Leave no one behind: Building an equitable recovery for island communities

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Premier of the British Virgin Islands, Andrew A. Fahie

By Caribbean News Global contributor

British Virgin Islands, (BVI) – Premier and minister of finance Andrew Alturo Fahie served as the keynote speaker addressing policymakers and leading experts in the fields of sustainable finance and development during the Island Finance Forum 2022.

The Island Finance Forum held virtually from 25 to 29 April provides an opportunity for stakeholders to exchange knowledge in order to drive investment for island communities and Small Island Developing States.

The overall objectives of the forum are to bridge the gap between sustainable development practitioners and financial stakeholders; help island stakeholders access expert knowledge and financial opportunities, and showcase the economic opportunities available from investing in the sustainability sector on islands.

The session focused on the relevance of putting the spotlight on inequalities for more equitable societies in island nations, has been reaffirmed considering the disparate socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world continues to transition into the post-pandemic era, addressing inequalities in island communities will require a holistic analysis of complex and often overlapping dimensions, which go far beyond the surface variables of income and wealth distribution.

Premier Fahie keynote address on April 25, noted:

“At this stage in the global pandemic, it would appear that COVID-19 is receding in most places. Governments around the world have rolled back mask mandates and social distancing requirements in recent weeks, and international travel is rebounding. The global economy has also seen a return to growth, despite the headwinds presented by the economic effects of the Russia-Ukraine War and rapidly rising inflation. While China is experiencing a severe spike in COVID-19 cases at this time, which I do hope will be brought under control in the weeks ahead, I believe it is safe to say that in most regions of the globe, we are in the early stage of recovery from the pandemic. However, let state that I am cognizant that we are not out of the woods yet, but we are getting there.

The question that now confronts us, is what type of recovery will we see? There is not a straightforward answer to this, but it is clear that the shape of the recovery will be different between countries. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in particular have the dual challenge of recovering from the pandemic, while at the same time managing climate risks such as hurricanes and sea-level rise. They must also cope with the external shocks to their small open economies that are currently being negatively impacted by rising inflation and the sharp spike in energy and fuel prices.

The combination of these things has actually increased the vulnerability of SIDS which must be taken into account by our international partners when it comes to concessional financing to respond to recovery from the pandemic and also to fund climate resilience and sustainable development. Presently, the British Virgin Islands and other SIDS are largely not eligible for this type of financial support, whose criteria does not consider vulnerability.

Comparatively speaking, SIDS have managed the pandemic very well, but COVID-19 has highlighted the structural weaknesses and inequalities in many SIDS that must be addressed as they recover if we are to build more resilient societies based on sustainable development. The social sector has been the most affected, with many persons becoming vulnerable during the pandemic. In this period of recovery, we must find a better balance in our societies that reduces the social inequalities that create crime and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. It is important that ours solutions address the actual needs of those who are hurting most, and that we avoid administrative barriers that would prevent support from reaching them due to bureaucratic entanglement.

Among other things, we need stronger social safety nets to protect the vulnerable, especially persons that are low-wage workers in the Hospitality Sector who are the most likely to be laid off or have their hours and income reduced during a crisis. Among other things, it is imperative that SIDS put in place permanent unemployment insurance schemes of some kind to make their economies more shock responsive and to limit the extent of economic and social damage to local communities by external events. We also cannot forget workers in the informal economy and must find a way of extending some form of social safety net to them as well. In the British Virgin Islands, we are taking steps in this direction with the support of the International Labour Organisation.

Among SIDS, there are also the problems of youth unemployment and the gap in the level of pay between men and women. In the recovery process, greater advocacy for youth and women is needed, accompanied by targeted interventions and policy changes. Young people need better preparation to join the economy as opposed to fading away into the informal sectors that carries great risks. My Administration has made a concerted effort to retrain persons who were laid off in the tourism sector during the pandemic to help them retool for work in other industries and sectors such as construction and renewable energy systems.

The pandemic has also revealed a digital divide between communities within our societies. This digital divide in many ways reflects the inequalities in SIDS. The poor and those in rural areas have less access to internet service and the digital technologies needed to engage meaningfully in the world today. The various formal and informal surveys on digital access that were conducted during the pandemic have given governments a clearer picture of things. We now have a much better idea of the extent of the digital divide and who has been left behind. We also have a stock of devices from the pandemic period that can be redeployed to those households most in need, since the pressure for virtual education has eased with students back in the classroom.

In terms of internet service, we need to ensure that access is available in public spaces such as libraries, community centres and specific hot spots in towns and villages, so that those persons without service at home, can have some form of access. Special hot spot devices can also be issued for home use by making special arrangements between the Government and Telecom providers. It behooves all of the relevant government authorities and partners to revamp their digital strategies to address the gaps highlighted by the pandemic. This is what we are doing in the British Virgin Islands with the support of UNDP.

On the brighter side of things, the pandemic has pushed islands to become more digitized in their operation and more innovative in the delivery of services. In fact, digitization in both the public and private sectors has accelerated at a pace previously unimaginable in many SIDS. Although connectivity across many communities remains imbalanced, great strides have been made.

SIDS have significantly improved their ability for work and education via online platforms, as well as boosted e-Government and the ability to deliver public services electronically and virtually. This will hopefully improve the overall productivity and efficiency of SIDS in many areas of life going forward. In fact, it could be an economic boost for those SIDS who wish to expand their professional services and technology sectors. Greater digitization can also make SIDS more resilient to external shocks, particularly natural disasters and catastrophic events, by strengthening our ability to bounce back quickly and re-engage in the digital economy.

In terms of economic resilience, tourism in particular is bouncing back, but SIDS have an opportunity to build in economic diversification to their recovery. Agriculture and fisheries have emerged as critical sectors, especially as it concerns food security given very real concerns about global supply chains. More investment in these sectors is needed for their expansion. For this very reason, in the British Virgin Islands we recently passed a Food Security and Sustainability Bill that will support this goal.

Underlying the long-term structural transformation of SIDS’ economies, is the transition to renewable energy that will significantly lower energy costs. The transition to a low carbon economy in general will also be much cleaner and healthier for our societies and the world. Our ambition in the British Virgin Islands is to achieve 60 percent renewable energy generation by 2030 and we are well on our way with micro-grids for solar energy currently being installed.

Finally, as SIDS recover, we must keep in mind that there can be no separation of economic recovery from social recovery and the building of greater resilience across the society. They are intimately tied together and can no longer be separated if SIDS are to grow and develop sustainably over the long-term.

Toward this end, in the British Virgin Islands we are completing a National Sustainable Development Plan with the support of the United Nations, as a framework for the sustainable development of our society based on the Sustainable Development Goals. Once completed, the Plan will be the guide for our growth and development over the next 15 years and beyond. At the point of implementation, we will be seeking the support of our partners, including the United Nations, United Kingdom, European Union and Caribbean regional organisations such as CARICOM, OECS and ACS. I believe it is prudent for all SIDS to create such a plan for themselves, because it is the policy framework that is needed to guide our action.

“I would once again like to thank Island Innovation for the opportunity to deliver this keynote address. Islands are resilient and we will recover from the pandemic, but we must seize the opportunity before us to address the structural imbalances and inequalities in our societies for an inclusive and equitable recovery based on sustainable development. SIDS share common challenges and there must be a paradigm shift in terms of national life and our response to those challenges. Continuing to share our experiences with each other is critical because we are all in this together.”

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