The Virgin Islands is a 59-square-mile, resource-poor, water-challenged, once-neglected sleepy hollow which once was left by colonialists as only useful as a bird sanctuary. It is a chain of developing islands with a diverse population of about 30,000 and a small undiversified service-based economy.
Its people worked diligently and cohesively for it to emerge with one of the highest standards of living, qualities of life, and per capita income in the Anglo-Caribbean region. But it stumbled with some missteps and setbacks in its governance planning and execution process, and it is now at a crossroads and a critical juncture in its history.
As it resets its compass and charts a new course, the territory needs a “skunkworks” project. Skunkworks is a unique, small, cross-functional, multi-disciplinary team formed to research and provide transformative solutions for challenging and complex problems.
Amidst the age of discovery and exploration, there were skirmishes among the British, French, Dutch and Spanish for control of the VI. Because of its small size relative to other regional countries, hilly terrain, dearth of natural resources and so on, there were few robust or fierce battles among the combatants to control the VI. Nevertheless, Great Britain grabbed control of the VI in 1672, and it has been under British control ever since. After World War II (1945), the United Nations placed the VI on its list of 72 non-self-governing territories (NSGTs), with the United Kingdom as the “administering power” responsible for assisting it and guiding it towards a full measure of self-governing. That effort is still a work in progress. Even with the UK in full control, the VI was neglected, receiving little attention and service. Some commentators noted that services were almost at a vanishing point.
Further, the VI Legislative Council was suspended in 1901 and restored in 1950 after the Great March of November 1949 led by Theodolph Faulkner, an Anegadan fisherman who later was elected as a legislator.
The VI has had four codified but dependency-modelled constitutions in the modern era: in 1950, 1967, 1976 and 2007. Many viewed the 1950 constitution resulting from the Great March of 1949 as a holding measure. For instance, the late Queen’s Counsel McWelling Todman described it as “an instrument minimal in its intent and its effect.”
In 1954, the constitution and Election Act changed and ushered in universal suffrage for the first time. It is important to note that the 1950 general election was conducted based on the votes of landowners who were able to pass a literacy test. The 2007 Constitution ushered in several changes as well: the title of the leader of government business was changed from chief minister to premier; the Legislative Council’s name was changed to the House of Assembly; and the Executive Council became Cabinet, which the governor chairs.
The dependency-modelled Constitution is a power-sharing agreement between the UK and the VI, with the UK having responsibility for external affairs; defence; internal security (including the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force); the civil service; the judiciary; local government; and other functions including finance. However, despite the power-sharing agreement, the UK, under the colonial power structure and the dependency-modelled Constitution, still has unilateral power over the VI, including the retention of functions and special responsibilities, reserved power, and assent power delegated to the UK-appointed governor.
However, the 1967 Constitution, which rolled out ministerial government, was a turning point in VI history. After the 1967 general election, Hamilton Lavity Stout was appointed as the VI’s first chief minister. Benefits and changes resulting from ministerial government were various: Virgin Islanders getting enhanced participation and engagement in government operations; facilitating the transition from a subsistence agricultural economy to a service-based economy (tourism and financial services); creating new jobs and skills, which also led to a lack of labour surge capacity and a need for more labour to be imported; creating one of the highest standards of living, qualities of life, and per capita income in the region; improving political maturity and weaning the VI off grant-in-aid so that it became financially self-sufficient in the late 1970s under the Dr. Willard Wheatley administration.
Setbacks and change
The transition from a subsistence agricultural economy to a service-based economy enabled the VI to enhance its socioeconomic status. As a result, the VI developed a relatively high human development index — i.e., health, education, and quality of life, among other improvements. Nevertheless, along the way on the growth and development path, the VI and its people lost focus. They took their eyes off the ball on following and executing policies and procedures and in executing vital internal management controls. They also underperformed in national planning, providing poor and ineffective oversight and so on. Consequently, the territory endured some failures and setbacks.
Two recent events highlight those failures and setbacks: the recently completed Commission of Inquiry and the arrest of some high-level government officials. Though the failures are regrettable, failures are inevitable (though this is not to not condoning any wrongdoings, for the rule of law is paramount).
‘The VI needs change’
However, in a twisted way, failures can produce positive outcomes. As such, the VI must lean and fail forward, learning from and capitalising on its failures. Change is a constant that is constantly occurring at an accelerating rate, and the VI needs change.
This is why I propose a “skunkworks” project to investigate the root causes of the VI’s failures and recommend solutions to prevent or minimise future failures and setbacks. The purpose and aim of the non-partisan, non-adversarial, and cross-functional skunkworks project team will differ from the COI and the Constitutional Review Committee, taking a holistic look at the VI and its needs well into the 21st Century.