Thursday, September 6, 2001 -- As a Saint Lucian taxpayer, perhaps you’ve rightfully asked why does the government spend your hard-earned tax dollars to have membership in certain international organizations.


The answer is quite straightforward and simple. Belonging to such bodies, be it the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), or the Organization of East Caribbean States (OECS), brings substantial benefits. 


Membership serves to promote and advance Saint Lucia’s key interests. Most importantly, what Saint Lucia gets in return  – and a lot cannot be quantified in dollar terms – far outweighs the relatively small amounts spent on membership.


Take the Commonwealth for instance. If  you were to place a dollar value on the technical assistance and other benefits which Saint Lucia has received since becoming a member in 1979,  then compare this amount with what Government has spent on membership during the same period, you would see that a really huge gap exists.  


There are certain basic requirements which every country must meet to achieve the overriding goal of development, if it is to be in a position to satisfy the legitimate expectations of citizens for a continuous improvement in their quality of life. Money tops the list, of course, but, equally important, is possession of the right know-how.


Generally speaking, developing countries are unable to meet such requirements on their own because vital resources are often in short supply. Membership of international organizations, therefore,  plays a critical role in providing opportunities for such fundamental needs to be met.


In the specific case of the Commonwealth and Saint Lucia, this 54-nation organization has quietly made a substantial contribution to national development over the past two decades by providing opportunities for this country to acquire the right know-how. Through the Commonwealth Fellowship programme, for example, several Saint Lucians have received all-expenses-paid university training in various disciplines pivotal to this country’s economic and social development. Environmental engineering and finance are just two examples.


Then, there’s the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), an initiative harnessing the new information and communications technologies, including the Internet, to deliver cost-effective university training through distance learning. Under this initiative, several Saint Lucians are pursuing studies leading to a degree in tourism management from Canada’s Mount Saint Vincent University without having to leave home. It’s a major strategic investment, considering the increasingly important  role of tourism in the economy


At another level, the Commonwealth has facilitated the transfer of technology to Saint Lucia by making available various specialists to work on several important national projects. These experts, whose services are usually made available through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation (CFTC), have spent from as little as one month to as long as three years in Saint Lucia.


Technical assistance projects have related, for example, to industrial development with emphasis on enhancing the export sector, the establishment of the National Insurance Scheme, strengthening the capacity of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, the administration and development of the tourism industry, and  reforming aspects of the criminal justice system. A project involving a comprehensive review of physical planning regulations is to be undertaken shortly.


The Commonwealth has also had an immensely positive impact on the development of Saint Lucian youth. Several young people have developed leadership and other skills as a result of participating in the Commonwealth Youth Programme and are effectively serving their communities today. There’s also the Commonwealth Games, the second largest after the Olympics, in which Saint Lucian youth participate. In fact, Saint Lucia scored its first international triumph at this level of track and field competition when high jumper Laverne Spencer took gold at the last Commonwealth Games and set a new national record in the process.


With the generous assistance of the Commonwealth, other international organizations and donor countries, Saint Lucia has done reasonably well in its first two decades since independence. The Saint Lucian economy today is the strongest in the entire OECS grouping. However, with the onset of globalization, there are some challenges which will undoubtedly shape Saint Lucia’s prospects in the coming years. Complex though these challenges are, as the recent experience of bananas attests, they are by no means insurmountable.


It’s in the collective search for effective strategies to cope with globalization that Saint Lucia’s membership of the Commonwealth may prove even more invaluable in the years to come. With the majority of its 54 members classified as small states, the Commonwealth has already assumed a leading role in pressing the case for special consideration to be given to small countries because of  their vulnerability to certain aspects of  globalization.


Saint Lucia was closely involved in one such initiative – The Small States Conference put on by the joint Commonweath/World Bank Task Force on Small States -- that was held as part of efforts to come up with a common strategy in response to globalization. This conference, held from February 17-19, 1999, examined not only the challenges but also the opportunities for small states arising from globalization.


“The status of small states in the global economy has changed significantly in the 1990s, driven by changes in the world trade regime, in patterns of aids and international private capital flows and in costs of transportation and communications,” a conference statement noted. “Some of these changes have improved the medium-term development prospects of small states but some have high medium-term costs.”


When Saint Lucia hosts the annual Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting later this month, the focus  -- Financing for Small States --  will be of particular interest to Saint Lucia and its Caribbean neighbours. Up to a few years ago,  much of the development financing they received was in the form of official aid. However, aid flows from the United States, Canada, Britain and other donors have dropped significantly in recent years, leaving a major financing gap which has setback the pace of Caribbean development.


Caribbean countries, therefore, are obviously hoping that the Finance Ministers meeting will come up with new initiatives that will help to firmly put their development back on track.