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Disaster and political challenges in Caricom

ANALYSIS RICKEY SINGH

Sunday, December 29, 2013    

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AS if the combination of slow to negative economic growth, spreading unemployment and criminality were not enough pain for them, devastating floods have now created more widespread suffering for thousands of people in St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, and Dominica.

At the time of writing this column on Friday, reports had confirmed at least 13 deaths, destruction and damage to homes, businesses, infrastructure, and the vital agricultural sector.

While the governments of the three affected islands were engaged in assessing the full extent of destruction and damage, expected to run into millions of dollars, the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (CEDEMA) was preoccupied with coming forward with its own estimates with a view to advising on priority areas for immediate and possible future assistance.

The heads of governments of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, and Barbados have already mixed their communicated messages of sorrow with initial pledges of emergency assistance to be identified by the affected countries.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who was quick to publicly declare emergency assistance to St Lucia for a start, is facing a serious environmental problem of her own at home over massive oil spills in the Gulf of Paria last week.

The spills have sparked claims by the company of likely sabotage, while the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) is demanding that the affected well be urgently destroyed to avoid further damage and disruption to lives.

Two crucial reports

Meanwhile, in what may be cautiously welcome news, the World Bank announced on Boxing Day that it has decided to pursue a path, as determined during 2013, to "fuse sustainable development" with identifiable future development goals.

This approach, it said, "requires promoting environmental, social and fiscal sustainability..."

Well, it so happens that Caricom governments are yet to disclose if they have received an anxiously awaited report from the Caribbean Growth Forum (CFG), which was launched in Washington last year and comprising representatives of the World Bank; International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank, Caribbean Development Bank, and the University of the West Indies.

This is one of two crucial reports on future development for the Caricom region. The other has to do with the decision by Caricom Heads of Government at their July 2013 summit in Port-of-Spain to establish a Caricom Economic Commission.

The intention is for this commission to address "priority areas for regional fiscal sustainability and resource mobilisation as well as critical infrastructural services, particularly in energy and information communications technology (ICT).

It is of significance to note that their decision to establish the commission would have been taken without being in possession of the far-reaching report expected from the Caribbean Growth Forum.

Barbados scenario

At this time, the broadening social and economic problems are posing increasing challenges for a number of governments within Caricom, with Barbados being most affected at present.

With some 3,000 public sector workers facing retrenchment in the first quarter of 2014, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart is expected to make significant changes in a Cabinet reshuffle that could be disclosed in his coming New Year message to the Barbadian people.

The Cabinet changes are expected to include replacement of controversial Finance Minister Chris Sinckler by minister of agriculture Dr David Estwick, and the appointment of what has long been absent from Mr Stuart's administration — a deputy prime minister. Current thinking suggests that this portfolio is most likely to be allotted to Tourism Minister Richard Sealy.

With a parliamentary majority of two in the 30-member House of Assembly, Prime Minister Stuart has to be most careful in exercising his options for changes in ministerial portfolios, considering also the reported illness of a current Cabinet colleague.

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