St. Vincent and the Grenadines Opposition Leader, Dr. Godwin Friday Sunday evening painted a very bleak picture of the nation’s economy, claiming that it is in “terrible shape and getting worse.”
“The constant complaint you hear is one of economic hardship and decline — businesses failing, people losing jobs and losing hope,” Friday, president of the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), told a town hall meeting at the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center in Brooklyn.
“Despite all the talk of progress and the boast of performance, the economy under the ULP (Unity Labor Party of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves) government has performed poorly, in absolute terms and relative to other OECS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) countries,” he added.
Friday was invited to New York to keynote the town hall meeting, organized by the Brooklyn-based St. Vincent and the Grenadines Progressive Organization of New York, otherwise known by the acronym SPOONY, an arm of the NDP.
In pointing to figures in economic growth in the sub-regional OECS, from the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB), from 2014 to 2018, the opposition leader said St. Vincent and the Grenadines was at the bottom of the table of the other countries — Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia.
Friday noted that while Antigua and Barbuda, for example, achieved 3.8 percent in economic growth in 2014, 3.83 in 2015, 5.5 in 2016, 3.15 in 2018 and 7.39 in 2018, St. Vincent and the Grenadines was 1.21 in 2014, 1.33 in 2015, 1.9 in 2016, 1.0 in 2017 and 2.16 in 2018.
He said the forecast for this year is “not any better,” with the ECCB estimating that the Vincentian economy will grow by a mere 1.2 percent.
“That does nothing for job creation,” said Friday, who represents the Northern Grenadines in Parliament.
He said when the NDP was in office, for over 17 years, the economy had an average annual growth rate of close to 5 percent.
“Standard of living improved, and the jobs number, while still too high, was better than today,” Friday said. “So, never mind the rhetoric of the ULP trumpeters, the New Democratic Party government was better by far for St. Vincent and the Grenadines than the ULP.
“As everyone knows, the faster an economy grows, the more jobs and business opportunities it creates, and the more the lives of the people improve,” he added.
Friday said agriculture, one of the main sectors of the economy, “or used to be,” has “declined significantly” under the ULP administration.
He said this is “most evident” in the loss of millions of dollars in earning from the banana industry.
Friday said the heyday was in the early 1990s, when over $100m a year was earned by the industry.
He said while there were “clearly challenges” in the European market in the late 1990s, “quick intervention by the then NDP administration and the other governments of the Windward Islands to negotiate with the supermarkets and other stakeholders in Europe gave farmers hope to continue to produce.”
In 2001, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Opposition Leader said the country earned $37 million from the sale of bananas; but, in 2012, “the Minister of Agriculture reported that a mere $1.5 million was earned that year for bananas.”
“Today, no banana is shipped to the UK (United Kingdom),” Friday lamented, noting that the incumbent Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar recently told Parliament that a mere 600 acres of bananas was under cultivation.
In the 2015 general election, the opposition leader said Caesar promised that 2000 acres would be planted.
“So, they have failed here as well,” Friday said, stating: “We no longer export bananas to UK.”
He noted that Vincentian banana farmers now rely on the local and regional markets, primarily Trinidad and Tobago, but added that “there are problems of trade caused by currency issues, still not resolved” regarding Trinidad and Tobago.
Friday said the challenge before the nation is to transform the agricultural economy from one of subsistence agriculture to agribusiness.
He said credit, markets and appropriate technical support must be made available to farmers — “not merely (as) a handout.”
“This why we propose re-establishing the development bank,” he said. “Farmers need a hand-up, not handout. They cannot do it on their own, and that it what it feels like now – that they are on their own.
“If market prices for dasheen or ginger, etc. fall, the farmer is left holding the bag – always,” Friday added. “No wonder, so many abandon their lands to elephant grass and move to town to find work or sell on the street.”
He said the country is also crippled by high unemployment, with joblessness being “the number one concern for our people, especially the young people.”
Officially, Friday said the overall unemployment rate is over 25 percent, but added: “Believe it or not, that is higher than in 2001, when the ULP came to power. Then it was 20.9 percent overall.”
For the youth, ages 15 – 24, he said unemployment is “a staggering 46 percent.”
Relying on an unidentified International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, Friday said female unemployment rate in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is at 30 percent.
“We in the NDP put job creation, especially for young people, at the very top of our list of priorities in government,” he said. “Our number one goal is to create jobs.
“Ralph (Gonsalves) and the ULP higher-ups behave like they own the country,” he added. “They want to run it as they please, without regard for laws and to the harm their mismanagement is causing the people and the country.
“So many people are hurting and have seen their living standard decline,” Friday continued. “So long as they and their cronies still benefit, they are content to throw a few scraps to the rest of the people and hope they would feel grateful.
“Nepotism, insatiable greed, corruption, high unemployment, especially among the youth, disgustingly bad roads, rat/termite-infested schools long overdue for disrepair, high taxes such as VAT (value-added tax), increasing electricity prices, increasing food prices, declining household incomes are all too common,” he claimed. “People see that while it is getting harder for them to make ends meet, a privileged few at the top reap all the benefits.
“The top jobs go to them and their children, while others are shut out,” the opposition charged. “They have new SUVs in their driveways and take regular vacations in New York City, Toronto and Miami. This is why so many former supporters have turned away from them and are embracing the NDP. I welcome them with open arms.”