As the Virgin Islands continues to rebuild from hurricanes Irma and Maria, a compelling vision is needed to capture the imagination of the people of the islands and gain the confidence of the territory’s partners in the recovery.

Such a vision should not simply see the VI restored to its pre-Irma condition, but should place the society on a trajectory to surpass its previous level of development, which was imbalanced.

While the territory was relatively wealthy, its economic model was unsustainable, its infrastructure subpar, its communities afflicted by various social ills, and its social systems under strain by the growing demands of the society.

The VI’s ambition rightly should be to regain its high per capita income status, but equally to attain the high quality of infrastructure, education, health care, sanitation and security that ideally should come with a certain level of prosperity. Singapore stands out among small states as a shining example of this dynamic.

UN agenda

The United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda conveniently provides sustainable development goals and targets in critical sectors that can serve as a guide for the territory in setting its aspirations for the future.

The VI should set its sights high and aim to become a developed society by 2030 if not before. This is an achievable goal in terms of the territory’s high economic potential and relatively modest social and economic requirements for a modern society of its size. In 2016 the VI’s gross domestic product reached a milestone of $1 billion, an impressive figure for a population of 30,000.

Achieving “developed” status will require rebuilding the islands’ infrastructure and systems around international standards that ensure resilience, sustainability and efficiency. These should permeate every aspect of society from the delivery of public services to the flow of commerce.

Unprecedented damage

The degree of economic loss and damage to the VI caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria was unprecedented in the Caribbean, and recovery will be no small task by any measure. The closest frame of reference in recent memory is the territory’s economic recovery between 1971 and 1979, during which time the administrations of the late Chief Minister Willard Wheatley successfully steered the VI out of a deep recession that began in the previous period. This ultimately resulted in the territory getting off grant-in-aid from the United Kingdom by 1978.

This proud achievement offers hope that the islands can see a full recovery and that the wherewithal exists within the society to achieve it.

If a proper course is set, the VI can emerge as a truly modern society whose per capita income is high, whose infrastructure is world class and resilient, whose economy is diversified, whose environment is preserved, whose communities are flourishing, and whose people are empowered.


Mr. Wheatley is a policy fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge and the former Virgin Islands representative to the United Kingdom and European Union. He can be reached at