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Address by the Honourable Prime Minister to the inauguration ceremony of St. Luciaís NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL

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Parliament Chamber Ė St Lucia
September 13, 2002

THE NEC: A FORUM FOR OUR FUTURE

SalutationsÖ

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since this country sought to claim its place among the independent nations of the world. It was conceivable then, that we would rise on a tide of global economic growth and benefit automatically from the general expansion of world trade. It was even conceivable then, that a small emerging economy could pin its hopes for growth and development on the sympathies of friendly nations and the generosity of multilateral financial institutions.

And indeed, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties which followed independence, the world resembled such place. We therefore assumed, to our peril, that preferential trade, easy migration, and a surfeit of investment capital would endure indefinitely. We traded, not on competitive advantage, but historical circumstances, waging that competing economic and political ideologies would outbid each other with gratuitous aid and technical assistance. In that environment, regional growth rates peaked, employment expanded and primary exports traded like green gold.

A VANISHED WORLD

Today, that world has vanished. Indeed, social indicators suggest that many developing countries are no better off today than they were before the boom years. In some cases, entire regions are at risk, entire economies stagnating under debt, disease and disinvestment. Alas, the rising tide also subsides, leaving some nations stranded in the shallows.

Without the ideological war, the regionís strategic importance is less obvious. Donors are far less indulgent; their tax-payers less tolerant; their generosity shaped by domestic priorities and economic self-interest. Meanwhile, repatriation replaces emigration and investment must be earned in a cold, capricious and competitive global market.

A quarter of a century later, we are obviously older, and hopefully wiser, but still very much a nation at the crossroads; measuring our opportunities and disadvantages. Even as a region, we often feel alone and vulnerable; uncertain as to how we will articulate our aspirations; how we will liberate our latent potential.

CHOOSING OPPORTUNITY

As a nation, our choices are simple: we can either see this as a hostile world of shrinking opportunity or as a shrinking world of increasing possibilities. We can envisage our country on a threshold of opportunity with serious decisions to be made, or accept the fatal consequences of decisions made for us, by others beyond our shores. We can either wait expectantly at the cross-roads, or proceed on our own terms, changing our prospects from perilous to prosperous.

Through all this, one thing should be abundantly clear: the aspirations of our people are hanging in the balance and they will not be frustrated forever. Complacency is therefore not an option. We must aggressively seek out the world economy in which we hope to prosper. We must bring a new analysis and understanding to the choices before us. Only from that understanding can emerge the kind of consultation and consensus on where we wish to go as a society, and how we are going to get there.

If we so arm ourselves, it will be possible to devise long-term strategies to take our young nation forward. To implement those strategies, we must have enduring institutions and mechanisms, managed by competent, objective and determined people.

AN ACT OF FAITH

Governmentís responsibility is to catalyse that process; to show leadership and trust, by causing such mechanisms to exist without dominating their functioning. This in itself, is an act of faith; an expression of confidence in civil society and the democratic process; a willing reliance on mechanisms of meaningful consultation and joint decision-making; and a tribute to the calibre of persons who have been commissioned as the first champions of St. Luciaís National Economic Council.

ENDURING INSTITUTIONS

Even the most sceptical will admit that our country has an enduring tradition of consultation, especially in times of difficulty when options are few and hours are short. Unfortunately, our endurance is less admirable. Far too often, we retreat to the comfortable status quo, as soon as the catastrophe has been averted. We cannot continue thus, for the real danger is a pattern of crisis management which consumes scarce resources of time, manpower and money.

The National Economic Council, mandated by no less authority than the Cabinet of Ministers, offers a welcome departure from this tradition. This forum requires its members and constituents to initiate a different, perhaps more difficult tradition of coming to consensus when options are many and hours are long.

PROACTIVE, NOT REACTIONARY

Nor will this be the only challenge. Council members will have to be pro-active rather than reactionary. You will be required to devise national strategies which will serve both the interest of specific sectors as well as the greater good of the country. Recommendations must be innovative but practical, examining root causes as well as their manifest consequences. Equal attention must be given to present realities as well as future possibilities.

Your task then, is to perceive national development as a set of economic, social and political objectives which we wish to achieve. At the macro economic level, those objectives are linked to our economic competitiveness and how we expect to earn our way in the world. On the other hand, it is about the ordinary, everyday issues that conspire to frustrate our progress and defer our prosperity.

POLITICAL WILL

While this is obviously a non-partisan body, I will not pretend that its deliberations have no political implications. Firstly, it is an act of political will at both the regional and national level which brings the Council into existence. Its formation is consistent with the adopted recommendation of the Monetary Council of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.

Secondly, the Council requires political support and cooperation; even though its tasks and functions demand a high degree of autonomy. Similarly, the Council must have sufficient and reliable funding for the continuity of its work and the longevity of its impact. We must also remember that while the Council reports functionally to Cabinet, its ultimate responsibility is to the people of St. Lucia. The Council must therefore open lines of communication with the public, garnering and reflecting their thoughts.

Finally, Government must be willing to embrace the Councilís conclusions; both bitter and sweet. In so doing, it will be necessary to open new avenues for the Councilís findings to infiltrate our thinking and be reflected in public planning and implementation processes. While the political directorate must trust in its own political maturity and in the collective wisdom of the Council, Government may not be the only implementing agency. Other agencies, public and private, may be called upon to design, initiate and manage change, processing the Councilís objective advice in the best interest of the country.

CHALLENGE AND RESPONSIBILITY

To the members of the National Economic Council and all those who have contributed to its design and inauguration, I offer my gratitude and admiration. You have accepted a noble challenge and a considerable responsibility; and I know it is no easy task these days, to step forward for national service, assured only of private cynicism or public criticism, orchestrated or otherwise.

Nevertheless, you can take encouragement from the fact that St. Lucia has an enviable record of making economic data publicly available. We are one of the few states that publish a comprehensive annual Economic and Social Review. We have granted leave to the IMF to publish our country economic reports. These things we do with the full expectation that sensitive economic data will be handled responsibly and professionally. We would not for example, expect such information to be used for idle and irresponsible speculation regarding the state of the economy or the health of our currency.

Rest assured, these few conditions aside, you will have our fullest cooperation and support, and will be furnished with every possible assistance in the pursuit of your appointed objectives. In closing therefore, please allow me on behalf of the Government and People of St. Lucia, to say publicly, thank you. Be diligent, be bold, and above all, be honourable as befits this nation, your office and your collective undertaking.

Once again, I thank you.

 

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