The Caribbean After the Hurricanes: What Path for Recovery?

By Daniel P. Erikson*

A group of man clear debris

Residents and volunteers begin clearing debris from Hurricane Irma on St. Maarten. / NLRC / Flickr / Creative Commons

This fall’s historically fierce hurricane season reminds us once again that the Caribbean remains extraordinarily vulnerable to natural disasters – especially in the lucrative tourist sectors – and needs to move beyond tourism.  The services sector in the Caribbean may serve as an important source of economic growth, but only if the region begins to take advantage of opportunities in banking and financial services; call centers and information and communication technology; off-shore education and health services; and transportation.

  • While the impact of Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, and Maria in U.S. states like Texas and Florida has received wide attention, the small island nations of the Caribbean have also been left to contend with extensive damage to infrastructure and loss of life that has resulted in thousands of newly homeless and dozens of deaths. Irma struck the tiny nation of Antigua and Barbuda as a peak-strength Category 5 storm, and Prime Minister Gaston Browne estimated that 95 percent of the properties on the smaller island of Barbuda were destroyed.  Irma then raked across the U.K. territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos, the French territories of St. Bart’s, Guadeloupe and St. Martin (including the Dutch half of St. Maarten).  Cuba also suffered as the storm swept across its northern coast and ravaged the third-largest city, Camaguey.  Then, just as Hurricanes Jose and Katia rattled the islands only to retreat as minor threats, Hurricane Maria strengthened into a Category 4 storm that ravaged Dominica and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico with winds exceeding 150 mph, devastating local infrastructure and knocking out the power grid, possibly for months to come.

Clearly, the focus of the near-term will be relief and recovery efforts, as these small islands seek to cope with the enormous damage.  But rebuilding a stronger and more diversified service sector may offer the best path towards a sustainable and much-deserved recovery for the people of the region.  Several years ago, the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Canada, asked me to assess what steps the Caribbean islands could take to diversify their economies away from an over-reliance on tourism to create a more sustainable future.  The lessons of that study, Beyond Tourism: The Future of the Service Industry in the Caribbean, remain relevant today.  The bottom line:  Expanding the competitiveness of the Caribbean services sector beyond tourism is a way to draw on regional strengths and broaden the basis for economic growth.

The hurricanes have dealt a tragic and costly blow to the Caribbean, but the reconstruction efforts may also provide an opportunity to build back stronger and more resilient economies.  While the damage is still being assessed, it is already clear that the lives of tens of thousands of people who live on these islands will never be the same and that property damage will extend into the billions.  The recent damage to Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria will likely jolt those figures substantially higher, while some of the smaller, remote islands hurt by earlier storms may be uninhabitable for weeks to come.  French President Emmanuel Macron and the King of the Netherlands traveled to the region to show solidarity with their afflicted citizens, while the United States deployed teams to assist in disaster relief and deployed over $1 million in aid to the smaller affected islands – and is beginning to launch a major relief effort in Puerto Rico as well.  Once the challenges of treating the injured and assisting with basic human needs are met, much of the early reconstruction effort is likely to focus on rebuilding tourist infrastructure.  This will be necessary, but not sufficient, to create a full recovery.  Caribbean leaders have increasingly recognized that developing globally competitive services industries offers one way to retain high-skilled workers and mitigate the risk of external shocks to the tourist sector. During the Obama administration, Vice President Biden made a major effort to deepen U.S. investments in the Caribbean’s energy sector, and new sources of financing through the Inter-American Development Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and private U.S. companies could similarly lead to a major push to modernize services-related infrastructure throughout the islands.  Future storms cannot be prevented, but a more diversified services sector will help the islands to navigate the challenge of reconstruction more effectively.

September 28, 2017

* Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies in Washington, DC, and previously served as a White House and State Department advisor on Latin America during the Obama Administration.

Climate Change: Creating Spaces for Action

Pacchanta women with Ausangate Glacier in the background.  Photo credit: Oxfam International / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Pacchanta women with Ausangate Glacier in the background. Photo credit: Oxfam International / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Organization of American States (OAS) has resolved to strengthen its role in addressing climate change, but it has yet to demonstrate that it can convene Latin American countries around this urgent issue.  Participants at a recent OAS roundtable agreed that Latin American leaders have moved beyond debating the existence of climate change and are now focused on mitigating its immediate and future effects.  Of primary concern are the potentially devastating economic consequences of climate change for the region, which the Inter-American Development Bank estimates will reach $100 billion per year by 2050 – severely jeopardizing national economies that are currently growing at a healthy rate.  Based on recent climate change reports and initiatives, the potential of a looming transnational cataclysm is driving a sense of urgency for action within an effective regional framework.

Within the consensus for action, there will be competing priorities.  Climate change presents different challenges to different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.  In Peru, for example, a major concern is glacier melt in the Andes, which affects fresh water resources, agricultural irrigation, and sustainable urban development.  This has created a need not only for new dams and reservoirs to redirect water, but also for managing internal social conflicts generated by an increasing scarcity of basic resources.  In the Caribbean, where tourism revenue represents the greatest proportion of the regional economy (14 percent of GDP), the top priority is managing the triple threat of rising sea levels, the loss of coastal livelihoods, and intensifying weather conditions.  And in Brazil, as Evan Berry highlighted here recently, deforestation, carbon markets and land use, among other concerns, need to be addressed.

The OAS would appear to be the logical forum to address these issues and provide a negotiating framework regarding climate change.  On recent non-environmental issues, however, the OAS has struggled to coordinate actions and lost prestige among many in Latin America.  The OAS response toward Honduras following the 2009 presidential coup was divisive and ultimately was end-run when the United States cut a deal with the coup regime.  The 2012 OAS assembly in Bolivia was plagued by persistent absenteeism of member states.  Washington has repeatedly pressed the OAS toward a more political agenda, especially pressing for condemnation of Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro, and has even threatened to suspend its contributions to the organization’s budget.  Insofar as the OAS is perceived as a U.S. proxy, its effectiveness on difficult issues with a north-south spin, like climate change, is undermined.  At the same time, the OAS is competing with other regional bodies, such as UNASUR and CELAC, and the region has raised its profile in international venues such as the 2010 alternative climate summit held in Bolivia after UN negotiations in Copenhagen failed.  With the UN’s 20th Conference of Parties (COP20) taking place in Lima in December 2014, Latin America will again be center stage during conversations on ways to strengthen and replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  Should the OAS overcome its problems of effectiveness and image, and participate successfully in the current dialogue around climate change, this issue could redefine its existing agenda and give it relevance for years to come.

Brazil: Sustained Attention to Sustainable Development?

By Evan Berry*

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Media coverage of the approaching World Cup in Brazil has touched on the country’s contemporary ecological challenges, but they have glossed over their underlying causes.  Because of Brazil’s association with international sustainability accords, large international events – such as the “Rio+20” sustainable development conference two years ago and the 2016 Olympics – provide vehicles for global news media to focus on Brazil’s performance on environmental issues.  Among this flurry of journalistic coverage, two distinct narratives emerge.  In one, journalists look at sustainability with reference to economic modernization, suggesting that environmental problems are the outcomes of policy failures and ineffective governance.  Commentary in this vein calls for greater technocratic competency and a commitment to the development pathways of the global north.  In the other narrative, sustainability is set in the context of social justice and economic inequality.

These views lead to different responses.  The international bodies overseeing the upcoming sporting events – such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee – demand that the Brazilian government do more to clean up beaches, improve transportation infrastructures, and purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the impact of new construction.  These prescriptions ignore, however, that environmentalism in the developed northern economies emerged from a distinctly middle- and upper-class preoccupation with aesthetically pleasing environments, such as wilderness, scenic landscapes, and exotic game.  Frustration with the pollution in southeastern Brazil’s Guanabara Bay, for instance, echoes the North American desire for well-managed spaces for outdoor recreation.  So too does the narrow focus on the plight of Brazilian armadillos, the vulnerable species chosen as the World Cup mascot.  This emphasis corresponds with a narrative that many Brazilian leaders would want to put forward – that the natural splendor of Rio de Janeiro in particular, and Brazil in general, can be secured by the kind of straightforward cleanup efforts that attended economic prosperity.  However, Brazil’s ecological woes cannot be solved by garbage scows, and endangered armadillos and the lack of clean recreational spaces are hardly Brazil’s most pressing obstacles to environmental sustainability.  Guanabara Bay is fetid because so many Cariocas, or Rio residents, lack access to basic sanitation.  Armadillos are threatened by deforestation that is as much a byproduct of global economic demand.

As elsewhere, environmental problems in Brazil are caused by myriad social, economic, and political factors.  Ameliorating the most visible impacts of these factors – protecting a charming creature or purifying noxious waters – addresses only symptoms.  International attention to sustainability issues in Brazil should be more mindful of social justice.  Brazil’s current political unrest centers on deeply shared public concerns about injustice, and addressing the problems giving rise to contemporary social movements will offer an important corrective to mainstream public discourse about sustainability.  International attention to the negative environmental impact of international sporting events, and accompanying investments in infrastructure, risks overlooking the unjust structural processes that complicate solutions to environmental problems.  Rather, the global popularity of sport provides an opportunity to deepen and expand international discourse about the human dimensions of ecology.

 *Evan Berry is an Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion.