WHY COME BACK: The Irrelevance of Geography

After half a life of caring for everyone but herself, an exhausted wife may well contemplate running away from home.  A mid-life businessman—mortgage paid, kids finished school, some money saved—might think of relocating to a future rich with guiltless possibilities.  But for hundreds of young St. Lucians studying abroad, where to live is a question of an entirely different colour.
If there’s a family business, a plot of debt-free land, or some promised post still waiting, a few will eagerly return.  But many young undergrads—in Canada, England, America, Cuba or Trinidad—foresee at best, a doubtful future and feel a dwindling sense of national obligation.
After three or more years in a world of higher incomes and stronger growth, they view their new degree as a tradable asset offering immediate returns.  In a vibrant, if foreign labour market, it is the first step to even higher earnings.  Retreating now would feel like the end of learning, unplugged from the mainstream of professional advancement.
By comparison, home is a stagnant backwater.  Even for the wealthy and well-connected, it is a tangle of pot-luck politics and vengeful personalities. For students from modest circumstances, prospects are even more daunting. Return implies building a future from scratch in an economy with no discernible direction.  Better to stay abroad: learn, work, save, grow.
Over there, new paths and old pitfalls are fairly clear: there is a perceptible order to society.  If one follows the rules, there will be certain rewards and assurances, whether you are Joe Plumber or Marcella, a gifted software designer with village roots in Mon Repos.  Success is the expected norm, not the coveted exception.
Granted, it is tough going with fewer family and friends.  But at least daily life is not frustrated by arbitrary ignorance.  Out there, the enemy is known, and it is not some ministry official messing with your life just because he can.  Whatever happens, you do not labour under the illusion that you deserve a break in your own country.
Meanwhile back home, others also want out.  They crave escape, living for the day when they too will be sent for.  The family home, with its aging parents and a slew of heirs, offers few possibilities.  It is not their capital to mortgage.
Then there is that student loan: larger than a house, slower than a car.  It will devour half the average EC salary.  So, the best risk-taking years are spent paying off a mountain of old debt.  Soon there will be a vehicle loan and the inevitable mortgage.  By then, it is too late to transition from bill payer to investor.  All that state of the art expertise, lost to kin and country.
So the decision to leave or stay is hardly rocket science – not with economic growth dwindling, investment approaching zero, and employment under siege at home.  The future becomes that place where the graduate can reasonably expect to prosper on individual merit, in a system that cares little about who he is, or where he started, or how he voted in the last election.
Of course, there is still love of country: that need to be rooted to a few square miles of planet earth.   All very nice, but that won’t pay the bills. Besides, these grads know how elusive higher education can be. They remember what their parents lived through.
Even for retirees, who also need good health care, personal security and a sense of order, back-home is no longer the ideal place to retire. The tug of patrimony has given way to practical considerations about their quality of life. Without a range of wholesome activities to occupy their days, the undertow of emotion which once dragged them back from England and North America is dissipating.
The emotional tug does not work on their offspring either; those second and third generations, full of first-world knowledge and technology.  All they feel – if they visit – is acute disappointment that so little has changed since their parents migrated to a better life.  To them, basic systems of governance remain inexplicably archaic and obtuse: their metropole has moved along while ours has slipped back.
To foresee the future, one need only ask the average St. Lucian – secondary schooled, thirty something, mother of three – if she has any idea where the country is headed under this or any other administration.  Ask her about the tourism product; what it will look like in five years.  Ask her about new jobs in e-commerce.  Ask her about environmental change or green energies.  Ask her where she thinks her school-leaving son will likely find a job.  Then ask her if she wants a ticket to Obamaland.
Hell, ask the average minister about renewables, emerging technologies, new economic space, alternative agriculture, global trends in education, digital media, social entrepreneurship… or how to energize a shrinking private sector. It’s not stupidity; it’s just that our systems have not evolved and now require radical re-engineering.
Simply put: our economic base is not adequately prepared for the future. Most Caribbean economies are languishing because the economic fundamentals are sagging and the old ways are painfully obsolete.  At this stage cosmetic surgery simply will not do.
What the region needs is more like a triple bypass operation to remove the detritus of decades of complacency.  Unless this happens soon, not even our own moribund citizenry will take this country seriously.  And that lack of faith—now manifesting as a haemorrhage of brain power—will be the fatal stoke.
Already, there are signs of a muted frenzy bubbling to the surface of everyday existence: that dark energy which turns people on each other at the first scent of blood.  It makes a bus full of travellers curse a policeman for sanctioning their reckless driver.  It makes a young man stab his best friend over some electronic trinket.
It makes you think you’re not a victim of a crime taking place next door.  It makes a politician kill a project offering a hundred jobs, because the idea came from someone on the other side.  It makes the ministry official messing with your life, chronically unavailable to answer phone calls.  It makes governments impotent, unable to satisfy even the basic aspirations of ordinary citizens.
So if young graduates don’t turn for home, don’t be surprised.  They too feel the need to jump free of the failing system.  Unable to point to a single thing that works convincingly well, they make the only rational choice available.
The same logic drives away investors, foreign and domestic.  As economic circumstances level out across the global marketplace, the factory floor is moving even further from its virtual boardroom.   To be effective, first-world executives need little more than a smart phone and a bank card.
Consequently, quality of life issues – not geography – will increasingly decide where progressive businesses locate. They too need security, education, health care, infrastructure, quality services and good governance.  Where St. Lucia ranks in that scheme of things will also determine whether or not our own army of tech-savvy, knowledge-laden new-age entrepreneurs ever return to our shores.
The bottom lines are not much different:  what works for our people also works for likeminded others. In the meantime, the islands are great to visit, but fewer and fewer people actually need to live here.
Changing that outlook means a shift of focus, in public policy and actual follow-through.  A more progressive approach to financing higher education is critical. Removing disincentives to domestic investment will certainly help. But the huge challenge is creating viable opportunity: new economic space rather than low-wage employment for its own obvious sake.
Both the country and its people need to become magnets for home-grown talent as well as foreign capital.  To do that, St. Lucia needs something that no amount of foreign aid can ever buy:  more open and enlightened government.  That is the one thing the people must manufacture for themselves.
As the recent US elections demonstrate, many rank and file voters are prepared to forego immediate benefits to secure a more viable future.  Any party which is bankrupt of ideas, energy and new ways of resolving economic challenges, will be summarily dismissed, even if the alternative is not much better.
If local elections prove anything, it is that citizens will no longer tolerate inefficient, corrupt and self-serving government.  The rationing of economic benefits by secret ballot needs to end.  The alternative, which serves even myopic politicians, is a functional, well regulated market system built on competitiveness and merit.
It is also an excellent platform for re-election; one that would excite an unimpressed electorate and draw deserved attention from that new generation of global citizens we so desperately need in our midst.  Hopefully younger and wiser, they just might have the energy to drag this place, kicking and screaming, from the fringes of anarchy into the civility of a new century.
If our current crop of leaders have any sense at all, they would chart that course, rev up the economic engine, and get the hell out of the way.

Editor’s Note: Adrian Augier is a development economist and St Lucia’s 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year.  He is an award winning poet and producer and a Caribbean Laureate of Arts and Letters.   In October 2012, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies in recognition of his contribution to regional development and culture.

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