Weathering the storm

Terry Less

In Focus Saint Lucia

Prime Minister Kenny Anthony is focusing on restoring the island’s economy and its infrastructure after the country was battered by extreme weather twice in four years

Kenny Anthony UN

© UN Photo/Jennifer S. Altman

The picturesque holiday destination of Saint Lucia often finds itself in the path of hurricanes and storms, in common with Caribbean islands. Every few years, high winds rip through the island, destroying bridges and roads, even claiming lives. The last time this happened was just a year ago when, on Christmas Eve 2013, a storm hit Saint Lucia, Dominica and St Vincent, flooding several of Saint Lucia’s towns and villages, including Castries and Soufriere. Two bridges were swept away, while others were damaged, and a section of a major highway was washed away. Three years earlier, Hurricane Tomas caused damage to plantations and hotels, impacting both the tourist and farming sectors.

Consequently, a programme of infrastructure rebuilding has been underway, with Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony taking a close personal interest in the project, not least because he is also the Minister for Finance, Economic Affairs, Planning and Social Security. “We can no longer build a bridge that lasts ten or 15 or 20 years. We have got to build one that will last 100 years,” he says. “When we spend money, we have to understand that what we are doing is to protect the future generations.”

In the last three years, the government has built 16 bridges. “We promised we would restore the face of Saint Lucia after the battering of Tomas. We kept our promise,” says Anthony. “A number of streets have been repaved in Soufriere and Castries. Clarke Street and the Vieux Fort/St Jude Highway received a much-needed facelift a few months ago. At long last, the people of Banse La Haut will get a brand new road to access their homes.”

At the opening of the Bois d’Orange Bridge – financed by donors that include the Venezuelan government and the World Bank – in December 2014, Anthony appealed to fellow Saint Lucians to focus on the long-term as the country rebuilds itself. “When the government of Venezuela decides to make available US$7.2 million to build bridges, they must be satisfied that the bridges we build will stand the test of time. Don’t believe in quick fixes and mediocrity. We have done what is right for the future security of our country and our people. It has cost us more but there is the added assurance that it will stand the test of time.”

A former academic, Kenny Anthony has been Prime Minister for 13 of Saint Lucia’s 36 years of independence. Having started out as a schoolteacher, he went back to university to study law. He became head of the law department at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus in Barbados, after completing a doctorate at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Anthony won the 1997 election as leader of the Labour Party on a ticket of boosting the economy, reducing crime and improving prospects for the island’s young people. Under his leadership, unemployment was reduced from 22 per cent to 14 per cent – though it has slid back up in recent years – and the economy has grown. Jobs have been created under the Constituency Development Programme, particularly in construction and health care, with a major hospital and ten clinics having been refurbished.

Tourism has led the economic recovery with arrivals up six per cent in 2014 thanks to increases in the numbers of visitors coming from the UK, USA and Canada in particular. The government has also committed to undertake an island-wide wi-fi project, which will not only be a draw for tourists, but will also be used by schools.

On a less positive note, the Anthony government has battled with rising crime rates. In January 2015 a British tourist was killed and his wife injured when armed robbers entered their yacht at Vieux Fort, which followed the robbery of a group of cruise ship passengers on an excursion in 2014. In 2012 an elderly Canadian tourist died from his injuries after being robbed and beaten. In another high-profile killing, British hotelier Oliver Gobat, who lived on the island, was murdered. The UK police offered help with the investigation, but only on the condition that the death penalty be waived in the event of a conviction. Anthony did not welcome the constitutional interference, but, nevertheless, admits that the country does have a problem with organised crime.

The Prime Ministers’s real focus, however, is on the economy. He points out that Saint Lucia was still recovering from a huge knock caused by Hurricane Tomas in 2010 – to the tune of 43 per cent of the country’s GDP – when the Christmas Eve storm hit the island a year ago.

“The economic impact of this most recent devastating event is estimated to represent another seven per cent dent in our GDP,” he says. “This is coming at a time when Saint Lucia is dealing with a very challenging fiscal situation, which is severely undermining our ability to address the developmental agenda of the country and the needs of our people. The situation is further compounded by low foreign direct investment flows and high, pervasive unemployment. Once again, poverty and indigence, once thought to be receding, are increasing at alarming rates.

“It is a vicious cycle. I think that we have all agreed that we can only emerge from this vortex by restoring growth to our economies. The question is simple: how do we do this?”

One national initiative aims to challenge the traditionally laid back Caribbean attitude, with an attempt to make citizens more productive and help Saint Lucian companies become more competitive on the international stage. In October 2014 the country’s National Competitiveness and Productivity Council hosted a Productivity Awareness Week, the theme of which was ‘enhancing productivity is our responsibility’.

The Prime Minister is a big supporter of the idea of enhancing productivity, citing the decline of the banana trade as an indication that the country’s farming sector is not competitive enough internationally. “The drive for increased productivity means that we are committing ourselves to excellence in our efforts, undertakings and workplaces, whatever our station may be. To do so individually and collectively would be a paradigm shift of major proportion,” he says.

“Do we take responsibility for the tasks assigned to us and do them with integrity, honesty and on time? With the advent of social media, do we spend time on our phones or on Facebook? Does the level of work produced justify the wages that are paid?” he asks, adding that these questions apply not only to employees, but also to business owners, and even ministers and civil servants.

With the next elections just a year away, tackling crime and growing the economy are a priority for Anthony’s Labour Party. These two elements are not unconnected: with tourism at the heart of the island’s recovery, prospective visitors need to be assured of their safety, so that the violent crimes against tourists of the last few years come to be seen as an uncharacteristic blip. As it is, travel websites are starting to ask the question: is Saint Lucia worth the risk?


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