Occasional Essays
April 28, 2006
Emigration, Remittances are fine but Wilma died

The World Bank has recently been discussing the role of remittances in developing countries, arguing that in some cases they have been even more important than aid. SVG constitutes a good case study of the role of remittances. Usually one thinks of economic development in terms of agriculture followed by manufacturing and services and the eventual attainment of self-sustaining growth.

In a country as tiny as SVG it has not, so far, been possible for this to happen. Our economic history can best be told in terms of agriculture, aid and remittances. The roles of aid and remittances have in fact been complementary. {{more}}Aid has helped to develop the public sector while remittances have done the same for the private sector. Without aid we would not have had infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals and potable water. It is not possible to have civilised existence without such amenities.

Remittances have enabled many people to have fine houses, fashionable clothes and outfit their children for school.

Remittances are in fact linked with emigration. Our people have been emigrating ever since the abolition of slavery. The earliest migration seems to have been to Latin America. This is evidenced by such place names as Chile village, a district in the Georgetown area; by the great Cuban boxer, Teofilo Stephenson, whose father came from Biabou; and by the Panamanians, whom one used to meet, whose parents came from SVG. The late Dr. Claudius Thomas at one time our High Commissioner in the UK was one such.

In my lifetime, emigration and its impact have been far better documented. The first great migration was to the Dutch West Indies. This was at its height between 1942 and 1945. During that time 16% of our labour force migrated. This had a terrific impact on the agricultural sector. Estate owners, unable to get labour, were glad to sell their land and the emigrants, using their overseas earnings, were able to buy land thus helping to expand the peasantry. In the first National Accounts ever done in SVG, Professor Benham calculated that between 1940 and 1954 remittances amounted to $500,000 per annum, about 20% of our national income. The emigrants had been predominantly male and by the mid 50s most had returned. Their return was marked by an increase in big American cars on the roads and a rise in the number of solidly built wall houses.

More recently, emigration has been to the UK, USA Canada and the Leeward Islands. Of course ever since God ‘mek’ morning our people have been going to Trinidad. Net migration is presently about 2,000 persons per year. It is believed there are some 400,000 Vincentians living abroad. Currently, remittances are estimated at about $50 million per annum. This is a considerable sum of money given that our population is just over 100,000. It helps to explain why the standard of living here is higher than the GDP would suggest, why we are able to import so much while exporting so little and why the banks are so liquid. It should be noted however that the domestic economy has grown so much that despite the present volume of the remittances they are not nearly as important as in the forties when Professor Benham did his study.

Many emigrants to England have returned and their impact on the economy has been similar to that of returnees from the Dutch islands. The scale however is much bigger; the cars are Japanese not American, and the houses, of course, more modern.

Emigration to the UK is still a work in progress for many emigrants are still there, moreover many of their children are English and with their friends account for a significant proportion of our tourists in August.

It will not be surprising if the overwhelming majority of our emigrants to Canada never return to St. Vincent permanently. In the first place, Canada is a new and huge country with many migrants from all over the world. Secondly, it is much nearer to SVG than the United Kingdom and therefore Vincentians there can visit home more readily. Thirdly, unlike emigration to the Dutch islands, which was for a specific purpose and meant to be temporary, emigration to Canada has been of a more general and open nature. Permanent residence of course carries with it the implication that many of our people will die there and as so often with death, there will be some sadness and poignancy to it all. This brings me to Wilma.

Wilma Weekes was my secretary both at the Planning Division and the Development Corporation. She was a bright and bubbly lady. She was also a formidably competent secretary and partly because of this, I encouraged her to migrate to Canada and try her skills in a much bigger world. She did well there and sent for her siblings.

I did not see her for many years as we had migrated to different parts of the world, then one day Mrs. Pam Browne, her life-long friend, informed me that Wilma no longer wanted to live. But why? She had lupus and was tired of taking her medicines. A few weeks later I learned she had in fact died. A gentleman whom I did not at first recognise beckoned to me in our car park. It was Wilma’s brother, down from Canada, who wanted to know if I had been aware that Wilma had died. Pam informed me that her ashes had been returned to St. Vincent. Later I saw a file indicating that the Government had bought the family home to extend a school. It also said what portion of the proceeds should go to Wilma.

As I reflected on the whole episode from her emigration to the disposal of the family home, it confirmed what I always knew: first generation emigrants live in two worlds; the new country but very much so too, in the old country.