Given the developments of recent weeks, it seems clear that badly needed governance reforms are coming to the Virgin Islands by the hook or by the crook.
This is great news. But the reforms will be very expensive, whether they are carried out under the new National Unity Government or under direct United Kingdom rule.
Some of the measures recommended by the Commission of Inquiry involve extensive restructuring of government institutions. Others require in-depth audits and investigations including criminal probes.
Taken together, these measures will doubtlessly cost tens of millions of dollars, and the VI’s auditing offices are understaffed and underfunded even for their routine work, as are the police, prosecutors, and other investigative agencies that will be involved.
Where, then, will the funding come from at a time when the VI has been struggling to carry out its day-to-day business while recovering from Hurricane Irma and the Covid-19 pandemic?
To start, the UK should shoulder much of the cost through grants. After all, the UK — which through its appointed governors has had a front-row seat to the territory’s governance failings in recent decades — bears much of the responsibility for the current situation and has a keen interest in comprehensive reform.
But the VI — whose elected leaders got the territory into this mess in the first place — will also have to pony up. To that end, the UK seems likely to offer loan guarantees to assist. If so, the VI will need to accept them unless it can quickly find other options.
Some funding may also come from money clawed back from public officials and others who have misspent taxpayers’ money, but we doubt this source will come close to covering the needed expenses.
Whatever happens, the spending must not impede other urgent priorities. The hurricane recovery, for instance, is still dramatically underfunded, and far too many major projects have stalled as a result. Despite this shortfall, successive governments have refused to accept the UK’s £300 recovery loan guarantee offer, arguing that its conditions could trigger a higher level of UK involvement in the VI’s affairs.
Now, their concern is a moot point: Because of the COI’s findings and former premier Andrew Fahie’s recent arrest, the UK will certainly be deeply involved in the territory’s affairs for the foreseeable future.
If the loan guarantee is still on the table, then, the new government should access it straightaway so that the recovery can accelerate in tandem with the COI reforms.
Such funding solutions will be urgently needed in the coming months, and borrowing is inevitable. If properly managed, however, the investment will be worth it.
Once the COI reforms are carried out — and new systems are in place to deter wastage and irresponsible governance — public money will stretch much further than it does now.
Ultimately, the territory must emerge from its current woes in a position to ensure that it never finds itself in this situation again.