Legislators were right to pass the Recovery and Development Agency Act, which will enable the territory to obtain a badly needed $400 million-plus loan guarantee from the United Kingdom for rebuilding the Virgin Islands.
Though it is unfortunate that the planned arrangement gives the UK extra authority over the recovery spending, we believe that the law sets up a sound system that will ultimately help ensure that funds are spent wisely without the usual politicisation and wastage.
Moreover, opponents of the proposal — including one backbencher and one opposition member who voted against the law this week — did not offer realistic alternatives. They suggested borrowing locally and from other sources, but this more expensive option seems extremely unlikely to bring sufficient funds at a time when the territory needs all the help it can get.
The arguments against the loan guarantee generally have been weak, and at times they smacked of political gamesmanship or a misguided effort to avoid the transparency and accountability required under the act.
Worst, though, were the fear-mongering conspiracy theorists who suggested that the UK aims to use the new agency to take over the territory. This claim seems illogical: Why would the UK want the inevitable expense, international censure and the hassle of assuming direct rule here? On the contrary, the UK has committed to grant independence to the VI and other overseas territories when it “is the clear and constitutionally expressed wish of the people.”
In spite of the often-misleading rhetoric, however, the recent discussions have engendered valuable dialogue and a renewed public interest in the territory’s affairs and its relationship with the UK. This is a good thing, and we hope that healthy discourse will continue through the recovery process.
Moving forward, the territory should be working to position itself so that it will not need another loan guarantee from the UK the next time disaster strikes.
To that end, there are many lessons to be learned. For too long, successive governments have played fast and loose with taxpayers’ money, and they have failed to put in place measures designed to ensure accountability, transparency and good governance. Without urgently needed steps like freedom-of-information legislation, a functioning register of legislators’ interests, a human rights commission, regular financial audits and others, is it any wonder that the UK is now reluctant to sign over a blank cheque?
The opposition has been blaming the sitting government for the current situation. But both opposition members have held powerful ministerial positions under previous governments that were just as indisciplined with public money, and they themselves failed for years to implement the accountability measures whose absence they now bemoan.
After taking these steps — many of which have been promised for years — the territory would certainly be better positioned to argue against increased UK oversight. It would also be better positioned to move toward its eventual independence.
Such considerations should be at the forefront of the community dialogue as the recovery process continues in earnest.