4 Jan 2014

Saint Vincent storm: why the Commonwealth should care

Not many of us any longer know or care much about the Commonwealth, until a conference or scandal hits the news. But the latest devastating storm in the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent poses a question – what is this ‘family’ of former British colonies doing to help?

From my trip there yesterday to inspect the damage, I’d say little or nothing. Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines had heard little or nothing from his Commonwealth brothers and sisters. Even though Canada, for example,  sports the largest population of St Vincent nationals who now live beyond the island of their birth. 



St Vincent needs immediate cash and technical personnel to get them through the period before the international agencies like the Commonwealth Development Bank kick in with long term reconstruction funding.

Truth to tell, this disaster in the Eastern Caribbean, which has also affected St Lucia, has exposed Britain’s neglect of  an area of former UK colonies, and current Commonwealth countries, that are among the poorest in the world.

But go further north to Jamaica, and there’s a big policy shift – Britain has a huge presence in Jamaica. So what are our taxes being spent on there? A hugely expensive project to build a vast prison to house Jamaican prisoners – some of whom are in UK jails. However, most of these cannot be extradited because they hold UK citizenship. The project is seen by many in this region as a cynical and expensive white elephant.

Taiwan, China step in where Britain has pulled back

The tragedy is that whilst we have turned our backs on these islands with whom we enjoy historic relations and many of whose sons and daughters live and work among us in Britain, governments here have had to turn to others. Whose is the largest embassy in St Vincent? Taiwan. Why? because of its need to hoover up third-world votes to protect itself from China at the United Nations.

Indeed the Caribbean is roughly split between Chinese and Taiwanese influence. Taiwan has indeed invested here – it is helping to build an international airport. But it is strange that so English a place as St Vincent should be left by the British to trade its votes in order to survive.

The island has had to turn to Iran, Argentina, and Venezuela to make good the cold shoulder from both the Commonwealth and the UK government.

The Christmas storm disaster that killed 13 here and robbed the country of 10 per cent of its fertile land, provides a great opportunity for Britain and the Commonwealth to demonstrate that they still care, and that indeed we would like to renew and sustain our friendship.

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