The anonymous billboard recently erected in Road Town to criticise the government’s recovery effort was ill advised and lacking in the kind of political maturity that is urgently needed after the devastating hurricanes of last September. Whoever erected it should show leadership by identifying themselves and publicly explaining their position, including their own ideas for the way forward.
The sign, which has since been removed, proclaimed, “We Virgin Islanders do not support the [United Kingdom] framework for the BVI recovery plan.”
It also exhorted residents to tell their representatives to “vote no,” but provided no other details. Though a logo stated that the billboard was sponsored by “VE,” we have been unable to identify anyone associated with that entity, and the chief planner said that no one applied for required permission to erect the sign.
Free speech is a sine qua non — and absolutely non negotiable in a modern democracy — but because of the inflammatory nature of the message and the lack of transparency surrounding it, we find the billboard most unhelpful at a time when candid and open discussion is crucial to a recovery effort fraught with challenges.
Though the billboard’s meaning was far from clear, it seemed to be targeting the conditions that the UK apparently is placing on its loan guarantee for some $400 million in recovery funding. But as we have argued before, these conditions seem generally reasonable: They include standard measures designed to ensure that the recovery funds are spent wisely and transparently.
Such requests are hardly surprising given that public money in the VI is so often funnelled into irresponsible, wasteful and opaque contracts. Though it is most unfortunate that the proposed arrangement gives the UK extra influence over the VI’s public spending, we seriously doubt that the UK would be willing to guarantee the loans — or that any responsible lender would be willing to provide them — without clear and transparent conditions.
What, then, do the anonymous billboard pundits propose? Do they believe that the VI government should refuse the UK’s offer to guarantee the loans? If so, where would they suggest sourcing funds instead? Or is their thinking that we should not rebuild the territory and just limp along?
The government is currently wrestling with such questions. Instead of alternative solutions, the billboard offered only criticism. This is irresponsible and cowardly.
In order to facilitate dialogue on the recovery effort, the government has held more than a dozen public meetings in recent weeks. These meetings would have been a good time to publicly air any concerns about the UK loan framework.
The billboard, by contrast, smacks of an underhanded tactic to sow discord, rather than a mature effort to foster discussion and debate, thereby contributing meaningfully to the ongoing dialogue surrounding the recovery. Residents should be suspicious.