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