17 August 2011

The Issues We Face, Part 1

In a throw back to days when I had a little more time and creative energy to spare, I'm going to attempt once again to fit this very long idea into a two-parter.  The topic: the issues currently facing the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, and what Peace Corps can do and is doing to try and remedy those problems.

One of the biggest problems that the small island nation faces is so pervasive that it directly affects my choices and lifestyle every single time I reach for my wallet: the dire economic situation.  Below is an excerpt from an e-mail that I previously sent to friends from my Sunday School class, laying out the circumstances responsible, at least in part, for the local economic issues:
The Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis faces some serious issues right now: the sugarcane farmers were the last vestige of agricultural production on the island until this decade, when the revenues from even that crop couldn't support the laborers, and the market collapsed.  This means that St. Kitts has no valuable exports anymore, making its only real source of income tourism, which can fluctuate greatly on public appeal and is seasonal at best.  In addition, since the island is forced to import nearly all its food goods, foodstuffs are expensive for the people, and the government has used up all its money in trade and providing unsustainable local services.  So now, needing funds to continue these services, the government is instituting the Value-Added Tax to goods purchases, meaning that these goods will become even more expensive and the people even less able to purchase daily foodstuffs.  Not to mention the decreased purchasing power facing we Peace Corps Volunteers, who must live on St. Kitts minimum wage, or roughly US$370 a month.
With the passing of the sugarcane industry back in 2006, the job market was suddenly flooded with hundreds of limited-skilled workers and laborers looking for new careers.  The largest employer on island was and is, naturally, the government.  And since government jobs are limited, like every other opportunity, they are generally well-regarded and prized, held on to by their tenants for as long as possible.  This has become so common, in fact, that the government passed a law forcing civil servants to retire at the age of 55, a law that occasionally goes unnoticed.  The practical offshoot of this is an ever-increasing number of unemployed and underemployed persons waiting below for jobs to open up above in the bureaucratic ladder.

As with everywhere in the world, the downturn in the economy has resulted in an equal and opposite upswing in violence and crimes of desperation.  Most of the lethal crimes in these islands come in the form of gang violence, the result of many boys too old to go to school and too young to be a viable candidate for a government job looking for belonging and acceptance among their peers.  But the Federation-wide demographics are such that, to my understanding, roughly 66% of the population is under the age of 35; as the age for effectively beginning a career has risen higher and higher above 30, so has the upper end of what defines "youth" in Kittitian society.  In summary, if you are a 24 year-old male in St. Kitts and are not driving a bus, helping out on day jobs for a construction company, or one of the lucky few that uses social connections to land a job in the Ministry, you are most likely unemployed and have an astronomically higher chance of joining one of the gangs of boys whose plights are oh-so-similar to yours.

Separate but not unrelated to this disturbing trend is the constantly high rate of teenage pregnancy and single-parent households.  The spread of sexually transmitted infections is a serious concern anywhere in the world; but with a significantly small, relatively isolated population such as St. Kitts / Nevis (boasting a population of roughly 40,000 Federation-wide), the number of reported HIV/AIDS incidences does not need to be very large at all to reach a critically high potential rate of infection.  In fact, according to many of my acquaintances, the islands experienced their fair share of AIDS awareness movements some years ago, many having diminished in more recent years.  And while efforts continue to deal with the lack of public discourse and societal stigma associated with the more threatening STIs, there is still much work to be done.

This is all to ignore the perhaps more pressing issue of raising the kids: as with so many family-oriented cultures of developing societies, the grandparents are often sought in the nurturing and moral development of a child while the young mother is spending the majority of her day being the household breadwinner.  And with minimal parental contact comes the absence of gender role models, which in turn begins a destructive cycle that spans generations, only serving to increase the likelihood of the appalling occurrences above.

I'm grateful, therefore, for my placement at the National Skills Training Programme.  Despite being a quasi-governmental organization and thus subject to some of the same bureaucratic and political challenges that plague the Federation, the mission of the NSTP is to provide youth in the community with basic employment skills, life skills, and training in a marketable trade.  I aver that, in short, the only way to heal a heavily indebted country's small economy that is lacking in either a plentiful cash crop or service-industry boon is to see a sharp upswing in reinvestment in industry and production in the form of entrepreneurship and small-business development.  These basic, low-level cogs in the macroeconomic machinery slowly (often too slowly for public approval, as in the case of the current US economic recovery) begin to form larger wheels, as sectors flourish and the overflow from one sector benefits another (think the tech boom and the rise of the Internet).  The number of elements in the case of St. Kitts and Nevis is small enough, incidentally, to have much more rapid effects in the miniscule island economy – possibly on the order of years, rather than decades.  These are encouraging thoughts, but unfortunately the reality is becoming increasingly disparate from the ideal.

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