Commentary: Is Britain providing enough support to its Caribbean territories a year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria?

Benito Wheatley is a Policy Fellow at Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy and the former BVI Representative to the UK and EU

By Benito Wheatley

As the peak of the 2018 hurricane season progresses, Britain is on standby, as its Caribbean territories remain vulnerable after the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria a year earlier.

In the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands, repairs on many homes and businesses are incomplete and works on wrecked infrastructure are still getting underway. Recovery from the two powerful Category 5 hurricanes is a challenge for these small societies.

In particular, Irma inflicted catastrophic damage on the British Virgin Islands, whose losses are estimated at more than $3 billion, three times GDP. The tourism sector, which was largely wiped out, accounted for the largest share of employment and economic activity on the islands whose population is roughly 30,000. Rebuilding the industry will take another two years.

Britain will back up to $400 million in loans by the local government which will add to the $115 million the territory has already borrowed on its own from the Caribbean Development Bank to fund the recovery. This will significantly increase the debt burden of the islands which have been self-funded for the past 40 years.

Thirteen million dollars in grants is also being provided by the UK which is earmarked in part for administrative purposes and currently paying for ongoing clean-up of debris from the 2017 hurricanes.

This was the financial package agreed by the UK government after they opted to not provide direct grants for reconstruction and would not use the UK aid budget to assist its hurricane-affected Overseas Territories on the basis of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee rules that restrict aid spending on high and middle income countries, which the UK was unable to amend.

At the same time, Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica, two high and upper middle income countries also struck by the hurricanes, each received tens of millions of dollars in British aid to support their recoveries.

The UK’s limited direct financial support to its Caribbean territories for reconstruction brings into question the extent of Britain’s responsibilities to the British Overseas Territories after a natural or national disaster.

The UK met its sovereign obligation to assist the territories in the period after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck, but treated them as foreign entities when it came to funding their recovery. This paradox is a function of the ambiguous status of the Overseas Territories in relation to the UK.

They are not an integral part of Britain, being located in far flung places around the globe, but maintain a constitutional link to the mainland that is responsible for their internal security, defence and those areas of external affairs not devolved to them.

Any UK government spending of British taxpayer dollars on the Overseas Territories not eligible for grant-in-aid is largely a political decision, even where it concerns their recovery after a disaster.

By any measure this is not an efficient means by which to operate during or immediately after a hurricane or emergency when lives are at stake or there is a pressing need for support.

Clarification is urgently needed on Britain’s responsibilities in this area before another natural or national disaster strikes its Caribbean territories located in the heart of the hurricane belt to which the UK must respond.

Britain should treat its Overseas Territories as valued parts of the UK family with whom they share a long history and to whom they have continuing obligations until their status changes.



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