UNDP Resident Rep for the OECS Shares a Brief on His Visit to Montserrat
Montserrat is defined by the United Nations as a non-self-governing territory, one of the 17 that feature on the list of the Special Committee on Decolonization, and one of the oldest, as it has been listed since 1946. The territory, administered under considerations of International Law by the United Kingdom as an internally self-governing overseas territory of the U.K., recently hosted a mission of the Decolonization Committee, including its Chair (Grenada) and its member from Antigua and Barbuda, represented by Ambassador Walton Alfonso Webson, who is the Antiguan Permanent Representative before the UN in New York and the recently elected Chairman of UNDP’s Executive Board.
Montserrat has held elections on 18 November, which resulted in a change of government and a victory for the opposition. The Movement for Change and Prosperity obtained over 40% of the popular vote and defeated the ruling People’s Democratic Movement, which remained below 30% of the suffrages. I met Mr. Easton Taylor-Farrel, MP, the victorious new Premier, in my maiden trip to the island, and presented my Letters of Credence to him. I called on His Excellency the Governor Mr. Andrew John Pearce, OBE, and discussed successively with both mandataries the future of sustainable human development in one of the smallest countries of the Caribbean. I also had the opportunity to exchange with former Premier Mr. Donaldson Romeo, who led the government until the end of this year.
4649 is the last number of counted inhabitants in Montserrat. Population is a concern and the Government is planning to design a strategy to retain, increase and attract desirable dwellers, in particular youth, nationals who have integrated the numerous diaspora communities and expatriates wishing to reside on island for longer periods of time. Most nationals, about 80% of the population, left Montserrat for the UK and other receiving countries after the disaster inflicted to the island by its ferocious Soufrière Hills volcano in July 1995. Owing to a special permission and with the appropriate security measures, I was allowed visiting Plymouth, the erstwhile quaint Caribbean capital. Under 12 meters of mud, the abandoned ghost town emits today a silent vibe of sadness, desolation and impotence. There is nothing to do to recover and rebuild the dock, the airport, the homes or the hotels in this part of the island, monitored by scientists as the activity of the Soufriere Hills Volcano is considered dormant but not extinct. The farms have been left to be devoured by nature and the roads are covered by ash, blocked by giant boulders. It is not safe to live or transit south of the Belham River. The habitable surface of the island has been reduced to less than half.
Where once the most celebrated rock stars of the planet came to record their songs and enjoy the Caribbean inspiration, there is nothing left.
Yet, the leaders of Montserrat and their partners have not given up on their dream of a recovery. With admirable capacity to imagine a better future, they see possibilities in the beauty of the island, the hospitality of the people and the geography of the land of their forbears. The UK through the Department for International Development (DfID), and the European Union have supported the finances, the capital and recurrent expenditures and the investments that the island needed, yet not at the pace that would have allowed for a faster and wider recovery. The Government
prepares a new Sustainable Development Plan after 2020. The priorities of the Premier have been clearly established: access to the island, private sector development and the construction of a much-needed hospital. Quarrying for construction and tourism offer the possibility to detonate jobs in a context of low unemployment but significant high cost of living compared with the average income.
Banking and finance are scarce, both for entrepreneurship and for real estate development. The risk is high and insurance hard to obtain. It is not by chance that the EU and the UK insist on disaster resilience as the key principle behind their development investments. The fiber optic implantation, the airport resurfacing – with current operational limitations in heavy rain conditions – the development of the energy and touristic sectors, the volcano interpretative centre and a robust public financial management reform have been some of the initiatives supported by the Administering Power and the European Development Fund.
In such a small economy, macroeconomic figures are erratic and misleading. In 2018, the growth rate was above 5%, but it really depends on the annual disbursements of capital expenditure. The low inflation is mostly the result of the
stable prices of energy, equipment and appliances imported from the USA. The government plans to undertake a country poverty assessment next year, to determine the profiles and location of the island’s dwellers who most need a safety net, social protection and active integration policies.
The future economy of the island will require, to become sustainable, a jumpstart in physical capital, an injection of human capital through jobs for returnees and arrivals of homeowning resident tourists, and the improvement of social services and communications, especially to access Montserrat and connect it to its natural neighbours, Guadeloupe, Antigua and St. Kitts. UNDP will support the territory in its continued efforts to build resilience, develop a young private sector, professionalize its touristic offer and improve its sustainability.
Magdy Martinez Soliman
UNDP Resident Representative in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean