September 14, 2012
The vending challenge: Comprehensive solution needed

Fri, Sept 14, 2012

No one can deny that St. Vincent and the Grenadines has a serious challenge to sort out the chaos in its physically limited capital city, Kingstown. The limitations imposed by both geography and haphazard human activity are rapidly creating havoc in the capital.

Thus, the initiative taken this week by Transport, Works and Urban Development Minister, Julian Francis, to meet with all stakeholders in a public consultation at Victoria Park was a most welcome one. Unfortunately, history does not give a great deal of hope for any lasting solution.{{more}} There have been similar consultations before, raising hopes and even bringing about some improvement, only for the rut to set in again. Indeed, the consistent deterioration in the state of the town may well have to do with the sporadic and intermittent nature of official interventions and a failure to insist on adherence to rules, regulations and agreements. The same can be said about squatting in general, in the entire country.

As a consequence, the general appearance of the capital city has worsened and tensions and conflicts between all those who use it have increased. Formal business people are pitted against informal entrepreneurs (vendors), the state is coming under pressure from all sides and even the right of passage through the town is becoming more challenging daily. At the heart of all this is the prolonged economic slump, throughout the region and much of the world which is restricting the space for finding solutions.

That economic crisis is driving the proliferation of vending, for as more and more persons find fewer opportunities for survival and growth in their normal area of activity, they tend to turn to vending on the streets. “Man/Woman must live”, is the excuse, but this basic right cannot justify a resort to chaos and disorder. Ironically, that chaos itself is a barrier to economic progress. Out of it is spawned intense cut-throat competition, environmental degradation, sanitation and health problems, all exacerbated by a growing army of lawless vagrants, many of them victims of drug abuse.

Naturally, such a situation cannot be allowed to continue. But in seeking a comprehensive solution, there is an added complication – the intervention of partisan politics. It is no secret that some of the vendors most opposed to attempts to regulate their areas of activity are supporters of the Parliamentary Opposition and, given the politically-charged atmosphere which persists in the country, this makes level-headed reasoning more difficult. It does not help the situation either, that the two persons most prominently involved on either side of the political spectrum, Senator Francis, and Parliamentary representative for Central Kingstown, St. Clair Leacock, are not exactly Sunday-school teachers where the rough and tumble of politics is concerned.

Surely, the unfortunate clash which occurred on Tuesday could have been avoided, if, on the one hand, Mr. Francis had sought to involve the Parliamentary representatives for the Kingstown constituencies in seeking a settlement, bearing in mind the politics of the situation. On the other hand, even in the absence of such an invitation for a united approach, Mr. Leacock and his fellow MPs for Kingstown, Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace and West Kingstown MP Daniel Cummings, could have offered their support for the effort to find a solution.

It is also unfortunate that no representative from the formal business sector, those who have complained about being affected, chose to address the consultation and offer solutions. They cannot be “too big” to mix and engage, their perspectives are very much needed in the exchange of views.

So where do we go from here? Some solutions have been mooted, but one major difficulty that the vendors themselves must seek to overcome, is one of organisation. The formal business people are represented by the Chamber of Commerce and the Employers’ Federation, but the vendors have yet to gel themselves into a united body which can speak for them. To rely on politicians in such a situation is to court disaster, there is no substitute for self-organisation. There are several non-governmental organisations which can assist them and it is only prudent that they take advantage of such possibilities.

Solutions are needed both on a macro, long-term level and more immediately, for the short-term, but there is also a need for entities to agree to any comprehensive settlement and to ensure that agreements are implemented. In the case of the State, it is clear that the lack of a legitimate local government structure has undermined faith and confidence in a weak Kingstown Board administration, which is over-reliant on the central government. The monstrosity which is the Kingstown Market, Government’s failure to meet some of its commitments and the failure to zone and enforce regulations, are all part of part of the problem and addressing them will contribute to the solution.

Above all, we urge, let us avoid political partisanship, we have too much to lose.