Featured Address By Clyde Lettsome Former Permanent Secretary
In The Ministry Of Natural Resources And Labour
And The Premier’s Office
At The Prayers And Recognition Ceremony
For Public Service Week 2018
Monday, 8th October, 2018
Grounds, Central Administration Complex
HUMANS ARE REMARKABLE RESILIENT, AND WE ARE HUMANS.
Whenever catastrophe strikes, opportunity walks at her side. And that is because humans are remarkably resilient and have a strong drive and instinct for survival.
The Second World War took place from 1939-1945. It was a terrible time. Countries were destroyed. Economies collapsed. Over 61 million people died. Many were left homeless and destitute and uncertainty prevailed.
On July 1st 1944, the finance experts from the rich countries convened in a hotel in the New Hampshire Mountains to discuss the post-war monetary system. It was dubbed the Bretton Woods Conference and from that conference two global institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were born.
One year later, in 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed. The new international organization was charged with saving ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war among other things.’
It was not business as usual and countries recognized that in order to rebuild and maintain peace, certain freedoms and autonomies previous held by individual governments had to be ceded. Was it scary? You bet! But it was necessary for the reconstruction of those countries in much the same way that the RDA is necessary for our reconstruction. And those countries bit the bullet and pressed on with their re-development.
The destructive trio of 2017, The August floods, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, hit the BVI hard. Homes and properties were destroyed, lives were lost. Irma’s ferocity was unprecedented. The scale of destruction was frightening.
I remember touring parts of BVI from the air 2 days after Irma hit and what I saw in Jost Van Dyke around Tortola, Virgin Gorda and some of our sister islands made me tremble and question whether we could survive this. But I started by saying that ‘humans are remarkable resilient,’ and we are humans.
Days later I would see the attempted exodus of many families who were especially worried about the education of their children given the state of the schools and the uncertainty as to when they would be reopened. Of course, getting out of BVI was not easy. We had squandered our opportunity to improve our airport facilities instead choosing to rely on our neighbours. But our neighbours were wounded; St Marteen, Antigua, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico; and frustration and anxiety prevailed.
THE MORNING AFTER IRMA
You know how you felt the morning after. You knew you were in a daze. When you began to take stock of the damages, you did not know if we would have an economy, we hardly expected that we would have jobs. Hotels were destroyed or severely damaged, businesses were destroyed, damaged or looted, banks were not immediately open for business and the country was dark and dismal. No electricity, no communication, no water. Food and gasoline were being rationed. Building supplies, where they existed, were at a premium. Port facilities were in shambles. Need I go further?
Yes, but only to add that on the back of all this was a BVI that had increasing demands on a shrinking revenue base. And with the tourism infrastructure damaged and Financial Services under attack, we were not confident about the near or distant future. Cash, once again, was king and the majority did not have cash. It was a frightening time helped on by the fact that prisoners were on the loose and lawlessness seemed about to prevail. Health and safety became a factor, transportation became a huge factor. In summary, it seemed that we were pushed right back to the base of Maslow’s pyramid in the hierarchy of human development.
The law of the jungle came to mind. I embraced Kiplin’s version. He projects harmony, loyalty, obedience, brotherhood and I knew once again that ‘humans are remarkably resilient. And we are humans. So how were we going to get out of this deep excrement in which we found ourselves? By the grace of God, of course, but also by careful planning and execution on our part. And at the heart of this planning and execution is Government. Many of you have heard me use the quote before that:
“Government is a Trust and the Officers of Government are Trustees and both the Trust and the Trustees, exist for the benefit of the people.”
Truer words were never spoken and never more appropriate than in the post Irma era. The country looked to Government for direction. All sectors looked to Government to lead and Government looked to you, its advisors, its senior technocrats, its administrators, its rank and file, its doers, its workers.
THE PUBLIC SERVICE
Without you, public servants, we have no Service and if we have no Service, we can neither progress nor develop. In short, we would not have this Territory that we built together, side by side. We value you. We value the work you do. We value the Expats who came in among us to help to provide these services. They have become our wives, our husbands, our children, our relatives, our teachers, our loved ones, our friends.
Part of the responsibility of the Public Service is to foster an enabling environment through the creation and implementation of laws that allow the private sector to become vibrant, to grow and develop. The private sector is then in a position to produce the revenue that pays for the public infrastructure and your salaries. As it goes about its selfish purpose of earning profits, paying taxes, employing people and being good corporate citizens, the private sector raises the standard of living and the quality of life, in the words of Economist Adam Smith, like an ‘invisible hand.’ But none of this is possible without the work you do on a daily basis.
And in case you were wondering, I get it. I get the fact that you are labouring under very difficult conditions. You no longer have fine, air conditioned buildings and to add insult to injury, many different Departments and Agencies are sharing a single space. Some of you don’t have basic equipment to carry out your jobs. Your documents are no longer as secured as they were and you feel hot and uncomfortable.
Mold in some of your buildings continues to be an issue. These are all legitimate concerns and they must and will be addressed. But while you exercise patience, you have a serious job to perform and the country is at stake if you do not perform that job, well. You remember the noble Queen Esther who did not want to leave her comfort zone for fear of her life? What was she told? That she may have come to the Kingdom for such a time as this! And so have you.
Let me use the Land Registry as a case in point.
Land ownership and our ability to charge and transfer property are at the heart of the economy. If the Land Registry does not function, commerce comes to a stand-still. Buying and selling ceases. The banks cannot do business and ownership is in flux.
The private sector trembled for many weeks when the Land Registry was not up and running. And somehow, Officialdom did not understand what the Land Registry meant to the economy and to the Territory.
Maybe in the same way, you did not quite understand how critical a role you play in the development of these Virgin Islands.
You may say that the Land Registry is a small Department. And you are correct. However, that small Department can cripple the BVI economy overnight if it does not function. And so can you.
IMMIGRATION AND LABOUR DEPARTMENTS
Immigration and Labour Departments may be used as another case in point. Every person coming into the BVI to do business or to work is processed through these Departments. You saw the long lines. That equated to loss of productivity. We simply lost too many man hours as our employees stood in lines for days on end. I can continue with similar case studies from every area of Government but you get the picture.
PRIVATE SECTOR/PUBLIC SECTOR RELATIONSHIP
If you, the Public Sector provide the Private Sector with the necessities of living, that enabling environment, we, the private sector will provide you with the necessities of life through the taxes generated. Please understand that the Public Sector does not and cannot produce the revenue you need. That is the domain of the Private Sector. And please understand that the Private Sector cannot produce those tax dollars if you do not provide the enabling environment and the efficient service that support the Private Sector.
But let me take you back to World War 2. I remember my first visit to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbour. The documentary of that fateful day when the USA was drawn into the war was riveting. As that documentary proceeded, the names of all those sailors who lay in the watery grave of the Arizona were being whispered. It was chilling especially because they made the ultimate sacrifice for country.
WE LOOK TO YOU
In the rebuild of BVI, your names are being whispered over every phase of the redevelopment. Because it is you who provide the services, who implement the policies, who ensure that the records are kept. And who but you can we look to to maintain law and order, to teach our children, to care for our sick, to ensure that we have roads to drive on, that we have water, electricity, that our goods are cleared efficiently and that we have freedom of movement through our ports of entry. Who but you have kept the dialogue alive with the international community, have protected our borders. We look to you. We whisper your names. We pray that you do not become distracted and weary by your challenging work environments. And we equally hope that the training, experience and exposure you have received over the years, result in a high level of service to the public which at this stage of the game means the difference between us getting back and improving on the pre Irma BVI economy or not.
THE CREDIT IS ALREADY YOURS
You were wise to support the establishment of a body like the RDA to get on with the rebuild of the public infrastructure, to work side by side with you. Now you have to go the extra mile and let that agency do its work. You have to support that work otherwise, the world will forget that we need assistance while we bicker, bark and fight over who should get the credit for getting the work done. The credit is already yours. You created the Agency, you established it in law, you determined what resources it should have and it is your mandate and yours alone that the Agency must implement.
To be sure, the private sector is moving on with its plans but none of those plans matter if we do not have a rebuilt public infrastructure. And in any case, our tourism experts advise us that tourist do not want to visit mashed up countries. They came last year and this year to help but should they choose to come next year, they expect BVI to be back in business and that business cannot happen without you.
So where does that leave us as a Territory and more importantly, where does it leave you as Public Servants?
Public service is a vocation; some would even say, a sacrifice. Although that is not how I felt about it when I sat where you are now sitting. I saw it as a wonderful career opportunity full of education, exposure and experiences. Public Servants keep the BVI running. Everyone knows that even if they pretend otherwise.
Let me end where I started. Whenever catastrophes strike, opportunity walks at her side. And that is because humans are remarkably resilient and have a strong drive and instinct for survival. And we are humans.