Legalising gambling and the growth of cannabis are unlikely to produce strong revenue streams since we have no great competitive advantages in fields already crowded with more experienced players within the Caribbean and online.
For example, Malawi is reputed to grow naturally the best cannabis the world, but tried to deter unwelcome hippy tourists by enacting similar legislation to our former “Rasta Law” (both now repealed).
Poverty-stricken, with few natural resources, Malawi’s economy is largely dependent on growing mediocre-quality tobacco, and its stable and hard-working population is a favourite target of international aid funds. Declining sales of tobacco in the developed world have led to its product being largely sold on domestic and other African markets. Malawi would get more benefits from helping to meet the world demand for medicinal cannabis.
Here in the Virgin Islands, God forbid that the politicians who are making it easier for our youth to acquire both shady money and ganja will have to live with the news of more of them being killed or maimed in motorbike accidents. It was not so long ago that the sight of a gambling ship moored off Tortola brought out our residents in large protests, supported by neighbours from the United States VI.
It has been widely suspected for years that persons openly breaking the law prohibiting gambling have been protected from prosecution. Will they now be made redundant and possibly become whistle-blowers, or will they be rewarded with positions in the new system, which will impose more work on police already overburdened with regulatory responsibilities?
Drafting, debating and implementing those laws will have major negative effects on the VI. Perhaps most importantly, our leaders’ attention will be diverted from providing genuine new career opportunities for our youth based on education and employment policies directed towards fulfilling everyone’s potential.
Consider telecommunications opportunities as one example.
The government’s establishment of a taskforce to report by the end of the year on measures required to adopt the fifth generation of cellular networks would give the VI a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to emerge before the end of 2030 as a territory widely respected and prospering on four pillars of the economy (financial services, tourism, agriculture and fisheries, and telecommunications), each looking very different from their appearance before the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the taskforce’s first duties must be to gather information on the 5G plans of other Caribbean counties. Aruba seems to be the furthest ahead but started from a telecoms system built on technical foundations already light years ahead of ours. It is disgraceful that we have such inadequate telecoms infrastructure and a barely functioning postal service so long after Irma destroyed them.
In 1983, most of our comparative advantages in the prospects for computerisation reducing the territory’s dependence on tourism were in varying degrees common to all our neighbours, but the development of our diverse financial services industry since its foundation by the International Business Companies Act 1984 has given several competitive advantages that are ours alone.
Probably the most important is our experience in doing business directly with countries worldwide, particularly China, with the largest population of the world, whose economy is on course to surpass the United States’, with rapidly growing middle-income families. We should also be proud of our cosmopolitan population and the institutions that it established here, including the Commercial Court and the BVI International Arbitration Centre.
Challenges to face
However, there are many challenges to be overcome to achieve our goals, including the following: how to preserve our recognition as the sailing capital of the world amid social-distancing restrictions; how to re-write our relationship with the United Kingdom government; how to collect revenue efficiently; and how to overcome a subculture of petty corruption and white-collar crime.
I envision the future VI having morphed into a socioeconomic system based on its cultural values of mutual respect — and with privileges earned for responsibilities successfully shouldered within our four pillars.