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COMMENTARY: Hurricane Irma and the dearth of nat’l planning

Post Irma has been mantra-filled. BVI Strong, Build Stronger, and Better, are some that struck this writer.

Now, for 15 years, this Old Boy, and fellow economics commentator Edgar Leonard, have been singing the song of strategic economic planning, in thousands of words of commentary, on hundreds of pages of narrative in Virgin Islands news media.

However, these seeds fell on infertile soil. There was never germination. Why: because the Virgin Island’s possesses a reactionary subculture. This reactionary subset, an anachronistic parochialism, even fatalism, is embedded deep in the national DNA, or psyche. It derives from the natural insularity of islanders, and a history of religion, even slavery.

Yes: there are numerous forums. There are radio and TV shows; excellent print newspapers, aggressive and lively online threads; and now ubiquitous social media; and a new beast called Whatsapp.

This is a society that loves to chat. The country is in love with the forum. This is actually very healthy for democracy and good governance.

However, the problem is this: forums in the Virgin Islands are for simple entertainment. There is never any real attempt to take ideas and solutions offered by the chattering classes seriously. Not until there is an accident or disaster. Then all of a sudden, years of media assertions are repeated non-stop by society’s movers and shakers: the supposed elite class. However, when matters come to the attention of the ‘’elite class’’ it is frequently too late.

Now, a critical concept of economics is Opportunity Cost. Opportunity cost asserts that resources are scarce. Consequently, if I spend X on Y, then I have to sacrifice M: go without M so to speak. I only buy both Y and M if I have the resources. For most consumers, apart from the rich, there must be a choice made in spending decisions.

For every buying decision, there is something else I have to sacrifice. In order to have tea and biscuits at home every afternoon, I may have to do without hot chocolate and fudge: my personal favorites.

Opportunity cost involves millions of spending decisions consumers make each day. Governments and organizations too, make these spending decisions. The purchasing manager must decide between buying this or that product or raw material. He or she has to decide the best way to go in the buying metric, in order to help the business’s bottom line.

Therefore, wise spending decisions require careful thought. If a country wants to spend 300 million dollars on an airport, then it has to give up something in order to fulfill that national dream. Not unless the country is one of those superstates that create cash out of thin air.

Opportunity cost is decided by GDP. A country’s GDP is limited and decided by specific metrics, add simple prudence. Most countries cannot build that airport and multimillion-dollar dock simultaneously. Countries, like individuals, must live within means. As some sage stated once: there is no free lunch.

The problem with the Virgin Islands is that for 30 years there has been no real thought given to opportunity cost in economic development. And like most developing countries, strategic resource planning has been placed on the back burner. Spending decisions in developing countries tend towards the political, not economic.

Then, there is not simply a dearth in planning, but the prerequisites for effective planning, such as accurate statistics, demographics, and the comprehensive and chronological archiving and documentation of historical and critical data is lacking.

Strategic planning is about opportunity cost, and priority. And under the economic models this ‘’Economist’’ loves to expound- Stimulus and Austerity- economic planning is at the apex of national decision making.

In a geographically vulnerable region, building resilient, tough, and robust roads, with effective drainage, runoff, and environment friendly design; ensuring that rainwater running from the top of hills is engineered and optimally channeled through the coastal plain into the sea; ensuring the widest possible distribution of potable water from frequent rainfall; placing critical telecommunications, and power infrastructure underground; are a few examples of vital spending and planning priorities. These come first, before building that airport or ‘’Coney Island.’’

These things must come first. Irma exposed the vulnerability of not putting critical infrastructure underground and ensuring that critical government departments were housed in bunker type buildings owned and managed by the state.

The result was that the disaster was more severe than if more thought out resiliencies were built into the national physical infrastructure, in the first place.

The Virgin Islands must adopt innovative strategic economic planning as the critical element in the march towards a truly prosperous and developed future. This will entail drawing up 5, 10, 15, 20 years, linked, strategic development plans. A long-term strategic development plan for the territory must be well thought out, built into the law, and fully transparent and accountable to Joe Public.

The national economic plan must be based upon a national vision of a free and fully developed Virgin Islands, widely acceptable to most residents, not a small well-connected cross-section.

Post Irma, the country remains a developing country and has gone backward ten years in terms of its social and economic development.  That backward march was not simply the fault of Irma. The Irma tragedy and the storms of September 2017 exposed the hidden economic and social vulnerabilities of the Virgin Islands.

Copyright 2018 BVI News, Media Expressions Limited. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed.

5 Comments

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  1. Socrates says:

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    Prior planning, programming, and budgeting should have been a preparatory action plan for this disaster unleashed by these series of weather events, ie, 07 August flood, Hurricane Irma,and Hurricane Maria. The VI is located in Hurricane Alkey. However, it looked as if the VI was caught unprepared and now seems to be reacting to the disaster.

    Consequently, strategic planning has to be a key action in the recovery effort. The VI is in crisis having been devasted by these series of weather events. It needs BIlLLIONS of dollars for the recovery effort. The number being bantered about is $3.6B; that is about 3 thousand six hundred million ($3,600, 000,000.00). That is a ton of cash; however, the recovery effort cannot funded by pay as you go (PayGo). Well, if not PayGo, how will the recovery effort be funded?

    The funding for the recovery effort has to be borrowed. But a strategic plan, along with tactical and action plans, is vital to gaining lenders confidence and approval for the $B that is needed for the recovery. Due to prior poor planning performance (finance), lenders terms and conditions will be stricter for acquiring loans. Futher, the UK as co-signer for the loans will add its requirements and processes for aquiring and expensing loans. By the way, government is proposing a 5-year , $721M recovery plan. Plan the work and work the plan.

  2. The Real Boo says:

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    Very long post warning!

    Its not that they dont plan…there are literally hundreds of plans sitting on shelves in Government departments. This is the problem: every bureaucrat and politician want their own plan to claim their 25 seconds of fame. So plans are hatched in heads and some make it to paper. No one looks at what was done before and no plans are based on a real situation analysis or weighing of suitable options. All are hatched out of heads of politicians and PSs with some ulterior motive. Very few plans are actually funded and the ones that are come out of politicians heads with very little technical voracity or oversight.

    In terms of comprehensive national strategy the last great attempt was the NIDS spearheaded by Otto O’neal. There have been several attempts and restructuring and planning since. All have cost piles of money and all have been abject failures. Why? All are spearheaded by bureaucrats and career administrators with no real relliance on sound technical knowledge and skill.

    Then again no politician actually wants that level of accountability. They want to be able to do what they want when they want and claim it was their idea and spend how they want with little or no accountabilty. So you never will have an overarching national strategy that is actioned whith the current leaderless self serving bunch on both sides. As a result we will always be scratching around in the sand where leadership and vision is concerned.

    The other massive problem is the Civil Service. Over the years technical expertise has been washed out of the system and replaced by professional administrators. So what you have now is a dumbed down Civil Service with no intelligence but run by and for career administrators. Therefore it has become a huge money grubbing machine that achieves nothing. Reform after reform will achieve nothing as the adminiatrators and bureaucrats strengthen their position and rid the Civil Service of all purpose. The politicians both dont understand and are powerless to intervene in this downward spiral.

    What we have here folks is a comprehensive functional failure of the Executive AKA Cabinet, the legislature, and the Civil Service. Basically your entire government. As for the Judiciary perhaps they are the most functional arm. I dont know. Our last hope is the UK and their Governor to bring some accountability and structure in spite of the juvenile protestations of our leaders for more independence,something they have proven themselves time and again of being woefully prepared for.

    ..or perhaps an election and by some stroke of luck some folks who are not in it to fill their pockets and actually understand what is fundamentally wrong with our systems and the strategies to fix them materialise. Here is some advice for these mythical ethical and altruistic polticians that we need at this juncture. Start with:

    1. Competent ethical politicians that actually abide by accountability and ethical systems

    2. Reduction in social employment in the Civil Service and hiring of competent technical heads and staff for sectors

    3. Relegating the role of the career administrators with no technical skills to the back or better yet out of the system

    4. Do a proper situational analysis, environmental scan and divise a well thought out Strategic and Operational National Plan. Not this crap called a legislative agenda or manifesto. We need wide participation not just party hacks.

    5. Hold Cabinet, Ministers, Ministries and Departments accountable to that plan. Actually fire ministers, PSs, and heads for non performance lack of acvountability. In fact put them on contract so we just dont renew.

    6. Pass Integrity in public life legislation and hold all politicians accountable to this legislation

    7. Require elections if government is in contravention of financial provisions for more than 6 months .including no audited statements. Non functioning PAC etc

    8. Exclude politicians from running for office whose Ministries and departments are in contravention of statutory reporting requirements

    ……to be continued.

  3. E. Leonard says:

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    Dickson, thanks for the shoutout and season greetings! You are on point. National/strategic planning is vital to the VI continued economic growth, development and sustainability. The VI needs a community approved through a referendum National Development Plan with only minor adjustments for changing conditions on the the ground permitted. Major changes need to be approved by HOA or even the electorate. The plan must be followed regardless of whatever government is in power; it must be a National Development Plan, not any personal ABC, LMN or XYZ plan.

    Scarcity in the VI is common place as it is in most other locales. More often than not, there are always more needs and wants than resources available. As such, effective planning and execution must be put in place and ongoing to determine how to allocate scarce resources. Moreover, there is an opportunity or implicit cost for every project executed; for every project, some other project(s) will be delayed or deferred. Project development and execution must consider both the explicit and implicit cost to determine what the true cost is.

    Every project must be measured by the impact on other projects that will not get done, given resource scarcity. As the recovery effort forges ahead, the focus must be on what projects will be done, how they will be done and for whom or what they will be done. Scarce resource allocation must be prioritized.

    Moreover, often times plans are developed and become book ends. Failure to execute a plan is often a prime cause of failure in the planning process. Too often plans are developed but not implemented. Executing the National Development Plan should be an integral part of the Annual Work Plan.

    Further, the annual capital budget should be constructed around implementing the National Development Plan. At least annually, the Premier should brief the HOA on the status of the National Development Plan. The National Development Plan should be reviewed at least every five years.

  4. Npolitico says:

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    @E. Leonard, a referendum on a binding national development plan. Really! LoL! You will be disappointed. Government is not motivated to consult with the electorate. They are of opinion, a false notion, that since they were voted in that gives them the universal right to do whatever they please, when they please and how they please. It is the voters fault. They vote and go in hibernation, especially if they are bought off with trinkets. The current reactive seat of the pants approach to planning with not get the territory anywhere. The approach to the recovery effort is an example of the planning. The BVI should have anticipated being hit by a major hurricane, given its geographic location. it is evident that it did not. so unless a change occurs, the VI will be stuck on top dead center. We either change or perish.

  5. Billfargo says:

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    When people have that much time to sit and write all those long BS preambles that amounts to nothing but some person talking; That is far worst that the hurricane that just pass!>>>> What are you doing or what have you done to help anyone?…..

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