Occasional Essays
July 31, 2008
Humbug and the Airport

It is time we put aside all the humbug and get on with the airport as a national project – the largest in our country’s history.

There are only two relevant questions:

1. Is there any justification for building the airport?

2. Are we doing so using the best available option?{{more}}

When Milton Cato’s (of blessed memory) Labour Party acceded to office in 1967, he got the British Government to finance a study which considered, amongst other things, whether St. Vincent should have an International Airport. The study (Tourism Development Strategy) concluded that as so many of the neighbouring islands had jet airports, none was needed in St.Vincent. Since that finding St Lucia converted its wartime airport into Hewanorra International Airport. St Kitts built an international airport as did Grenada with the assistance of the Cubans.

In terms of G.D.P. per head these three islands, along with Antigua, which had always had an airport have gone ahead, leaving St. Vincent and Dominica, without international airports, as the two laggards. Social scientists would regard this as empirical evidence that the airport is needed and that the study got it completely wrong as H.W. Dougan of National Properties has always insisted.

It is possible to reach the same conclusion following a different approach. St. Vincent can either have relationships with the rest of the world or it can drop off the edge of the globe and do without cars,medicines, books and all the other things we import. In other words we can go back to living like the Caribs. I am certain there is not a single Vincentian who is interested in going back there. So we have to relate to the rest of the world. The way we do so is by aid, remittances and earnings from the export of goods and services. Aid and remittances are okay, particularly if the aid is going to help you to become self-reliant. However one cannot expect to rely on aid and remittances completely and for ever. The external world will get fed up and dismiss SVG as a ‘Basketcase’. This has already happened to a certain extent. Thirty years ago our main aid donors were the U.K., Canada and the U.S.A. Today we hardly get any assistance from these countries.

We have therefore to try to earn our keep through the export of goods and services. I have explained, even to the annoyance of some of my good friends, why it is very difficult, not to , say impossible for us to earn a significant amount of our keep by continuing to export agricultural goods. So we have turned to tourism. Countries like Austria do very well out of tourism. They would do well even if they did not have an international airport. Their country is surrounded by six or seven rich countries whose citizens simply drive across the borders all year round. I hear that even Vietnam may one day find itself in a similar position. Unfortunately unless we can drain the Caribbean Sea ands the wider Atlantic Ocean, St.Vincent would never be in this position. Air access is crucial. People like to go on one stop journeys. They dislike going from a big aircraft to a much smaller and seemingly rickety one.

There is a human aspect to this also. Many of our people find that the Bajans are rude to them when they have to go through their airport. This is not an unusual phenomenon in developing countries. At the end of Idi Amin’s regime there were few international flights to Uganda and Ugandans had to go through Kenya. I would stand in line and hear the Kenyans roughing up the Ugandans. So that when President Musoveni came to power and restored international air connections, among other things, I rejoiced with the Ugandans. So much for the first question!

The second point is whether we are using the best available option for building the airport. This is a non-issue. The only option on the table is the one the Government is pursuing. Through a remarkable confluence of circumstances triggered by Prime Minister Gonsalves we are able to embark on the construction of the airport.

Because of the size of the project, the length of time it is taking to construct, and the source of financing I have always regarded any statement about its cost and date of completion as indicative, not definitive. I do hope that my friend of long standing, Mr. Glenford Stewart, with his busy engineering practice, would complete assignments he has outstanding and not waste too much time on pointless exercises.