November 28, 2014

Life beyond the airport

Over the past years we have had a fixation with the Argyle international airport. It has generated considerable discussion, some constructive, some not so, some seeking answers, others combative. The discussion has generally centred on time of completion, manner of construction, the organization of the project, cost and the politics that flow from all of this.{{more}} It is as if once the airport is completed by the end of 2014 (sorry, substantially, whatever that means) or whenever, we are going to be marching to the Promised Land. In fact, some will actually be flying into it. What have not been seriously addressed are the immense challenges that will follow.

While one can look for grants and talk about the creation of a coalition of the willing for airport construction, it is going to be a different ball park with the maintenance of the new facility that will throw us back on our own resources. Many of the challenges will be financial, but will include matters that we cannot lightly dismiss or rather do so at our own peril. One that is raised quite often is that of the sea blast in the area. Those who follow ‘air traffic’ developments will know that the major airlines are trying to cut costs and to streamline their operations. Some are even now charging for all luggage. SVG will fall under careful scrutiny.

These are only some of the issues that will arise. Be that as it may, however, the important question is what is likely to happen after the airport has been completed. I do not see any serious preparation for what it is hoped will follow. 2015 is only a month away. Some months ago there was a reference in the regional media to our ‘go-getting’ Minister of Tourism indicating that 2015 was going to be the greatest year ever for tourist arrivals in this country. This statement left me mystified, for even if the airport is completed by the end of 2014 or whenever, are things going to suddenly fall in place? It is as if once the world knows about our new airport they will all be flocking to see what gems we had been hiding from them. Certainly I am not seeing any preparation for that 2015 bumper year. I will assume that airlines, like other businesses, will be finalizing their scheduling years in advance. Hopefully we have taken this into account!

But I am going even further beyond all the issues associated with the airport. A recent IMF update and ‘Moody’s’ downgrading of the country’s credit rating do not paint a very promising picture of the immediate future. The IMF speaks about the likelihood of modest growth, but admits that they have yet to finalize the numbers. The report speaks of an increase in arrears and of signs of fiscal stress. Another matter of concern to the IMF is the future of the Petro Caribe arrangement, given the current economic situation in Venezuela.

I made mention, some months ago, of St Lucia’s establishment of a commission to look at a 20-year vision for the country. At the launching of the ‘Vision for the Future commission,’ PM Anthony declared that “St Lucia must change together; all of us and soon.” What he was after was a collective approach to the country’s problems, to its solutions and ‘a collective approach to the benefits that will follow.’ He reminded the nation that they were ‘still in the business of building a nation.’

There is a lot of sense in this approach, not necessarily about seeking a 20-year vision, but honing a vision that should involve everyone. It used to be said that our countries planning and vision went as far as the next five years. In our case it seems to go as far as the completion of the airport. And what it appears is that once that project is completed, we can then get back to work and build the country; an insane approach, if ever there was one.

As we try to plot a way forward before or after airport completion, we have rightly identified education as a key factor, but we have not paid enough attention to what we want from education. Didacus Jules, former registrar of CXC and current OECS Secretary General, brought to our attention critical issues involving education at an address delivered in St Maarten earlier in the year. He acknowledged the tremendous strides made in education in the region, but admitted to a failure in the system that was systemic. Referring to CSEC he made the point that only 40 percent of those eligible sat the exams and only half of the 40 per cent will make it. This points to what he refers to as ‘a huge demographic of unskilled people’. He singled out the ‘unprecedented unemployment’ among youngsters that has led to ‘rising levels of hopelessness.’ Added to this, he suggests, is a lot of anger among the dropouts, hence the crime situation. Of significance, he noted, was the role of education in democracy. “In the ultimate democracy there is respect for the minority and civilised acceptance of differences.” He quoted from the Polish philosopher and economist, Rosa Luxemburg to the effect that “Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the party…is no freedom at all.”

In moving beyond the airport and in building our country, there is much to be put in place. On the education front we have to begin to see it seriously as involving a journey from ‘cradle to grave.’ The restructuring of our education system is still a work that needs to be done. In other words, the real revolution is yet to take place.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.