­uary from the min­is­ter of agri­cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to Ezechiel Joseph, there was a 200% in­crease from 2016 to 2017—and that was dur­ing a rav­aging At­lantic hur­ri­cane sea­son. Those num­bers are ex­pected to grow. Yet, the coun­try’s un­em­ploy­ment rate is still much less than sat­is­fac­tory. Some­one will be sorry to tell the priest, car­pen­ter, clerk and stu­dents who wished to get a job out of school that the un­em­ploy­ment rate ac­tu­ally spiked al­most five per­cent­age points from 1996 to 2017 [WB]. Worse, youth un­em­ploy­ment was at 40 per cent in 2013 [UNICEF]. There are no re­cent num­bers re­lated specif­i­cally to youth em­ploy­ment but the prime min­is­ter has said the em­ploy­ment rates are in­creas­ing, with al­most 1,500 new jobs be­ing de­vel­oped in the IT sec­tor.

Aside from the ex­pand­ing IT field, agri­cul­ture and tourism are the two in­dus­tries peo­ple look at and think: jobs. But it has been over 20 years and whle these in­dus­tries are tra­di­tional, they have pro­duced mea­gre re­sults, both eco­nom­i­cally and in terms of em­ploy­ment. Still, just this week prime min­is­ter Allen Chas­tanet said: “The econ­omy con­tin­ues to show good signs of re­cov­ery. Rev­enues from tax­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly VAT, are up sig­nif­i­cantly from where they have been in the past. The low­er­ing of the VAT rate has now proved to be very, very pru­dent in the fact that we are now col­lect­ing al­most as much money with the 12 and a half per cent as we were with the 15 per cent.”

Over the past 20 years, the gov­ern­ment de­creased its mone­tary in­vest­ments in ed­u­ca­tion. From 1998 to 2016 (clos­est years to rel­a­tive data), the gov­ern­ment has spent about seven per cent less of its to­tal ex­pen­di­ture on ed­u­ca­tion and one per cent less of its GDP [WB]. The cor­re­la­tion be­tween lack of gov­ern­ment in­vest­ing in the fu­ture may have man­i­fested in other sta­tis­ti­cal cat­e­gories. For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to WB, school en­rol­ment dropped al­most 30 per cent from 1997 to 2007. Of course, sta­tis­tics can’t pos­si­bly tell the whole story.

The re­vamp­ing and in­tro­duc­tion of Beane­field Com­pre­hen­sive Sec­ondary School in 2014 was an ed­u­ca­tional tri­umph, as it has be­come one of the top schools on the is­land, fos­ter­ing the minds of Saint Lu­cia’s youth. But even that suc­cess has failed com­po­nents as the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion has proven it has no plan to serve the longevity of en­rolling stu­dents.

Ed­u­ca­tional staff get paid very lit­tle and there have been ac­counts of teach­ers pay­ing out of their own pocket to help feed stu­dents or buy them toi­let pa­per at var­i­ous schools around the is­land. This nar­ra­tive of un­sat­is­fac­tory learn­ing con­di­tions is prov­ing to be costly. UNICEF said in a 2015 bud­get-anal­y­sis for chil­dren in Saint Lu­cia that “much of the un­em­ploy­ment in Saint Lu­cia is struc­tural and re­flects the in­abil­ity of the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem to ad­e­quately pre­pare the work­force for the labour mar­ket.”

So let’s turn our heads to those who went to bed on De­cem­ber 31st, 1996 dream­ing of bet­ter healthcare. The

re­cent cov­er­age of Hollinda Allen-Arthur’s tragic story in­volv­ing Vic­to­ria Hospi­tal’s ap­palling mis­han­dling of the death of her new­born, sparked large con­ver­sa­tion about the cur­rent healthcare sys­tem in Saint Lu­cia. As if St. Jude Hospi­tal didn’t al­ready take care of that. These two events alone can make an ar­gu­ment that Saint Lu­cia does not have ap­pro­pri­ate healthcare. The CIA shows that Saint Lu­cia’s life ex­pectancy at birth is tied for 65th in the world at 77.90 years. Com­pared to what some of Saint Lu­cia’s other sta­tis­ti­cal cat­e­gories ex­hibit, this is fairly high. So is this in­dica­tive of our health sys­tem? Or that we get more sun than the peo­ple liv­ing in coun­tries 66 to 224?

The cur­rent state of healthcare in Saint Lu­cia is, seem­ingly, go­ing through quite the tran­si­tional phase with dif­fer­ent healthcare in­surance bro­kers at­tempt­ing to pro­vide ad­e­quate and af­ford­able aid. Or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Sagi­cor and Bea­con are help­ing to bridge the gaps be­tween gov­ern­ment, peo­ple and medicine. Uni­ver­sal Health Care—which was im­ple­mented about a decade ago—has ef­fec­tively made healthcare more af­ford­able for Saint Lu­cians. Although none of these or­gan­i­sa­tions and poli­cies ad­min­is­ter ac­tual healthcare, they at least make the cur­rent healthcare providers more ac­ces­si­ble.

Cur­rently, the prime min­is­ter is try­ing al­le­vi­ate the prob­lem, but has yet to fi­nal­ize any­thing and gain sig­nif­i­cant ground. Chas­tanet has said that he is work­ing with the Euro­pean Union as well as the Pan Amer­i­can Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion to de­velop a na­tional healthcare plan. It is un­clear whether this mo­ment will be re­mem­bered as another gov­ern­ment plan, plagued by failed ex­e­cu­tion, or one of its suc­cesses.

Mov­ing on now to Vale­cia’s wish for no gun vi­o­lence and po­lice bru­tal­ity. In re­sponse to Saint Lu­cia’s un­prece­dented homi­cide rate be­tween 2008 and 2010, the Royal Saint Lu­cia Po­lice Force rolled out Op­er­a­tion Re­store Con­fi­dence, in­tended to stop the killings in the north of the is­land. Dur­ing that time there were 12 killings by the po­lice. The par­tic­u­lar mat­ter re­mains un­re­solved. The press depart­ment of the Royal Saint Lu­cia Po­lice Force has not an­swered our phone calls over the past two weeks.

It’s been over 20 years, and it may be dis­ap­point­ing to think that Saint Lu­cia has not come far­ther than what a few ven­dors, taxi driv­ers, clerks and stu­dents may have liked. This is merely a brief skim of dif­fer­ent sec­tors within the cur­rent so­cio-po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in Saint Lu­cia. How­ever, it does tell us that things don’t un­ravel the way we’d pre­fer be­cause we pub­lished a wish in a news­pa­per. The first step to re­al­iz­ing where Saint Lu­cia wants to be, is to re­al­ize where Saint Lu­cia is. And this is where we are: a po­ten­tially piv­otal mo­ment. What do we want the next 20 years to look like?

It has been over 20 years: have Saint Lu­cians’ wishes come true?

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