‘Don’t blow our golden chance’, says St Helena economist

UK aid will amount to £70,000 for each man, woman and child on St Helena over the next three years, says the island’s economist – but he warns that Saints must repay the British government’s trust with ‘a change in mindset’.

That will mean making ‘difficult decisions’, says Owen James.

The latest Economy Watch briefing from The Castle follows the signing of an aide memoire by governor Mark Capes and the Department for International Development, agreeing aid worth £24.4 million next year, with more to come. That’s on top of the £200m to fund the airport.

Mr James says: ‘To get an increase in support of this magnitude from the UK government, at a time when its own budget is being slashed and the future of its economy is so grim, is phenomenal.

‘But let’s avoid patting ourselves on the back too hard. The generous settlement is more a result of DfID’s willingness to support the island.

‘It is less a result of them being overwhelmed by St Helena’s enthusiasm to implement the changes needed to make the airport a success.’

In recent weeks there has been strong criticism of plans to restrict building on some parts of the island, at the same time as offering attractive sites to outside investors to build tourist developments.

Mr James acknowledges that great efforts were made to meet the demands set out in the Memorandum of Understanding that paved the way for the signing of the airport contract.

But he says: ‘St Helena has to be steadfast and continue to show it will contribute to its future prosperity, rather than presuming it can rely on greater amounts of overseas aid.

‘This will involve making some difficult decisions in order to radically alter the structure of the economy.

‘St Helena has been handed a golden opportunity to improve its future, but without a change in mindset – in both SHG and the private sector – we will fail to take advantage of it.’

The message, he says, is clear: ‘We either use it and use it well, or lose it.

‘With UK ministers and senior officials under extreme pressure to cut costs, DfID will be facing greater and greater pressure to ensure St Helena not only fully uses the money offered to it, but does so wisely. It’s in our hands.’

His comments echo comments in SHG’s draft Sustainable Development Plan about the scale of change needed in the economy – and the island’s culture. Without wholesale transformation, on a scale few other places have experienced outside of wartime, there is a danger that St Helena will not be ready to take advantage of the potential for tourism.

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