ECONOMIST Dr Vanus James has described Tobago as the “worst development problem” he has seen thus far in his career.
He was speaking on January 26 at a Business Chamber development series titled, Financing Solutions For Business in Tobago, at the Scarborough Library.
Panellists included former chief secretary Hochoy Charles; political commentator Dr Winford James; Tobago Unique Bed and Breakfast & Self-Catering Association president Kaye Trotman; and director of Youth Development/psychologist and entrepreneur Ann-Marie De Gazon.
James, who moderated the discussion, made the point as he bemoaned the state of the island’s tourism sector in comparison to its counterparts within the region.
He told the audience, which included Tobago Chamber of Commerce president Diane Hadad, that he had just completed a series of studies on four regional economies for the Caribbean Development Bank.
James said although the islands’ tourism initiatives were wanting, their economies were still flourishing.
He said, “All of them doing tourism the wrong way on the evidence and all of them doing tourism the way Tobago dreams of doing tourism.”
James used Jamaica as an example.
“Jamaica has a million or more guests coming per year doing the kind of tourism Tobago wants to do and makes US$5,600 per person with the most crime and the most poverty as a consequence in the English Caribbean region.”
Conversely, he said development in Tobago is “a massive talk."
“It is such a big problem. I tell colleagues all over the Caribbean, Tobago is the worst development problem I have ever seen as an economy and I am a Tobagonian. And I practise from Tobago because I love Tobago and Tobagonians but I am realistic enough to tell you that this is a very serious problem.”
James went on, “I don’t think there is any choice. If you want to deal with the development challenges of Tobago while helping the businesses that are here now to survive, you have to come up with innovative financing solutions, a big chunk of which will have to be underwritten by a development bank. And not just any ordinary development bank, an innovative development bank.”
He said one of the lessons he learnt doing innovative solutions and selling it to the world as an economist is that if one wants to develop an economy like Tobago, the first port of call is to the Division of Finance and the Economy.
James recalled he made that point to Chief Secretary Farley Augustine in January 2022. A strategy, he said, has to be devised to not only build the capacity to finance but to improve the living standards of citizens.
As it stands now, James said, “We can manage to a certain point and beg Trinidad for the rest every year. But if you want to begin to shift that, we have to have a real conversation with the Division of Finance to set up a capacity in Tobago to help businesses that are in trouble and need financing and to finance those that are brave enough and willing enough to invest in the kinds of projects that could move this economy forward, whether you are from Tobago, Trinidad or you from foreign, we have to still build a facility that could finance and join in financing all of them.”
He said that must be set on a scale that fits the island’s dreams over a period of about 30 years.
“To get from here to there in 30 years, you have to grow businesses in Tobago in such a way that the economy could grow at about eight per cent per year. Right now, we are not growing, even discounting the effects of covid19.”
James said it is not easy to grow an economy at eight per cent per year.
“You have got to get your institutions right. You can’t have the executive council and the THA messing around with governance if you want to grow at that rate.
“You’ve got to get Tobagonians into that agenda, almost like an army working in unison, not halfway through the term you mash up your party (allusion to the infighting between Progressive Democratic Patriots leader Watson Duke and the THA executive). That can’t work if you are talking development.”
He said eight per cent requires that Tobago spends at least $3.5-$4 billion on investment projects, upgrading institutions, restructuring its economy and building the island’s capacity to innovate while growing productivity about $4 billion.
“About half of that, given the structure of the programming you have to do, must come from the THA. So when you are talking business financing for Tobago you have to have financing that could fund about $2 billion – two coming from government and the other two coming from the private sector. It is an enormous challenge and we got to wake up and smell that coffee.”
James said discussions about development must be centred around “new investments, new projects, programmes, big engine things that could shift the structure we have in 30 years.”