Op-Ed: Capacity as a Driving Force for Development

This is the third of four stories about the larger structural issues facing the Virgin Islands, with the aim of spurring more public conversation and mobilizing the community around agreed solutions.The first story can be read here and the second here.

Lloyd Gardner
Lloyd Gardner

Development of a community – that is, the process of improving the well-being of residents in that community – involves harnessing human potential and institutional capacities to manage the area’s natural resources, improve economic conditions, and allocate resources to improve social conditions for the community at large.

While there are natural constraints to development of small islands, one of the major factors that influence the development of a community is the deployment of capability and capacity at the level of the individual, institution, and system.

Clearly there are knowledgeable, experienced, capable individuals and effective institutions in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, as with most small places, those individuals are not in abundance, they are not always appropriately deployed, and some may be sidelined periodically. This is true across the public, private, and civic sectors.

At the most basic level, a range of competences is required for appropriate design and effective management of projects, programs, and institutions. An extension of this basic management level is the capability to design and/or manage collaborative and participatory processes.

Examples of collaborative processes are the public sector procurement process, infrastructure (re)development initiatives, transition of economic or social development strategies, delivery of a range of public services, and business repositioning. They are typically multi-phase processes that involve several institutions and take place over several years, and delays can be disruptive and costly.

Some of the more critical collaborative arrangements (as in the areas of healthcare, criminal justice, education, and human services) are structured as mixed-delivery systems. This means that the arrangements involve many institutions in the public, private, and civic sectors. These arrangements are sometimes informal, often maintained by personal rather than institutional agreements, the linkages are sometimes tenuous, and there is often a lack of clarity on process and expected outcomes.

Each participating institution must have the capacity effectively discharge its responsibilities in these collective impact processes. Additionally, trust and communication are critical underpinnings of such processes, and the individuals must be willing and able to maintain effective engagement to facilitate such collective action.

A home under construction in the USVI.
A home under construction in the USVI.

As noted earlier, disruption is the order of the day. As such, the U.S. Virgin Islands must maintain significant capacity for risk assessment and management. Local programs to manage risk consist mainly of the hazard mitigation and emergency response programs coordinated by the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency. However, those programs focus on preparedness, response, and recovery, only three of the four phases of a comprehensive disaster management program. The fourth phase is prevention and mitigation, and it is in this phase that economic, legal, socio-political, institutional, and other measures are integrated to reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience.

In the case of the U.S. Virgin Islands, vulnerability and risk resulting from the structure and function of the social systems exist in several forms, such as:
– The makeup of the population (aging, high levels of non-communicable diseases, high poverty level).
– The poor health of the economy and the high level of dependence on a single sector.
– Dependence on an expanding range of incentive measures to energize economic growth.
– The state of the infrastructure, institutional arrangements, and service delivery systems, which determines the capacity of the community to absorb shocks and function under duress.
– Financial and economic decision making that degrades natural areas that provide many of the goods and services that support the local economy.
– Land management practices that degrade natural systems and increase damage to private and public assets.
– The persistence of inadequate institutional capacity for assessment and management of risk.
– The existence of attitudes and social practices that perpetuate risk.

Addressing some attitudes and practices, such as; the debatable commitment to service, the inadequate level of stewardship of natural and institutional resources, and the inadequate investment in staff development, can produce improvements in capacity in a fairly short timeframe.

Similarly, the cessation of some practices would reduce vulnerability fairly quickly. For example, the practice of “deferred maintenance” demonstrates inadequate capacity to assess risk. Ongoing failure to maintain equipment and structures cannot be considered strategic simply because the failing is a deliberate act. The practice of deferred maintenance is an act of self-delusion that increases risk, particularly under conditions of frequent disasters. Additionally, risk is magnified when the “thing” requiring maintenance is a mechanism that functions as a safety net or a process designed to reduce disaster risk.

Some of the social practices that perpetuate risk have to be understood in a historical context, and even if they still produce positive outcomes under certain circumstances, care should be taken that the net result of maintaining such practices is not negative. In this context, the basis for employing or electing persons should be that the knowledge, competences, and experiences of the persons will enable them to adequately discharge their duties.

One of the areas in which capacity is urgently needed is development planning. Planning and investment in the public, private, and civic sectors is designed primarily to deliver results in the short term. In the public sector, the motivation results in part from frequent election cycles in which elected officials are highly responsive to the demands of multiple small constituencies. Such officials have very little time or incentive to establish governing mechanisms that improve competencies and capacities for public policy formulation and delivery. It is easier to bypass outdated or inefficient systems in order to increase the pace of program delivery, with the result that new systems are built on top of deteriorating systems and support structures, thereby increasing inefficiencies and waste. The public, private, and civic sectors in the U.S. Virgin Islands contain multiple overlapping groups and systems serving the small community, and rationalization of the institutional framework would release capacity and resources for redeployment.

Therefore, continuing to make progress in improving the lives of resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands requires the capability and capacity to design and manage an appropriate enabling environment. An enabling environment is basically the framework created by the interplay of policies, laws, institutions, and arrangements that influence development of a country. It requires dialogue regarding the roles of social actors (public, private, and civil society), capacity to ensure that all actors can function effectively, effective coordinating mechanisms, information and data to support informed decision making, and consistent monitoring and evaluation.

The government, as the key actor in creating the enabling environment and driving the development process, must ensure that the infrastructure of government is properly maintained. This infrastructure includes competence to formulate and deliver public policy, significant decision making capabilities, and appropriate and effective governing systems.

As a territory, this also includes the ability to articulate the most appropriate policies, designs, and management systems for implementation of federal projects and programs in the territory. The infrastructure of government must have the capacity to absorb shocks and function efficiently under stresses produced by constant disruption.

Yet it seems that the difficulty in harnessing the capacity for hurricane recovery and more recent disruptions while focusing on economic growth has left little time for individuals, institutions, and the public sector in the U.S. Virgin Islands to focus on development of the enabling environment.

The COVID-19 pandemic added a level of complexity by injecting a significant degree of uncertainty into the planning process. Nonetheless, there is increasing agreement that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will result in future scarcity of financial resources necessary to address major development challenges, such as climate change and healthcare.

The above implies that the U.S. Virgin Islands should develop an appropriate framework for development AND significantly increase its capacity for managing its development processes.

Editor’s note: Lloyd Gardner is a consultant in Environmental Planning at Parks Caribbean Initiative, Environmental Policy and Planning Consulting Services, Foundation for Development Planning Inc.