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Private enterprise: the driver of Virgin Islands development

Mr. Dickson Igwe Photo: Provided
By Dickson Igwe

One thing is clearly evident in the ongoing national development discussion and debate in the British Virgin Islands. And that is this! Any move towards establishing an effective, efficient, and profitable national enterprise model and culture for the country, must include the private sector as the most crucial component.

Although one must never generalize, the fact is that West Indians possess a culture of dependency on Government. This is a Caribbean idiosyncrasy that evolved from slavery. The mindset of many of the freed slaves in the 1800s was not replaced by a new pattern of thinking.

Instead, the plantation as source of subsistence was transferred first to colonial governments; and then national governments after independence. Post 1950s Caribbean governments became de facto, the new ‘plantation owners,’ and providers of ‘the daily bread.’

However, this dependency on the public sector overburdened local economies and hampered national development for decades after slavery ended; and thereafter the fight for independence and nationhood. And this dependency on the public sector still persists.

Consequently, the promotion of a truly free and independent, dynamic private enterprise culture in West Indian society, is the only option for the removal of decades of shackles of underdevelopment and poverty. A dynamic and free enterprise model must become the engine of development and prosperity for Caribbean community, albeit with government as watchful monitor.

Arguably, in the USA, the Black US Citizen also needs to adopt a much more aggressive free enterprise culture if he or she is to catch up with the white majority in terms of wealth and prosperity. Whites in the USA, according to recent figures, are 22 times wealthier than their black brothers and sisters. Despite great political strides, the realization of economic equality in the USA remains a climb to the top of the proverbial mountain for the Black American, who remains deep in the social and economic valley.

One only has to visit neighbouring Charlotte Amalie and see the results of an anemic free enterprise culture on the black population. Whole swathes of USVI commerce, from hotels and leisure, to retail and banking services, are today owned and managed by white, Indian, and Syrian businesses, with blacks acting as indigent consumers, relegated to middle or lower management positions in the private sector, or working mostly in public sector jobs, and driving taxis. An amble down the Main Street of the USVI Capital will reveal that not a single shop is owned or managed by a black US Virgin Islander. This is the bitter truth that cannot be allowed to become a similar reality in the British Virgin Islands!

However, it is also a well know fact that access to loans and credit is limited for black Americans, and many black owned businesses and homes were lost during the financial meltdown of 2007-2009. The Great Recession hit the black and Latino family especially hard.

OK, returning to the British Virgin Islands, and if it is to be the establishment of a national air carrier of international pedigree; a highly functional and attractive air and sea port infrastructure that complements and builds the country’s commerce; expanded ferry services to include new and regular calls to ports in Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and elsewhere. And improving access to and from the United States Virgin Islands in terms of improved port facilities, and round the clock ferry scheduling; then the private sector must be crucial partner.

Whether it is installing the infrastructure for the efficient and abundant supply of fresh water; and establishing a solution for the effective, environmentally friendly, and safe treatment and disposal of raw sewage; or the eventual realization of a robust and well managed hospital facility; a self sufficient, green house driven, and highly productive food and agriculture sector with an internal marketing dynamic; and the transformation of the nation’s hydro carbon based energy architecture, into a clean and renewable energy model; achieving these national aims must include private enterprise as critical partner to Government.

In fact, one school of thought asserts that the less government interferes in anything the better. That body of scholarship further exhorts that Government involvement in the economy is simply to create the conditions necessary for a thriving national commerce. Consequently, the effective politician and national leader, for this citadel of ideas, commonly considered the ‘’Milton Friedman School of Economics,’’ is the man or woman who understands that he or she is in fact the advocate of business, walking the halls of power with the key purpose of facilitating and promoting, a dynamic and thriving national economy, and private sector.

And so to the civil servant and public officer, their job, apart from doing the government’s bidding, and upholding the integrity of the public service, is ensuring the smooth running of the country, primarily in terms of its commercial and economic performance.

Or, using an analogy taken from Holy Scripture, ‘’ seek ye first a buoyant, robust, and prosperous, national economy, and all other things will fall into place.’’

And a thriving national economy brings with it, strong economic growth; profitable and lucrative businesses; personal wealth; good jobs; commercial opportunities; and tax revenues for public investment in education, health, physical development; and so on. A strong economy is a synonym for a bright future!

At the other end of the dialectical spectrum is the John Maynard Keynes School of economic thought, which holds that governments can regulate the business cycle with fiscal policy: in other words, government interference in the economy is a good thing, and required, to ensure strong economic growth.

Both models are useful in that they allow policy makers and leaders establish a suitable modus Vivendi that leads to the realization of the national objective in terms of growth and development. Economic theory provides a mould in which the politician, and policy maker, is able to make and remake a country’s planning, development, and economic and fiscal management. However, which side of the philosophical fence one subscribes, is entirely a matter for debate, and the two schools of thought remain the two most disparate and contentious differentials in global economic thought to date.

A close look at the current USA election campaign will clearly reveal which side of the spectrum each candidate sits: Barack Obama, the Democratic Candidate, is clearly the candidate of the John Maynard Keynes School, that espouses the virtue of government as big brother to business; while his counterpart, the Republican, Mitt Romney, preaches the Milton Friedman narrative of small government and a robust free enterprise model, as panacea for all things bright and beautiful.

However, this Pilgrim subscribes to the view that ultimately, it is the private sector alone, which possesses the creativity, imagination, dynamism, and capability of bringing about transformative change to the country’s economy. Government’s job is to make the country the most attractive jurisdiction in the region and world, to live, work, play, learn, operate a business, and invest.

Still a very weighty task!

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