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Out of the ashes – Montserrat’s technology-driven recovery

By Bevil Wooding

In 1995 the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted, devastating the tiny Eastern Caribbean island of Montserrat. In the aftermath, Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth, and its economy, lay in ruins. Its population shrank from 12,000 to a remnant of under 5,000.

Yet, out of the ashes, Montserrat has been reborn. In 2001, the government, with limited human and financial resource at its disposal, turned to technology to engineer a remarkable comeback. Strong leadership and the collective creativity and resolve have defined its recovery. Today, its achievements provide practical models for its larger, better resourced-Caribbean neighbours, and, indeed, the world.

Montserrat, an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, has a total land area of about 102 km2. Two-thirds of its prime land was destroyed by the eruptions, which also took out most of the island’s housing stock, primary public infrastructure and socio-economic activity.

Almost two decades on from the event, the central and southern parts of the island remain uninhabitable, as Soufriere remains active. There are other challenges. Air and sea links are severely limited and submarine Internet connectivity, lost during the eruption, is yet to be restored. But today there is a new eruption.

ICT for development

The government of Montserrat has embarked on an ambitious programme to drive economic growth and stimulate jobs by focusing on the ICT sector. Its determination has been well matched by the resilience and determination of the people. The territory has articulated a Sustainable Development Plan (SDP) 2008-2020 that captures its vision for rejuvenation. The SDP identifies five strategic goals for driving national development: economic management; human development; environmental management and disaster mitigation; governance; and population.

Nerissa Golden is the director of information and communications at the government of Montserrat. She explained that information and communications technology (ICT) are integral to how Montserrat has been able to rebuild.

“After we lost more than half of our population to emigration, staying connected was made possible through communication tools. The government’s infrastructure was rebuilt heavily with a technology mandate and mindset.”

Montserrat’s Premier, Reuben Meade, is leading from in front and changing how Montserratians view technology and its relationship to national development.

“Premier Meade’s direct championing of ICT in government is important. However, it’s his hands-on approach that’s most impactful,” said Golden.

Meade, 59, mandated that every civil servant should have access to a PC. He also instructed that correspondence to his office be sent via e-mail and not paper.

One of the first bills to pass after his administration took office in 2009, was the Electronics Transactions Act. This was swiftly followed by an edict for the legislative council to operate with electronic documentation rather than the printing of bills to be laid. All members of the council were given iPads for use. Members of the senior management team were also provided with iPads, but on a payment plan.

The premier has turned his government’s limited economic capacity into a platform for promoting citizen responsibility.

At a recent public function, Meade stated, “People place more value on things when they have to pay for it. We want our public servants, students and citizens to use the technology, but we also want them to be responsible for investing in their own future”

He has eschewed the free laptop model adopted in neighbouring Caribbean territories. Instead, public servants and citizens can access special loans and deferred payment plans to acquire the laptops and tablets they need for work and school.

Caribbean solutions

He also believes Montserrat should primarily use Caribbean resources, not out of region consultants, to help define its ICT solutions.

His philosophy and strategy are already paying dividends. Montserrat recently launched its National ICT Plan, eLAVA (Environment, Learning, Access and Virtual Adoption) with the support of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union.

Last September the island also launched MOVA, the Montserrat Online Visa Application system, a first in the region. MOVA, built entirely using local software developers, has shortened the process for travellers to receive a visa to visit the island. This breakthrough application paved the way for, which allows people to view any parcel of land on island and purchase the details for use in planning. The government plans to offer online land tax payments next.

“We want to go well beyond simply improving government service delivery,” declares deputy premier Charles Kirnon, “Our goal of a PC for every civil servant is now a reality and we want this to be the same for every citizen as well. Modern technology allows our nationals in the United Kingdom, Canada, United States and around the world to feel very much a part of us and we value that involvement, both economically and culturally.”

ICT roadshows

Kirnon, who also has responsibility for telecommunications and labour, added, “We have consciously made our development plans with ICT as our great enabler and equaliser. Technology is driving everything we do.”

Last December at the island’s 50th Cultural Festival, a new judging application was launched which cut down the long wait for the tabulation of scores during calypso competitions to under ten minutes.

The software called Talypso was created by two young programmers, one of whom has benefited from the CTU’s support through the ICT Roadshows. The duo is now looking at refining and marketing the programme to be used for various types of competitions.

The future is bright for Montserrat. They face real challenges; however, the people have been resolute in their efforts to return the island to a position of prosperity and sustainability.

With about 40 per cent of the pre-1995 population remaining, citizens are actively rebuilding in the hilly, less fertile, northern end of the island.

For Montserratians everywhere, ICT presents numerous opportunities to shape a more efficient government and build a more sustainable economy. The Montserrat technology-driven recovery provides inspiration as well as practical models the entire Caribbean will do well to apply.

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