By Kenichi Serino
Four leaders from the Caribbean region, including Prime Minister of Aruba Evelyn Croes and British Virgin Islands Premier Andrew Fahie, met with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative conference held on Tuesday on St. Thomas.
Clinton and the four were speaking on a panel on small business growth in the region. The other two leaders were CEO of First Bank Aurelio Aleman-Bermudez and president of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development Deanna James.
Clinton started the discussion by asking about small business and the “inconceivably” high electricity rates throughout the Caribbean region and the lack of renewable energy such as solar and wind.
“Let’s talk about small business, what do you think the impact, of the almost inconceivable to me as an outsider, of the high electric rates in the Caribbean are. This is nuts, the sun shines 300 days out of the year. The wind blows like crazy. Why are we still doing what we’re doing?” asked Clinton.
Fahie acknowledged that “wind is free, sun is free” but said that for “economic reasons” Caribbean nations had used ‘engines and fuel’. He said the BVI was aiming to get half their energy from renewables in seven years.
“The more a people in any country can save more money, then better for them to become more resilient to put more money on education levels including technical areas and it also helps the tourism products,” Fahie said.
“We are looking for investors who will be of like minds in concert with what we’re looking at so we can help the tourism market, to help the environment, help the people and at the same time the investors will be able to help themselves because everyone is in business for money.”
Clinton said the Caribbean and Central America were the only places in the world where renewable energy could be built without subsidies and still be profitable for investors.
“When someone says ‘something sounds too good to be true’, I say ‘because it is’. [But] in this case it’s not too good to be true,” Clinton joked.
Clinton also asked the panel about micro-loans, small loans given to support businesses in developing economies.
“It’s very important to get the small loans but what you need is the opportunity. Government needs to partner with innovation labs to produce the entrepreneurial spirit among people, especially young people,” said Fahie.
Fahie said the BVI was also looking for investors or foundations to support “incubation labs” to generate ideas for the economy of the territory. He said “one idea” could change the whole economy of the BVI, generate money for a business from which the government could take a royalty.
“If we can come up with one idea and the government can get a royalty from that then that can help the nation move from poverty,” Fahie said.
Fahie added that he believed the threat of climate change was encouraging innovative thinking in the Caribbean.
“What climate change has done for all of us is make us pause and make us realise that a lot what we were doing before cannot build us new economies, it cannot help us build new small businesses because small businesses are the hub of any economy because a small businesses is the one that employs the most persons,” Fahie said.
The Clinton Global Initiative Action Network on Post-Disaster Recovery is in its fourth year and convened over 400 international leaders. At this week’s meeting, participants discussed the current recovery efforts in the region and announced 29 new projects that address issues such as food security, access to health care, small business support, sustainable tourism, and renewable energy. Since the Action Network was launched last year, 775 organisations have convened over four meetings to make 86 action commitments.
We are here to share ideas and experiences and figure out how we can better help the entire Caribbean become stronger, safer, and more sustainable,” said Clinton.
“With the 2019 hurricane season upon us, the work of this network to ensure resilience, preparedness, and sustainability in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominica, and across the Caribbean is more urgent than ever.”
Highlights of the new projects announced this week include a A commitment by the Virgin Islands Conservation Society to integrate the Eco-Schools disaster risk reduction curriculum to seven schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands; a commitment by Nilus to bring their successful food rescue program, which minimises food waste and establishes healthy and affordable food markets, to the Caribbean starting with a pilot in Puerto Rico; a commitment by International Planned Parenthood Federation, Engineers Without Borders, and the Clara Lionel Foundation to strengthen the emergency preparedness and response capacity of local Sexual and Reproductive Health providers in the Caribbean; a commitment by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to install 12 photovoltaic power systems and battery energy storage systems on key government buildings in member states and the organisation’s own headquarters.