THERE are several aspects of governance that this newspaper has repeatedly promoted and encouraged over the years. One is the need for us as a nation to strive for consensus on critical issues especially those of national importance. Another is for consultation between government and people where matters relating to the development of the country are concerned.
It cannot be right that every major issue that crops up in this country should be reduced to a verbal battle between the two major political parties. This is utterly ridiculous and it is time that we grow up.
The proposed Pearl of the Caribbean project at Vieux Fort has produced a spirited debate about the merits or demerits of the investment and this is good. But we are now at a stage that we should have been three years ago, when, we are told, the project was first mooted, discussing the proposals put by the developer and the counter proposals of the government and people of St Lucia. But we are running ahead of ourselves here, because the news of this project first came to public light just six months ago.
St Lucia at this time finds itself in dire economic and social straits. Not only are our vital economic statistics not very flattering, we are finding it extremely difficult to write out the prescription that will bail us out of the mess that we are in. One of the items on that prescription must be foreign direct investment.
Unfortunately, foreign investors have a way of making outrageous demands on little countries where they want to invest their money. It happens all the time. The bigger the size of the proposed investment, the bigger the demands and sacrifices the host country will be called upon to make.
Forty years ago, when the Amerada Hess corporation decided to build an oil transshipment terminal in St Lucia, it caused a furore similar to what is currently going on with DSH. The centrepiece of Hess’ demands, if we wanted its investment, was that all 17 elected members of the House of Assembly, without exception, had to support the agreement when it came to parliament. The suggestion divided the politicians as it divided the population. In the end Hess prevailed.
The Hess Corporation and its Chairman, Mr. John Hess in particular, turned out to be the biggest benefactors St Lucia has ever had. Apart from employing hundreds of St Lucians and paying the government millions in throughput taxes every year Hess contributed to almost every aspect of life in St Lucia during its years operating here. After Hurricane Allen devastated St Lucia in 1980, it was Hess that undertook the task of building and rebuilding schools that had been battered by the storm. The Leon Hess Comprehensive Secondary School catering for 700 students stand s out today as the flagship of John Hess’ benevolence, his personal gift to St. Lucia.
A little over a decade ago, the Sandals decision to buy a third property in St Lucia, also caused ripples. There were concerns that the chain would be commanding too much of the tourism pie coupled with fears of what would happen should it suffer financial collapse. Well, Sandals is still here and doing well enough to announce a fourth property. What’s more, its contribution to St Lucia’s overall welfare has been staggering not only in terms of employment generation but also in taxes, purchases of goods and services, assistance to the social sector especially in education and sports etc. etc.
The thing is foreign direct investment will come at a price and as we have said repeatedly, it is St Lucia and its people along with their government who must decide what sacrifices they want to make to attract this kind of investment. Sadly, one area where we have fallen woefully short is in building intellectual capacity and professional expertise to negotiate with investors. We spend too much in political warfare when we should be putting our house in order to maximize our gains from investments.
We welcome the government’s announcement that consultations on the project are ongoing. The exchanges should be frank and forthright, not riddled with half truths. In the interim the political babel ought to be toned down so that voices of reason and consensus can be heard on the road to resolving the many differences that now face the various parties and interest groups involved in the discussion. Of particular interest will be the plight of persons and businesses who believe they will be impacted negatively by the project.
Interestingly, we have not heard anyone say that St Lucia does not at this time need a project like Desert Star Holdings is proposing. That does say something and is a first step in attaining the consensus that projects like DSH deserve.