The Virgin Islands’ reputation for good governance has been under a cloud, so it is surprising that a team from Commonwealth countries has not yet been invited to observe the coming election. However, while welcoming such a team’s authentication of the 2019 election, the government cherry-picked its recommendations, which were intended in part to reverse distrust in the electoral system and a lack of transparency in the process.
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic apparently forced the suspension of the population and housing census — which the Central Statistics Office typically runs every 10 years — so the government’s National Sustainable Development Plan, described as a step towards creating a more prosperous and sustainable future for VI, must rely on statistics garnered in 2010.
The United Nations estimates that the VI’s current population total is 31,454, but other sources estimate it to be up to 6,000 higher.
To avoid the United Kingdom’s partial suspension of the VI Constitution, the National Unity Government committed itself to a full and timely implementation of the COI’s other recommendations. But the governor’s second quarterly review deplores the limited progress on processing more than 1,000 recent applications for residency and belongership.
The premier stated last July that “residency for belongership is a privilege, not a right” and that his government can “determine who has earned that privilege.”
The governor shrewdly avoided a partial suspension of the Constitution by delaying his third report until May, after the general election, giving the next government time to reassign its priorities.
The next census is unlikely to be held until 2024 at the earliest, largely due to budgetary considerations. In late 2021 CSO Director Raymond Phillips told the Standing Finance Committee that just interviewing the VI population would cost about $450,000 — 15,000 households at $30 each — but he hoped the SFC would consider increasing that number as an incentive for the over 100 census interviewers needed to be trained for field work.
Previously, the census interviews were largely completed within eight months, but problems associated with threats, refusals, call backs and reaching people living on the sister islands and yachts, resulted in the process being extended to July 2012, after reaching about 83 percent of the population. Other personnel processed the raw data on computers
Additional expenses included the need for handheld devices for the interviews, and Mr. Phillips wanted a high-definition drone to capture maps for fieldwork. However, funding for one was not budgeted for in either 2021 or 2022. It is incomprehensible that a government should attempt to plan for the future without buying the data upon which it should rely.
A duty, not a privilege
Meanwhile, the High Court Registry was formerly tasked with selecting jurors from the Voters List, which excluded non-belongers resident in the VI for at least ten years who would otherwise have been eligible. At its first reading, the Jury Act 2022 would have removed this barrier, but the House of Assembly later restricted membership to non-belongers holding a residency certificate during a closed-door committee session.
The premier said that the restriction was designed to ensure that jurors were able to take on the civic obligation to show they were “committed to remain in the BVI.”
But now, the government failure to process so many applications for residency highlights its lack of the sense of duty that marked the career of H. Lavity Stoutt, who helped start the Virgin Islands Party.
Dr. Angel Smith, a mentee of Mr. Stoutt, repeated a story about him during celebrations in his memory in March 2020. Mr. Stoutt’s most prominent political opponent lost the support of his “country” constituents when he blamed the state of the roads for his move from the countryside to Road Town. According to Dr. Smith, Mr. Stoutt decided instead to fix the roads!
A prominent local politician said recently that applicants for belongership should be means tested. The twin pillars of the VI’s modern prosperity were built on a need to import its workforce. If residents in the VI for over ten years find themselves placed below an arbitrary bar, struggling to make ends meet, the minimum wage should be raised and perhaps the rents for their accommodation should be regulated.
At the last census, the average monthly income earned by all workers was $2,452.73, but that conceals the disparity between the very rich and the poor. More significant is median income (the most common), which was $1,733.60 per month.
As Shaina Smith-Archer opined in her March 16, 2022 Beacon commentary, “Call made for gender equality in VI,” another census was seriously overdue as “We cannot solve any [problem] that we do not know exists.”
To mitigate against poverty, the government needs an accurate picture of the VI’s current situation.