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An appeal for critical national dialogue

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If we thought that the problems facing the government and people of St Vincent and the Grenadines were huge given the effects of the COVID -19 pandemic, compounded by the volcanic eruption of la Soufriere, then it is now, face to face with resettlement, rehabilitation and resuscitation of the economy, that we will feel the weight of the burden on the national shoulders.

It must be remembered that this new stage does not occur in isolation from the previous one. Significant areas in the north of the island are still uninhabitable, thousands of people are still out of their homes and communities, forced to depend on assistance just for day-to-day living. Relief and subsistence are still major features, to which we must now add the massive undertaking of recovery and getting both the economy and the livelihood of those affected, directly and indirectly, on the go again.

The situation is not helped by the fact that the problem is a global one, for even rich and powerful countries are continuing to feel the economic disruption, and all around us our neighbours are not in a much more favourable state than we are. It is just that our situation has been exacerbated by the volcanic eruption. One can only shudder to think that we have also entered into the hurricane season with predictions of an “above average” season. Heaven help us if we get a hit!

Such a loaded agenda calls for extraordinary effort on the part of all. While praise must go to the authorities for their handling of the crises so far, such is the enormity and scale of the challenges before us that we would need all hands on deck if we are to succeed. Given the partisan nature of our politics, it almost sounds idealistic to speak of a national effort, but there is simply no other wise approach.

In a highly competitive political atmosphere, it is to be expected that, COVID or not, volcano or hurricane, there will be matters of governance and accountability which will reveal differences in approaches and pit supporters of one side against those on the other. Yet there are even more important matters which affect us all and on which the input and co-operation of even political opponents of the government are needed.

It is heart-warming to note the response, from external sources as well as local persons and entities, to the predicament into which so many have been placed by both the pandemic as well as the explosive volcanic eruptions. Vincentians from all walks of life have been making their contributions in one way or another. The private sector, civil society, the religious community have all played their part, adding to external contributions. We can be proud of this effort, including the selfless contributions of Vincentians overseas. It has laid a basis for continued national co-operation, especially in the more challenging tasks before us.

If we can attain that level of co-operation materially, then it behoves us as well to seek a similar level of input in the resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction effort. Obviously the government is at the helm of such a thrust, but it does not need to be alone in so doing. From time to time, the Government would be required to go to Parliament for approval of measures taken and financial transactions, but what is wrong with trying to receive even wider participation and approval?

We have grown accustomed to stormy parliamentary sessions as the respective parties on either side of the Hose seek public support for their actions. However in the case before us, such is our current situation that we cannot afford to bicker given the magnitude of our challenges.

Is it not therefore wise and appropriate to seek to forge a national consensus on the path forward involving a broad a range of participants around a common programme of recovery and resuscitation? Is it not practicable and desirable to try, at least, and organise a National Dialogue on the recovery process to which all the critical sectors, the political opposition among them, are not only included, but invited to put forward their views?

Already, between Government, NEMO and external donors, there must be some skeletal framework for the recovery programme. It can only help if we share it in dialogue with the critical economic and social actors, seeking their comment and possible buy-in. If successful, we will have the satisfaction of an agreed-upon, common platform for action which can only help the country as we continue to seek external assistance of one form or another.

We have a very rocky road ahead of us as the hardships will begin to be felt more and more. The parlous state of government finances in relation to the huge demands on public resources will test us severely. We cannot afford to be bickering in front of such national tasks. Can we not try?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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