Last week, on Friday August 3, 2018, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica announced the departure of Ross University Medical School from our island. Established in 1978, Ross was the single largest foreign investor with the longest tenure on island. The services provided by Dominicans in way of housing, hotels, restaurants, transportation, and employment to support Ross’ academic program represented an even larger share of the pie that constitutes our economy. The news of Ross’ closure represents a cataclysmic event for our economy and the citizens of Dominica must have answers. The way this matter is handled goes to the core of whether we have transparent, governance on island.
Openness, accountability, and honesty define government transparency. In a free society, transparency is government’s obligation to share information with citizens. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.
Governments exist to serve the people. Information on how officials conduct the public business and spend taxpayers’ money must be readily available and easily understood. This transparency allows good and just governance.
What do we see on Dominica?
Proactive Disclosure: The government has not disclosed any of its dealings with Ross. It has not published any emails, letter or agreements in the matter. It must do so now.
Requesting Public Records: Governance of Dominica is a public trust – not some secret mafia-like operation. Accordingly, we demand the disclosure of the records concerning Ross as it is in the public interest to know.
Campaign Finance Reform: While the Ross departure is not an election finance issue, we should always know the source of funds in our elections and no leader of our state must be heard to say “Where we get our money is none of your damn business” when asked. The reason such transparency on campaign finance is key is because those who pay for campaigns rarely do so out of altruistic national development motive. We were taught that whoever pays the piper calls the tune; funders oft times demand their pound of flesh. Especially in small vulnerable states such as Dominica, the nation may be sold from beneath our feet without our knowing by those who pay-off our politicians. Campaign finance disclosure must therefore become the law of our land.
I note the above three elements of transparent governance in way of civic education which is lacking in our schools and society. I posit that it is such ignorance of civic duty that has resulted in poor governance on our island.
Now back to Ross.
The loss of Ross on its own was catastrophic. However, considering our closeness to Barbados, it was astounding when the news broke that Ross was headed to that sister island and that the Prime Minister of Dominica said nothing of that prior. It has been complained about in the press, by our local contractors and others that Barbados based construction businesses already get the plum contracts on Dominica. Since the loss to Dominica’s national economy and overall welfare attendant to the departure of Ross for Barbados is so grave, the question that arises is:
- What did the government of Dominica know about the Ross plan to leave for Barbados and when did it know it?
All Dominicans know, or should know, that the Government of Dominica’s principal advisor of many years is Hartley Henry of Barbados. Following Hurricane Maria, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit appointed another Barbadian to oversee the island’s recovery. In a live October 16, 2017 broadcast, the Prime Minister said:
One expert he has helped move around is Avinash Persaud. Professor Persaud is the principal architect of our external funding and economic strategy. His formal title will be Special Economic Advisor on the Economic Recovery of Dominica. He has been working closely with my team over the past few weeks.
I got to know Avi when we were looking to establish a National Fiscal Policy Panel. He was the person I had thought might Chair that Panel.
When Maria struck it was clear to me that Avinash Persaud was the man for this job. You are going to see a lot of him over the next six months and so I just want to introduce you to him a little more.
The full speech by the Prime Minister can be seen here
We are kith and kin to Barbadians and we respect their history of relatively good governance. To question the Ross departure is not to be ungrateful for Barbadian aid nobly rendered at our time of need or to engage in any unseemly and anti-Barbadian campaign. Be it known that I am a proud advocate of West Indian federation. Yet the questions must be asked: What if anything did these Barbadian born, or linked, advisors have to do with the decision for Ross to go to Barbados? What advice did they give to the Prime Minister and his government? What did they know and when did they know it? And, finally, what if anything did they do to ensure Ross stayed in Dominica?
It is a widely known fact that the Prime Minister of Dominica was one of the first, if not the first, foreign leader to meet newly elected Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Motley. The pictures of both Prime Minister Motley and Skerrit can be seen online, smiles on their faces. Did they discuss Ross? And if they did, what was the decision they took? When did Mia Motley know Ross was coming to Barbados? And what if anything did she say to Dominica’s Prime Minister in way of sharing that resource if Ross were to relocate to Barbados? For if the Prime Minister of Barbados knew of the plans to relocate Ross to Barbados from Dominica and said or did nothing to share that resource in the spirit of Caribbean unity and solidarity, one must question the sincerity of one or both leaders. Who is taking who for a fool here?
There is no Democracy without Transparency:
There can be no democracy worthy of the name without transparency. Ultimately, the value of our democracy and whether we continue to sink into ruin due to inept and corrupt governance is a decision we must all weigh in the balance. Reasonable men and women on Dominica, or those in the Diaspora, cannot continue to give a pass to governance lacking in transparency. Too many go-along with the current political order on island because they fear for their jobs and cower in the face of the victimization meted out to critics of the regime. Too many of our citizens have become blinded by allegiance to party over country and bow in worship to a cult-like leader. Many are afraid to be called “enemies of the state” or “traitor.” Too many Dominicans quail at the prospect of being pilloried on government allied radio stations by the advocates of the regime. However, in the face of the current economic implosion when so many nurses and other skilled Dominicans are voting with their feet and looking to exit the island, we must call our government to account.
If we are to retain any semblance of democracy those questions must be answered and now! Ross’ departure – according to most economists and observers of our island’s economy – will rob the national economy of 1/3 of its gross domestic product. Considering that Ross was the largest single foreign investment on island did our government following Hurricane Maria:
- Constitute a blue-ribbon panel of experts dedicated to working-out prompt means to return the school to Dominica following what suppose to be a temporary departure?
- What delegation or lobby group for Dominica was sent to the head-office for Ross University School of Medicine in the USA to plead Dominica’s case? We know that the government of Dominica has hired lobby firms, and has an embassy in Washington, DC. In the past they have used those resources to defend their position on matters having to do with the passport sales scandal and the stench emanating from the many arrests of crooked diplomats. Based on the importance of Ross to our economy, were such lobbyists, friendly lawyers or advocates contacted to save Ross for Dominica?
- What did Ian Douglas – Member of Parliament for Portsmouth – do to mobilize his constituents to ready the facility for the return of Ross, or counsel/inform them of plans afoot to restore the school to normal operations? The same question can be asked of Reginald Austrie who represents a constituency in the north and himself worked for Ross.
The government ministers who quietly mutter their disgust behind closed doors must now speak openly. The parliamentary opposition, civil society and Dominicans at home and in the Diaspora should demand:
- That the Government of Dominica make public the contract or contracts which governed Ross’ presence on island;
- State clearly, and without delay, what was done to meet the Ross delegation, or delegations, which visited our island after Hurricane Maria. The government should further disclose the letters and email detailing what if anything was exchanged during those meetings or otherwise. As the government has had no problem using the good offices of its senior legal advisor to share all kinds of government documents on line and on radio, surely, they should not fear such disclosure now.
The lack of transparency in governance obliterates the public trust and destroys the self-confidence so necessary for national development and foreign direct investment. In the words of a senior jurist of Dominican origin with roots in Portsmouth: “The departure of Ross confirms the complete shutdown of Dominica’s bodily organs and illustrates for all to see that the forest fires of incompetence and corruption are razing Dominica to the ground. Strong words but that is exactly what is happening in Dominica.”
Therefore, the fullest disclosure of the circumstances surrounding the Ross departure is in the national interest. The Dominican public has an absolute right to know what job the government is performing on their behalf. The government of Dominica must answer all these questions. When a government is in office it must never be allowed in its arrogance to hold itself above its duty to be accountable to its citizens. The government of Dominica must not be allowed to become a tyrannical master and our citizens its pitiable slaves. In Emancipation Week 2018, we demand accountable, democratic and transparent government on Dominica and we want it now! This is the freedom and democracy fought for by our ancestors and we must never jester with it. An enlightened citizenry is the best antidote to tyranny! Dominicans at home and abroad are waiting for those answers now!
Opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Dominica News Online or its advertisers.