WISDOM AND INDUSTRY IN TACKLING THE COST OF LIVING

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By Dr the Hon Timothy Harris, Ph.D

About 170 years ago, the Jamaican people were faced with high unemployment and rising prices.  With unrest stalking the land a Baptist deacon, Paul Bogle and some of his flock walked twenty six miles to have an audience with Governor Edward Eyre.  They sought the Governor’s help in relieving the suffering of the people.  Governor Edward Eyre informed them of Queen Victoria’s response to their petition.  The Queen’s prescription was that “it was from their own efforts and wisdom that they must look for an improvement in their conditions.”

As I reflected on recent meetings held in Rome, Italy (the Summit on Food Crisis) and in Osaka, Japan by G-8 countries to discuss climate change, food crisis and energy prices, the response of Queen Victoria came back to me.

Nothing coming out of the Summit in Rome, nor the G-8 Ministers’ meeting in Osaka assures me that these meetings will bring relief to the thousands of poor people in St Kitts and Nevis seeking respite from the high cost of living dramatized in high energy costs reflected in unprecedented charges for our gasoline, diesel, fuel surcharge and bus fares and food stuff.

We must lower our expectations of any relief to come from these meetings.  OPEC countries are profiting from the high cost of petroleum products created by structural deficiencies in supply, speculation and the fall in the value of the United States dollar.  Those who are profiting or profiteering are not so philanthropic as to want to forego some abnormal profit for the wider global good.  OPEC for example has met and refused to increase its output of oil.  Even a promise to do so would have had a moderating impact on the price of oil.  But OPEC demurred.

There will be no serious energy compact unless producer countries and consumer countries realize their mutual survival depends on a better arrangement for energy.  So far no such understanding is emerging respecting oil producers.

Even as we look at those seriously engaged in alternatives to fossil fuels – Brazil, USA, India, Japan, Iceland, Austria, etc we appreciate that it will take a long time before alternatives become universally available on an affordable basis.

But we recognize too the dilemma, in that efforts to find clean alternatives to oil, undermine the food chain.  Therefore, as more corn, sugarcane, and wheat go into the production of ethanol and biofuels less corn becomes available for the food chain.

Less corn available with demand remaining unchanged, means higher price.  Less maize means that the price of corn based products goes up.  The price of corn based chicken feed goes up and consequently chicken goes up.  Similarly as wheat is utilized for biofuels less is available to make flour contributing in part to the higher prices that we must pay for flour.

All in all it would appear that little relief will come in the short run from the international community to deliver us from the high cost of imported energy products and the high cost of living.

On Our Own

This is the case in which we are on our own.  And it is to our own wisdom and industry that we must of our own free will look for our amelioration. Here in St Kitts and Nevis, we have proposed a number of initiatives like the waiver of consumption taxes on about twelve items, we regulated the markup on twenty nine items: we capped the electricity surcharge at 50%: we kept the price of bread and pastries constant for over a year.  A remarkable achievement for which only St Kitts and Nevis can boast.  More must be done.  But these are short term measures.  The continuing upward movement in the purchase price of these items are mitigating the beneficial impact of these measures.

Looking within for solutions to our problems is a good thing.  Looking within for solutions wises us up to the need to commandeer our food security by utilizing our fertile soil to produce more fruits, vegetables and meats than we have done. Looking within to solve our food security needs begs the question what minimal quantities of nutritional foods should form part of our diet and what on this menu can be prioritized for local production?  In sum, national production must be linked to national food needs.  What we eat determine who we are.  Hopefully then we will boost production and support production by a buy local programme.

Private Sector

Looking within we must ascertain what does our local private sector has to contribute to the debate and more importantly what is the distributive sector doing to attenuate the high prices for food, pharmaceutical and other items.

Can we count them among the strategic partners whose wisdom and industry can be relied upon to offer practical solutions to the rising cost of living?  Can private sector bring its collective wisdom and industry to assist in the lowering of the cost of living?

More Production

A conclusion from the Summit in Rome is that agricultural production should be increased.  Certainly in St Kitts and Nevis, we are a far way from optimizing agricultural production.  The same is true of many CARICOM states.  Too many of them, in spite of their fertile soil, produce too little to impact the supply and prices of these products.  We for example, do not produce enough tomatoes, cabbages, carrot, onions, white and sweet potatoes to significantly moderate the prices of these products.  Similarly we hardly produce enough fruits to meet our food security needs.

Production of these items requires of us to be more meticulous in land allocation, that we support irrigated agriculture; develop marketing and distribution infrastructures including storage, packaging and transportation facilities and that we adopt updated husbandry practices.

Regional Approach

But we need more.  We need a regional approach to agricultural production, promotion, marketing and distribution.  This is one area where CSME can be of incremental value to the people of CARICOM, by supporting the orderly development of agriculture in the region.  Allowing countries with best assets of land, water, labour, etc to become the food basket (net exporters) of the region and developing an efficient transportation system to quickly move fresh produce from say Guyana to Trinidad, Barbados, OECS etc.  Dominica and St Lucia can supply the Leeward with their bananas, etc.  By establishing a public company and a regional stock exchange, we allow the citizens of CARICOM to become equity owners in such an entity.  All of us then can benefit.

All of these things can be achieved if we apply wisdom and industry. Black Stalin reminds us of a better life awaiting us if we work a little harder.