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Rebuilding and vulnerability: SVG and La Soufrière

Rebuilding and vulnerability: SVG and La Soufrière

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THIS IS PERHAPS the most difficult article I have written since I started writing for Searchlight. This difficulty arises from the fact that just under two weeks ago, the Soufrière volcano in my beloved St. Vincent and the Grenadines erupted explosively, displacing thousands and creating widespread damage. The situation is certainly heartbreaking and overwhelming; yet even amidst the despair, the outpouring of goodwill from Vincentians at home and abroad, as well as from neighboring islands and the international community has been very touching. This week, I want to focus on two main issues – rebuilding and resilience in the context of natural disasters.

None of us has any idea of what the damage from the volcanic eruption would amount to in dollar terms. It is simply too early for that. However, given the scale of the impact of the eruption on the country’s physical infrastructure and the productive sectors to date, rebuilding is likely to cost hundreds of millions.

I suspect that the rebuilding effort would be likened to a post-war type of reconstruction. For example, after the devastation caused in Europe by World War II, a four-year plan known as the Marshall Plan was crafted to reconstruct cities, industries, and infrastructure heavily damaged during the war. In all likelihood, some kind of similar Herculean plan would be required to rebuild villages, businesses, homes and infrastructure ravaged by the volcanic eruption.

The eruption of La Soufriére is also a reminder to the international community that the vulnerability of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) is not simply an academic or theoretical issue. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, like Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Dominica, Grenada or just about any other small developing state which has been battered by a natural disaster before, is now a case study of small island vulnerability to natural disasters.

A single natural disaster occurring on any of the SIDS can cripple an entire country by wiping out the productive sectors, displacing a huge part of the population and even by rendering large portions of the island uninhabitable as was the case with Montserrat after its volcanic eruption in the late 1990s.

For many years, leaders of SIDS have gone to great lengths to explain to the international community that the vulnerability of their islands to natural disasters, climate change and other threats, suggest that the traditional metrics of development cannot be used to measure their development trajectory. Notwithstanding these protests, sections of the international community, such as multilateral finance institutions, have insisted that metrics such as per capita income should be used to determine the eligibility of some SIDS for concessional access to finance and other types of development support. Of course, there is seemingly no lack of political goodwill for the SIDS agenda at the international level. SIDS were recognized as a distinct group of developing countries facing specific social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil in 1992. Thereafter, the sustainable development of SIDS came to prominence with the adoption of the Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of SIDS (BPoA) at the global conference in Barbados in 1994. Then came the Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the BPoA in 2005. Conferences in Brazil in 2012 and Samoa in 2014 renewed the political commitment to SIDS issues.

These efforts notwithstanding, the challenges to the sustainable development of SIDS continue to increase and SIDS are taking in water on many fronts. The Soufriére eruption is a further call to arms for a more robust global policy agenda for SIDS. SIDS need more concessionary financing, debt forgiveness and policy space to pursue the sorts of economic and trade policy reforms which are germane to their individual contexts.

It would be remiss of me to end without affirming my faith in God and in the resilience that He has placed in the Vincentian Spirit to overcome odds. We have been tested in the past and we have progressed. We are being tested now and we will emerge from this crisis more resilient and united. In the words of our national anthem, “Our faith will see us through.”