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Wednesday, July 17, 2024


The Virgin Islands Economic Development Summit held July 24 on St. Thomas and July 25 on St. Croix has stimulated a public dialogue and discussion that needs to be ongoing. During the 23rd Legislature, I worked with the Post Audit Division and the Finance Committee chair, Senator Lorraine Berry. With Sens. Roosevelt David and David Jones, Sen. Berry organized an economic summit that took place March 18-19, 1999. As the senior researcher-adviser to the post auditor and the Finance Committee chair, I was intimately involved in the formulation of the summit.
I wrote two reports in that regard. The first was a public policy document that was rejected as too "political." The second was simply a list of 175 suggestions for economic reform. Many of them ended up in the Five-Year Operating and Strategic Financial Plan submitted to the governor by his Economic Recovery Task Force. The majority bloc of the 23rd Legislature adopted a piecemeal approach to implementing some of the suggestions, but the political consensus necessary between the executive and legislative branches did not emerge.
This week's Economic Development Summit was very similar to the previous summit two years ago. Many members of the majority bloc of the 24th Legislature were in the non-majority of the 23rd Legislature. In fact, some of the organizers of this summit were the most vociferous critics of the last summit.
What a difference a term makes! At last, all of our leaders accept the principle that we must bring the public and private sectors together and respectfully communicate our different views. Finally, outside models, external investors, different theories and trained experts (with Ph.D.'s in economics and political science, and not "street sense") can inform us on ways to create a modern economy.
Yes, it took an academic from Singapore to tell us what we already knew. We must invest in human capital, and we must shift our focus from a service-based economy to a knowledge- based economy. How? We must invest our precious resources in modernizing public education. We must move heaven and hell to find more funds to transform public education as we know it.
You need not agree with me. Ask guest Dr. Linda Low from the National University of Singapore, and review the experiences of all Newly Industrialized Countries (NIC's). Singapore prioritized public education as the No. 1 area to be transformed. Modern schools were built and the university system was upgraded in order to provide the institutional capacity to guide the society. I will not even discuss the cultural issues — they deserve separate commentaries. Our political leadership must commit more resources to public education immediately in order to begin a structural change in the economy.
Further, Singapore created institutions that would intervene in the economy whenever necessary. It is absurd in any developing economy that a specific industry, say tourism, does not have a related public institution such as a "School of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Leisure Services." Despite the dominant presence of Amerada Hess in St. Croix, there is no "Institute of Petrochemical Production." How can any society allow tourism and petrochemicals to feature so prominently without creating public institutions to monitor, analyze or simply cooperate with them?
In Singapore, as in the case of all other NIC's in Asia, permanent institutions have been created to facilitate the development of private or state-owned corporations. We have not done this. We do not have a "Council of Economic Advisers" that is expert in economic development. Our political leaders have no problem inviting an expert from a university in Asia, but they shun economists from their own University of the Virgin Islands. We have two economists with Ph.D.'s — Dr. Simon Jones-Hendrickson on the St. Croix campus and Dr. Bruce Smith on the St. Thomas campus. Why aren't they consulted? In our political system, why isn't the internal intellectual community tapped? How can our political leaders in one breath say we must create a "knowledge-based economy" and in the next propose cutting the UVI budget in order to provide scholarships to other universities?
A dictum of political science is that all progressive societies pursue self-interests. It is in the best self-interest of present and future political leaders to invest in human resources. We would be wise to resolve our endemic political crises in a socially just and fair manner. As an unincorporated territory which will remain close to the American model for the immediate future, we must create a new political consensus and will in order to tackle our social, economic and political problems.
Our elected officials have crossed an intellectual threshold by holding two consecutive summits that said the same thing: The political system must change, and our economics must adjust to globalization. Be they conscious of this or not, our senators have accepted the need for change. Will they take the next step and transform the economic system?
Perhaps that is asking too much, but the 24th Legislature, and future legislatures, will have to make tough choices and necessary sacrifices. If you doubt me, ask the citizens of Singapore. Economic development has a price that must be paid. Prosperity is not free, and one generation must be willing to forgo luxuries — social habits, consumption patterns and societal behavior — in order for their children and grandchildren to reap sustainable development.
The 1990s politics will have to end. Race-baiting, ethno-insularism, St. Thomas-St. Croix bickering, excessive partisanship and kleptocratic politics must be thrown into the dustbins of history. We cannot truly imitate Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. We cannot even imitate Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica. We must create our own model based on the present conditions of being a U.S. territory and a Caribbean society.
This will not be easy, but it must be done. We need to investigate the Singapore model a bit more thoroughly. The model is progressive in some respects, but we must carefully select only its good lessons and practices if we seek to adapt it to local conditions. If not, the model is dead on arrival. Virgin Islanders deserve workable formulas and models. We, too, should enjoy the global economy.

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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