12 September 2019
In my first radio interview following my arrival on 11 May, I was asked if I would give my reflections on St Helena after my first 100 days. It seems to be an unwritten convention that surviving in a job for the first three months confers some mystical ability to foretell the future. Interestingly, the term ‘100 days’ originates with Napoleon and the so-called 100 days between the time he escaped his exile on Elba and his defeat and the restoration of King Louis XVIII in Paris on 8 July 1815. Actually, it was 111 days but who is counting that closely. Still, a real connection to St Helena. Nonetheless, not one to resist a challenge, here is my go at a set of 100-day insights.
We all know St Helena is a beautiful island with dramatic scenery. Hot to warm(ish) throughout the year. Steeped in history, a culturally diverse community, home to the oldest recorded land animal and surrounded by a pristine ocean. Taken together the Island should be a thriving and buoyant place where people in increasing numbers would want to visit and live. This is not (yet) the case. The reasons are a combination of historical legacy, geographical position and local opportunities and expectations.
Let me begin with the economy. It was Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ in his 1992 US Presidential campaign. He was right. If the economy is not performing, incomes, jobs, public services and just about everything are not right. At this moment in time St Helena is firmly in an economic slump. The mini-boom during the construction of the Airport when employment and wages increased is now over. Prices and costs are rising at around 4% per annum, whilst the size of the economy has most likely shrunk. Average salaries are low in comparison to the money that can be earnt on Ascension, Falklands and the UK and disposable income and consumer spending have become smaller in recent years.
I have met many people and groups across the Island and heard about their worrying problems and genuine concerns for the immediate future. I know too, the elected councillors are seized with the urgency attached to improving the situation and the unpleasant recognition that collectively we all need to find the ways out of it. The basic problem, as I see it, is the size of the economy is too small. There is simply not enough money swirling around the Island to provide a better level of wages or to have more consumer spending or to pay for improvements to our infrastructure or to sustain enough revenues to the public sector to fund the services everyone expects. The financial top up from the UK is welcomed but will never be enough to satisfy expectations. We simply must generate more of the green stuff ourselves by selling more elsewhere, importing less and attracting ‘new money’ from outside.
The situation for St Helena, whilst tough, is far from hopeless. There are a variety of opportunities on the horizon. You may think this a bold view but I sincerely believe it. In going out and about widely across the Island I detect a definite appetite amongst many people and businesses to improve their lot. In turn, it is the job of our elected representatives, St Helena’s public services and the Governor’s Office to provide the basis for improvement that others can take forward.
Through the force of the circumstances before us St Helena has embarked, whether you see it as good or otherwise, on a generational change in the way of life that can be sustained. A heavily supported island continuing in relaxed isolation is not likely to be a maintainable business model. It will only encourage more economically active people to move on and distort further the age profile of the Island. The recently circulated draft Labour Market Strategy is a wake-up call to us all. At this moment in time we are a handful of years into the unpredictable process of change. Keeping and attracting younger people to become commercially and professionally active in St Helena, as opposed to taking their talents elsewhere, is a challenge the Island must win.
The generational decisions looming before us to build up the economy will probably mean more people ultimately are employed in the private sector than the public one. It will probably mean the expectation of some of a steady job for life will end. It certainly means we should find a better way to govern ourselves to ensure decision-making in weeks (not years) and individual elected councillors becoming directly responsible politically for the performance of SHG directorates. It will probably mean more public services should be done by the private sector. It will probably mean the remaining public services having to operate with less cash. It will probably mean 8.30 to 4.30 lifestyles will be compromised to increase staff productivity and better customer satisfaction. It will probably mean public support for some things will have to be stopped or switched to other areas. It will probably mean prioritising support for business-generating measures over public service ones. It will mean welcoming in with less misgivings more investors from the world beyond. It will surely mean internet-based business and services impact far more on one’s life than many can currently imagine.
In technical-speak the generational change for St Helena is a transition from a government subsidised economy to a consumer-led one. If our economy is going to grow it will inevitably increase the number of new faces coming to live on the Island. Look around at Cayman, Jersey or Bermuda, this is the norm on the economically successful overseas territories and Crown dependencies and if St Helena is to be successful eventually it will be the same for us.
So, what is the Governor’s Office going to do? We will concentrate our efforts on where we can add value to support the elected councillors, the public sector, business and community organisations. In particular, approaches to future governance and building economic prospects for the Island. Five areas of work have been identified:
- Improving political accountability, uphold the Constitution and support prompt decision-making by working with elected representatives on putting in place the best ways of getting things done
- Providing active support to reforms within SHG, especially their present initiatives to be more effective and streamlined
- Supporting SHG and other agencies to pursue and land every realistic economic development opportunity
- Supporting SHG to implement successfully and as quickly as possible its important infrastructure programme and pursue every credible option to improve air access arrangements
- Ensuring St Helena’s international obligations are progressed, including FCO and other externally funded work on marine protection, marine safety, policing improvements, immigration modernisation, safeguarding, economic promotion, as well as supporting community-based improvement projects.
Now is not the time to lose faith. Now is the time to re-double our efforts. The fibre optic cable, new wind and solar farms and sorting out Rupert’s are on the horizon. Investors are out there to be encouraged. Niche diving, fishing, nature and history tourism will take root where we package it attractively and the Napoleon Bicentenary will showcase our Island globally. New business opportunities with the arrival of affordable high speed internet will be there to exploit and golf, spa and smart developments for well-to-do paying clientele have been proposed. I see us on the cusp of improvement not the cusp of decline. With a positive outlook we can make the first path the generator of a bold future for St Helena. The latter one has no place here.
Governor Dr Philip Rushbrook