More than a year and a half after Hurricane Irma, it was extremely disheartening to learn recently that the previous government had not sent the United Kingdom the information necessary to obtain the £300 loan guarantee that the House of Assembly approved in March 2018.
The new government should put urgent priority on accessing the low-cost loans facilitated by the agreement, which should greatly accelerate the frustratingly slow pace of the government’s recovery to date.
During a press conference last month, Governor Gus Jaspert said that the Virgin Islands government must submit a detailed plan before the UK will grant the guarantee. He compared this process to taking out a loan from a bank.
Such requirements are hardly surprising, but it was news to us that they had not been met.
To be sure, there may be a good reason that the former government delayed. Leaders, for example, might have believed that the UK was asking for too much control over how the money will be spent. The UK, after all, has recently made various unwelcome attempts to insert itself into the territory’s internal affairs, including its continued insistence on a public company register as well as a Foreign Affairs Committee report arguing that belongership should be abolished and same-sex marriage imposed by an order in council.
But if the previous VI administration had such reasons for forgoing the loan guarantee, it should have explained them to the public in detail and proposed alternative funding sources. Otherwise, it should have sent the UK the necessary information to obtain the guarantee long ago.
In any case, we doubt that the British requirements this time amount to anything more than standard measures designed to ensure that the territory follows best practices such as tendering, pre-project engineering studies, and the like — all of which would help the recovery get done right with minimal wastage.
Until now, the government’s recovery has been slow at best in spite of the appointment of the Recovery and Development Agency and some progress in a few areas.
As a result, high school students will soon finish their second year on a shift system; West End is without a ferry terminal; some health facilities and fire and police stations are not yet repaired; roads are in bad shape, in spite of the temporary patches laid quickly in the days before the election; the Central Administration Building still needs much work; and other projects are also lagging behind.
Meanwhile, the government has yet to provide the public with a proper strategy outlining the way forward, as this newspaper has pointed out repeatedly. Though the House of Assembly passed a “Recovery to Development Plan” last October, the document includes only a general outline. It does not set specific timelines, list priorities or provide detailed budgets. We can certainly understand why the UK would refuse to provide the loan guarantee on the basis of such a vague plan.
Moving forward, the new government should take a lesson from the private sector, which has led the way in the recovery. Financial services, for example, continued mostly uninterrupted during and after the storm thanks to backup systems and cross-border flexibility. The yachting sector rebuilt quickly, with the cruise ship industry and some land-based villas and hotels following suit. Various other businesses that have fully recovered include grocery stories, restaurants, retailers, media outlets, and many more.
The government badly needs to catch up, and accessing the loan guarantee should help tremendously.