Where do we go from here?

by Yao Atunwa

The unprecedented event that is still unfolding in the region and globally, the Covid-19 pandemic as it was declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March 2020, will no doubt leave an impact unmatched by any event in modern world history; thus, notwithstanding the brutal destruction of the lives of millions of Africans at the hands of European colonisers/enslavers, or the annihilation of the Tainos and other indigenous peoples in our part of the world from outright slaughter in conjunction with the ravage of foreign diseases.

As Prime Minister of Barbados and the current Chairperson of Caricom summarily stated in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (29 April), “It has been the most destabilising event for our countries.”

The impact of this virus on the lives of people in the region — one that is very dependent on travel and trade and in particular tourism — has been horrendous thus far; more so in the form of an economic slowdown directly resulting from the shutdown of most of the commercial activities as well as the borders in our little Grenada (and similarly across other Caricom states). Reports are in from economists both in the region and those situated at the United Nations and elsewhere that the region is set to lose greatly from the absence of a viable tourism sector precisely because of the region’s heavy reliance on that sector, accounting for near or over 50% of the GDPs of many Caricom states, including Grenada’s. These economists have also highlighted a contraction of over 20% for many economies in the region, a conservative estimate, for the more realistic figure is more in the neighbourhood of 30% and more due to the direct and indirect role that tourism serves in these economies, as it tends to boost other sectors and businesses such as construction and food and beverage, and an array of service-based and auxiliary businesses.

I should add that the projection is that tourism will not return for the remainder of the year and most of 2021 for a number of factors all stemming from the ongoing pandemic and the economic fallout faced by workers in the developed countries in North America and Europe, the major tourist markets for the region.

For Grenada, tourism has been the primary foreign exchange earner for more than 2 decades, causing it to be the number one sector in our economy followed by construction and education. Agriculture, which used to be the largest sector and foreign exchange earner as late as the 1970s and 1980s (in spite some clear challenges and deficiencies on many fronts during that reign), has been relegated to the fourth spot because of lack of vision. But as we have come to realise in a most obvious manner, our heavy reliance on tourism is not justifiable, not when it actually exposes our vulnerability in the event of economic shocks brought on by economic or health/environmental conditions such as this most glaring one on our hands that originated beyond our shores (as most have).

Moreover, the unsustainability of this sector is reflected in the very structure of tourism as an industry, with most of the investment made is in the form of foreign direct investments in the first instance; not to mention the posture of these establishments with their own reliance on sourcing their food and other supplies from foreign shores, which of course is facilitated by major concessions from our government in the form of tax holidays that last 20-plus years. The arrangement in no uncertain terms is extractive and exploitative for our economy and the region’s economies, when on average around 90 to 80% of the profits generated leave our shores and that of other Caricom states (Jamaica, a much larger destination, only lately started retaining 35 cents on the dollar). With tourism clearly holding the most important place in our current economic model at the moment, it is no surprise that it was uppermost in the minds of government leaders as they sought to provide financial support to businesses during this downturn, so much so that the sector was highlighted as the government was launching the stimulus package and in particular its income support to hoteliers in maintaining payroll for their staff during this disruptive period; as well as workers in other areas of the economy that are being negatively impacted.

As announced on 20 March 2020, the identified hospitality-based business persons are particularly intended for the income support, including public bus operators, taxi drivers, and tourist vendors. $10 million for unemployment benefits would be provided through the National Issuance Scheme (NIS), as well as the expansion of soft loans to small businesses through the Grenada Development Bank.

Equally interesting, at the same token, is the government’s attitude towards farmers and fisherfolk in the midst of its planning for the lockdown. These workers’ general inability to directly benefit from the stimulus package demonstrates quite frankly the challenge with why we are so dependent on tourism in the first place. It starts with our mindset.

The Covid-19 Task Force, which is comprised of the Acting Commissioner of Police, medical personnel, along with other senior government officials, and other stakeholders from the public sector and civil society, is tasked with administering the Emergency Powers Regulations. As the reality bears itself, the statutory rules and orders therein failed to declare farmers and fisherfolk as essential workers. The government’s reason for not deeming farmers and fisherfolk as essential workers, as was explained by the prime minister in several press briefings, is that such decision will lead to, in essence, a turnover or compromise of the intended statutory rules and regulations; citing a challenge in identifying such persons or anyone for that matter as farmers or fisherfolk, since there is no database with readily available data to verify the identity of the nation’s famers and fisherfolks and hence the government’s cited challenge with providing income support to this same category of workers. The plea for farmers to attend to their livestock immediately surfaced after those pronouncements by government. And it was ignored until weeks later, as was the case in the granting of fishermen the opportunity to ply their trade.

This apparent misstep by government in this instance in particular one can attribute to the overall ill-informed approach to development by government, because in no country where self-reliance is a guiding mantra would farmers and fisherfolk not be deemed essential workers, so food can be produced continually as a priority, as well as to ensure the protection of the very assets of farmers, given the very vulnerable nature of those assets. I recall the mention of one provision with respect to farmers made during those press briefings in late March and early April, which was the purchase of produce by the Marketing and National Importing Board (MNIB) supposedly as a support mechanism. I supposed the farmers ought to harvest their produce on the days designated for shopping for the general public in the various parishes, given that they are not considered essential workers and to add, provisions were not spelled out in the Emergency Powers Regulations under no section. This nonchalant behaviour on the part of the government would eventually pose an obvious challenge to particularly livestock farmers and those responsible for the nation’s chief export corps, namely nutmeg and cocoa. The situation came to a head at the ending of April after representatives from both the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association (GCNA) and the Grenada Cocoa Association (GCA) issued their grievance to the public with regarding their interest in government allowing for the purchasing of these crops for processing, so that they do not go to waste and farmers stand to lose. After the public shaming with the issuance of a joint press release on 27 April, finally a decision materialised on 1 May to allow for the commencement of the purchase of nutmeg scheduled for 4-8 May. No word as of yet regarding the purchase of cocoa.

In similar vein, the nation’s poultry farmers were plagued with red tape or more so indecision or perhaps delayed action (in any regard, let us call it inaction, to be most general) in addressing an immediate need for processed feed for over 70,000 birds, after the closure of Carib Agro-Industries (by the Ministry of Health due to several workers being tested positive for Covid-19): the principal supplier of processed feed on island. The frustration that farmers were having stemmed directly from the need for both the minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Yolande Bain-Horsford, and the Trade Minister, Oliver Joseph, to ensure the granting of an import licence in light of their inaccessibility to the feed in stock at Agro-Industries’ plant and thus the emergency need to order feed from neighbouring Trinidad (and Barbados to arrive at a later date), after not being able to obtain feed for one week. But the import licence was not granted at 8 am on Saturday, 2 May 2020 when the feed arrived on port to facilitate urgent dissemination to the farmers that were stationed at various points. 900 bags of feed were being held up at the St George’s Port because the import licence that was applied for some 3 days prior and supposed to be fast-tracked with the promise from Minister Oliver on Friday night, to allow for clearing of the bags, was being delayed without clear or stated reason.

Apparently, after the dispatch of a statement from President of the Grenada Poultry Association, Jason Phillip, to the Grenada Today newspaper and circulated, the feed was cleared, and a statement was issued by Government Information Services sometime around noon that “Collaborative efforts between the Government of Grenada and the Grenada Association of Poultry Farmers, resulted in a shipment of emergency feed arriving on Saturday, for immediate distribution to farmers across the country.”

This lukewarm disposition displayed to farmers and agricultural production in general (in all actuality) by government says a lot about our prioritisation of fundamental principles of development or rather a lack thereof, in this peculiar case. How can a nation that is laden with a grossly imbalanced food import bill truly seek to reverse such trend, to begin to put to better use of the nation’s foreign reserves and attain greater reliance on locally produced foods? Is self-reliance even a priority on the minds of our government leaders, when they have much difficulty acknowledging that our ability to provide our own food sources as a nation is vital and strategic in confronting a pandemic such as this one, as is in the interest of the overall health of our economy in light of the overall impact? Nutritious foods at that!

This awkwardness or flatfootedness, if you will, exhibited by our current government denotes its leaders very value system. I am moved to declare that what matters most for them is seeking to essentially continue with business as usual, though the opposite sentiment is being echoed by the administration at this juncture. Yes, the current pandemic is resulting in new approaches to the regulation of the public, to avoid the spread of the virus. In that respect obviously it is not business as usual but rather extraordinary and unprecedented manoeuvres. On the other hand, the government’s approach to national development I will contend has not changed one iota, even as the prime minister launched his task force to come up with recommendations for an economic recovery, with a target date of 15 May to provide the first report.

One can only anticipate a continuation of the lopsidedness with government’s reliance on foreign direct investments, IMF and World Bank loans in the immediate and long-term periods to supplement the very little surplus on hand in spite the boasting of economic growth of 5% for the last several years. For one, it is difficult to have reserves in substantial quantity when the servicing of those same loans we seem addicted to as an anaemic patient remains a main central feature of governance. Hence, the reason why we have resorted to selling our nation’s passport to wealthy foreign nationals seeking a second or third passport for them and their relatives.

All indication is currently present that the aim is to protect the tourism sector the way we ought to be protecting our natural environment and farming; and that government still intends to develop the rural parishes with foreign direct investment in a manner that is reflective of the described current economic development model, as we are witnessing happening in La Sagesse, St David, with an even a bigger project slated for the Levera National Park, in St Patrick. In La Sagesse, we have already witnessed the total destruction of mangrove trees around the salt pond in that vicinity with the clearing of the lands in preparation for construction of a supposedly environmentally-conscious luxury brand hotel, Six Senses, owned by Range Development. The outcry came from concerned citizens and the Willie Redhead Foundation about the devastation of those trees and the eventual adverse impact to the ecosystem of that environ reported to be a principal site for various migratory and local species of birds to nest. With that being said, would we now see a shift in the approach to development of the natural environment because Covid-19 has changed the landscape for sustainable development, as the prime minister had expressed as he rolled out this task force, which is comprised of some 7 sub-committees responsible for key productive areas of the economy?

What will take place with unemployment returning to over 35% (a conservative estimate in all actuality)? Is the government planning to use the US$22.4 million in loans recently secured from the IMF with immediate disbursement to directly create avenues for employment? One is not suggesting that loans and grants are not needed from time to time, especially in the event of an emergency such as this one. Needless to say, the challenge with securing concessionary loans from the IMF and the World Bank has been major for small developing states such as ours absurdly deemed to be middle (and high income) states. But one will not hear the prime minister lament on such, as would Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, citing the need for such loans and other provisions that will allow those countries to better deal with economic shocks resulting from economic, health or environmental events, all because we have yet to overcome the depravations entrenched and sustained during the colonial epoch. This point about the prime minister’s lack of interest in educating the public on these matters may not seem to be a critical one, but it is, because a leader who is seeking to truly transform a nation for economic prosperity, overall security, and a more just reality will seek to educate the population about these realities on the international scene, as they are linked with those on the regional and national scene.

To not protest and call attention to the treatment of our civilisation as Grenadians and Caribbean people by the dominant forces is to appear complicit and/or bamboozled to that order, i.e., the Washington Consensus. Perhaps because one thinks that there are rewards for not speaking out against those stark realities on international platforms such as the United Nations. Specifically, as the disposition relates to the local population, the current government leaders simply interpret no responsibility on their part because they do not see the value in doing so. I say, to not inform the Grenadian people of such realities, is to grossly handicap them if they should be mobilised for the development and transformation of the economy and society, to benefit all citizens of the tri-island state.

The motif of the People Revolutionary Government headed by Maurice Bishop was a straightforward one, by contrast. They made it a duty to keep the masses informed about these realities as they were being mobilised for a reorganisation of the productive capacities of the nation, principally the people themselves and the natural resources of the country. The productive capacity under the auspices of such leadership boomed to the extent that the Grenadian economy grew throughout that 4-year period, reporting some 15% cumulatively by 1982, while a world recession was happening and hostility from the US Government, I might add.

To do differently as it relates to the first step of informing the masses, I would like to stress once again, it is too big a compromise of the democratic principles and ultimately our intelligence and dignity, which consequently will only result in our compromised security economically and otherwise. If one looks carefully and analyses the neglect highlighted on this occasion on the part of the current government, it very much has to do with their over-reliance on capital and in particular foreign direct investment capital as an instrument for national development as compared to reorganising the great potentiality of people, the workers in the society with mobilising the little we have at our disposal, as was done during our revolutionary period, the period in our history we had witnessed the most social progress. You see, my friends, through our ostensibly accepted role of being a dependent state, we have actually accepted a passive posture, and that is transmitted throughout the population by those charged with providing leadership. Consequentially, as a nation, we are hardly seeking to handle our problems the way a freedom-loving/seeking people tend to preoccupy themselves, in all earnest. In fact, we have to desire to build a new socioeconomic development model to replace the one afforded to us by the architects of the Washington Conesus; and everyone has to be on the same page with such intent. We will not be able to break the cycle of dependency manifested in over-reliance on loans and foreign direct investments and tourism – all parasitic in nature under the current global economic model/order.

As you would have gathered thus far, I do not have confidence in a genuine transformation by the current administration, which is desperately needed, simply because I do not have confidence in the leadership of the prime minister and his cabinet. In my assessment, he does not possess the consciousness nor sensitivity and thus the disposition to inspire and nurture the climate for the reconstruction of our economy, because that is what it will require to transform our economic and social realities, to place us on a solid course for self-reliance as an independent state. Obviously, I did not pose the question demonstrated in the title and throughout this article solely because I can gauge the response from the current administration. The question is one for all Grenadians to contemplate and activate: Where do we go from here? I ask it in all earnest, which by the way facilitated a critical view of the current leadership in government. We certainly have a lot of work to do!

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