The United Nations conference on the sustainable development of small islands to be held Jan. 26-30 presents one of those infrequent opportunities to step back and take a look at the big picture. These conferences are important because they present small nations with an opportunity to look at major trends and to compare notes. They can also serve as "hooks" for self-examination and planning back home by providing each participant with context and some bases for comparison.
What the conference is likely to demonstrate is that, for all of its unique qualities, the Virgin islands faces most of the same major challenges that confront other island nations, particularly those in the Caribbean region. If these major challenges are divided into two categories, "controllable" and "uncontrollable," most of them will fall into the "uncontrollable" category, one consequence of being small.
The distinction between "controllable" and "uncontrollable" is important because it helps guide choices in the allocation of finite resources and in setting strategy. For example, although the Virgin Islands is almost certain to be profoundly affected by global warming, there is little that it can do about the larger problem. There are other examples in which the message is that the tail is not going to wag the dog.
The first thing that strikes you when examining the "big picture" and looking at the long term is that many of the trends facing the Virgin Islands and other small countries in the region are adverse. Some represent major threats to economic and social stability. These include:
– The danger of a steep economic decline triggered by American fiscal recklessness and its impact on the Virgin Islands and other tourism-based economies in the region, a future in which, except for pockets of wealth, St. Thomas and St. John might increasingly look like St. Croix.
– The potentially enormous, but as yet undefined, impacts of global warming on the territory and its economy.
– The combined impacts of drug trafficking, drug-related crime and corruption, and drug addiction.
– The challenge of maintaining a minimal level of cohesion and trust among three islands all facing austerity as well as increasingly different sets of issues at the community level.
Within a context of either limited or no real control over these threats and challenges, what can and should be done? The first step is to understand what is controllable and what is not, to find the solid middle ground between grandiosity and a sense of futility or hopelessness. The following would seem to be the essentials of a realistic agenda for local action:
– Focus on maintaining (or restoring) social cohesion. In the Virgin Islands this means working to bridge gaps of class, race, status and inter-island rivalry that erode essential trust and keep people from seeing that "we are all in this together."
– Focus on maintaining (or restoring) public safety and social order. If people feel threatened or insecure, they often are unable to address issues beyond their insecurity, and they often will make wrong and socially divisive choices. Or, possibly worst of all, if they have the resources, they simply will pack up and leave.
– Focus on education and, in particular, on equipping people with portable skills. At a minimum, the future is fraught with high levels of uncertainty, particularly in the economic sphere. The United States, which generally operates on the assumption that rules are for others, may soon discover that this is not the case — specifically that enormous budget and trade deficits have real consequences. For the Virgin Islands, like other small island entities, there are huge economic implications in these developments. In such circumstances, it is essential to give individuals the knowledge, skills and tools to be able to participate in economic and social life wherever there are opportunities.
– Create a business-friendly environment for legitimate businesses. There are at least three messages contained in this principle: First, create an environment in which businesses can succeed and provide employment. Second, focus on the value of excellent customer service, for both visitors and local people. Finally, keep an eye out for crooks and do not permit them to become entrenched. In each of these areas, there is work to do in the Virgin Islands.
– Do whatever is possible at the local level to protect and enhance the environment. Look to other islands as models (Dominica comes to mind), and make protecting and enhancing the natural wonders of the Virgin Islands a core value for everyone, starting with small children.
As many people have observed, we are not very good at predicting the future. However, with respect to the American impact on the world economy and the potentially profound effects of global warming, the zone of doubt continues to shrink.
If an airline ticket agent told you that your flight had a 30 percent chance of crashing, would you get on the plane? Of course not. Yet, with regard to these fundamental problems, where the level of widely agreed-upon certainty is now over 90 percent, the government of the United States, driven by ideology and greed, either does nothing or enacts policies that make the situation worse. It is increasingly likely that there are going to be stiff bills to pay.
The message for small islands in all of this is to examine their assumptions about these core issues carefully. Given the fact that these are long-term concerns, the single most important first step is to begin a process of broad-based community discussion and education. Education and building community cohesion — the sense that we are all truly in this together — can then become the platform for effective planning and action, the route to the best possible changes.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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