Are we a nation?
PART THREE: By William Para Riviere, Historian
Today, seven years later, Government can take pride in that a national programme labeled "Care for the Elderly" aimed at providing care at home to select persons among the island's disabled elderly has been successfully established. Senior citizens above 65 years of age and young persons under 18 now enjoy free health care in hospitals and clinics. Quite unfortunately, the impact of this is minimized by two defects in the system: One, medicinal drugs are almost always in short supply. Two, delivery of such care is severely time-consuming; it is not unusual for persons to spend the whole day at the Casualty Department of Princess Margaret Hospital awaiting service. Further, school-goers are assisted, including with free transportation, books and computers tablets. Children of the poor enjoy greater access to tertiary training, provided at the island's State College. And a "Housing Revolution" has provided basic shelter at no cost to a comparative handful of the most disadvantaged sections of the population, including the Kalinago community.
The Economic Picture
These several projects notwithstanding, the national economic picture is depressing, to say the least. The banana industry is almost a thing of the past, as a result of which farmers exist in desperate straits and, the economy, to be deprived of the enormous multiplier effects which the industry generated. Further, non-banana agriculture has signally failed to step into the breach. A coffee processing plant was set up with Venezuelan assistance, but years later is yet to process a single bean. Tourism is touted as the leading economic sector, but the facts point to a different reality. The island's tourism sector has not made a mark on stay-over visitors. It represents essentially a cruise visitor business in which, because of its all-inclusive nature, very little of the money derived from the product is earned by local actors. Among sister Caribbean countries, the island's tourism sector accounts for by far the lowest number of cruise visitors. In 2008 it accounted for 0.03 per cent of the annual regional total of 55,800, that is to say, about 50 per cent of that of Haiti. Further, the island's tourism earnings stood at an average 18 per cent of G.D.P., while our sister Caribbean islands averaged 29 per cent (41). Today, the island's share is not significantly higher. There is incessant official talk about a link between tourism and agriculture. But such talk is not matched by meaningful action.
In these circumstances, the island's pattern of growth has vitiated against the provision of basic needs to the majority of the population. Following the introduction of the earlier-discussed austerity programme, growth resumed in 2004-05, albeit marginally. The impetus came from a construction boom, recovery of the banana sub-sector and from an inflow of tourists. The trend continued until in 2007 Hurricane Dean intervened. A slight recovery thereafter was followed by an economic downturn in the period, 2009-2013, caused by the advent of a global recession. During that period the G.D.P. experienced a negative growth rate of –0.5 per cent per annum. In the year 2009-2010, tourism earnings declined by 16 per cent and, remittances from nationals overseas, by 51 per cent, as a result of which economic growth fell by 0.3 per cent. The island's economy experienced a 1.0 per cent growth in 2014 (42). In the present, as in the post-independence recent past, optimum exploitation and management of the island's resources to provide wealth has remained forbidden territory.
The truth is that the sale of Dominican citizenship to foreigners in exchange for investment locally represents the single biggest source of foreign direct investment. Save for taxation, it might probably be the single biggest revenue earner to the regime. It constitutes the leading path to our economic development. The dangers to national sovereignty posed by this creeping reality cannot be over-emphasized.
In fact, while there is much economic activity, in the absence of linkages and multiplier effects there are, arguably, neither economic sectors nor an economy in a classical sense. Official estimates for 2015 put the island's unemployment rate at 29 per cent of the labour force. As is well known, such estimates assume that the jobs identified are held on a full-time, continuous basis. In fact, included among them are part-time work, as in domestic services; occasional employment, as in road repair; seasonal employment, as in tourism and agricultural wage-labour; and project employment as in private sector building and construction. In these circumstances, the actual rate of unemployment would be much higher than official figures suggest. Notably from year to year the unemployment heap is hugely increased by the addition of substantial numbers of High School and College graduates.
It is little wonder that instead of decreasing, poverty has increased. And economic inequality has escalated. In 2016 the nominal per capita income stood at $7,362 per annum or $613 monthly. The Leblanc era was noted for its policy of price control. In the present, price control, except in respect of pampas for the disabled, is unheard of. In the period, 2009-2013, inflation grew by 1.4 per cent annually (43). In the event, living standards are dismally low.
Acts of God
Quite obviously, the capacity of the various administrations to satisfy the basic needs of the population has been hampered by factors outside their control. A main such factor has been climatic, namely, the consistent, almost annual coming of tropical depressions, storms and hurricanes and the consequential damage and destruction caused, particularly to agricultural production, roads and housing infrastructure.
In August 1979 Category 5 Hurricane David completely laid waste the banana industry, the lifeline of the population. And, in the following year, Hurricane Allen brought further devastation. A measure of economic recovery did not come to the island until the end of the 1980s and, this, due largely to huge inputs of international donor assistance. In 1995 Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn caused untold damage, including, of course, to the banana industry. In 2007 Hurricane Dean would ravage the banana crop once again. And in 2015 Hurricane Erika caused damage to soil stability, agricultural cultivation, roads and bridges estimated by a World Bank Rapid Damage and Assessment Team at US $484.32 million, the equivalent of 90 per cent of the country's annual Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P). The hurricane took lives and caused landslides which necessitated the relocation of the entire village of Bagatelle in the South-East of the island. Most recently, in September 2016 Hurricane Matthew flattened banana holdings once more.
It might be argued that the problem is less the visitation brought about by hurricanes and other acts of God, than the consistent failure of Governments in the past and present to come to terms with the reality of the climatic factor and, in the event, to re-structure the island's economy so as to cushion and minimize the shocks to agriculture and infrastructure brought about by these recurrent unpredictable events. In the wake of the Hurricane David experience Conversation Number 8 ventilated some ideas on a way forward. But, quite in character, this was confronted by official silence. And there was a strict return to the failed old ways of doing things: Act of God. Devastation. International begging. Temporary relief. Further act of God. And the cycle is repeated. Of course, international assistance in the wake of such divine intervention has historically provided opportunity for corruption and misuse of funding at official levels.
© Copyright, William Riviere, 2016