Our hurricane-hit islands deserve aid. The rules that block it are wrong | Guy Hewitt

Hurricane Maria has wrought terrible destruction in the Caribbean, yet OECD guidelines say that the islands are ineligible for assistance

In a manner reminiscent of Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams, dark clouds of despair and destruction hover yet again over the Caribbean with the passage of Hurricane Maria.

The most recent version of our recurring ecological nightmare included Hurricane Harvey followed by Hurricane Irma, the latter setting a new record of three consecutive days as a category 5 storm with maximum wind speeds of 185mph, and leaving a trail of devastation British foreign secretary Boris Johnson described as “absolutely hellish”.

Maria’s full fury is yet to be revealed but social media posts from Dominica’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, and acting high commissioner for Dominica to the UK, Janet Charles, early on Tuesday morning described the destruction, the latter posting on Facebook: “Dominica has been brutalised by the hurricane. Please let the world know. We need help!” Communications with Dominica have since been lost.

The London-based high commissions from the Caribbean, while outside the hurricane’s path, are not immune from its wrath. We’re currently contacting loved ones at home, planning yet another round of appeals for assistance, and continuing our prayers for protection from the ravages of this cycle of bad weather and failing that, the strength to resist until the close of the Atlantic hurricane season at the end of November.

The Caribbean now finds itself fighting on two fronts. First, against nature’s fury, second, against public opinion that questions whether the hurricane-ravaged islands are deserving of international aid. Britain’s call for urgent changes to international rules on aid to allow UK development assistance budgets to be used to help victims of these hurricanes has unbelievably been met with resistance.

Many in the Caribbean share Theresa May’s frustration with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) development assistance committee (DAC) rules that exclude countries such as St Kitts and Nevis and British Overseas Territories including Anguilla, British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos from receiving much-needed official development assistance from international aid budgets. However, the response to the UK’s call for an update to these rules established 40 years ago has been disheartening.

The prevailing view of the international donor community is that the gross national income per capita of these islands is too high for them to have access to aid budgets designed to relieve poverty, a perspective shared by the international NGO community. As people in hurricane-struck islands struggle to find any kind of footing, the international development charity Christian Aid argued: “The [UK] overseas aid budget is quite rightly subject to serious scrutiny and a set of rules which ringfence overseas aid spending to ensure it goes to the poorest people in the poorest countries. Overseas Territories are not among the world’s poorest countries. In fact, the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, has a higher GDP per capita than the UK.” The statement concluded with the stony suggestion that: “The companies and investors that use tax havens like some of the British Overseas Territories, all have a role to play in rebuilding those communities.

This perspective is premised on two misconceptions. First, the egregious notion that “tax havens” exist in the Caribbean. While the Caribbean contains low tax jurisdictions, they form part of a wider strategy to diversify Caribbean economies. Moreover, the development of international business and financial centres mirrors the practice of many developed countries as shown by a report published by Oxfam last December, in which Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are ranked among the world’s 10 lowest-tax jurisdictions.

The second fallacy is the limited way in which the deserving poor are identified. DAC rules restrict overseas aid to low- and middle-income countries based on GNI per capita as computed by the World Bank. This classification by economic data alone is both dated and myopic. It ignores the acute vulnerability of small countries, particularly those island states in the Caribbean and Pacific vulnerable to catastrophic storms.

For over four decades, the Commonwealth of Nations, the recognised champion of small states in terms of policy research and global advocacy, has demonstrated that small states face a unique set of development challenges because of their size, limited range of products and exports, scarce financial resources and susceptibility to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters. Through the Commonwealth vulnerability index, the international donor community was offered an additional criterion to determine the classification of developing countries. This is yet to become a reality.

In the blink of an eye, small islands states can be hurled from seeming prosperity to absolute poverty, lacking the basic human needs: water, food, clothing, shelter and sanitation. As Roosevelt Skerrit wrote following the passage of Hurricane Maria: “Initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains … We will need help, my friends, we will need help of all kinds.”

And ironically, although Antigua and Barbuda was pummelled by Irma, as it recently exceeded the DAC country income threshold, it may be deemed ineligible for official development assistance at this year’s review.

Unlike those in the US threatened by Harvey, Irma and possibly Maria, there is nowhere to run to on Caribbean islands. And there is no pool of resources domestically to mobilise afterwards. As depicted in the media recently following Irma, it is almost like game over; nothing left but hardship and faith. And in the midst of the efforts to rebuild – for Caribbean people are formidable – the provision of essential needs is thwarted by DAC rules.

It is not as if the OECD, the club of the world’s wealthiest countries, is being asked to set a precedent, for this has already been done by the European Union through the European Development Fund (EDF). In 2013, when the 11th EDF, the EU’s main instrument for providing development aid to African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and to overseas countries and territories, was concluded, the main modification was to ensure more flexibility and faster reactions in the case of unexpected events. A new shock-absorbing scheme was created to help countries to mitigate the short-term effects of exogenous shocks such as natural disasters.

I hope that the UN and the Commonwealth will discuss the vulnerability of small island developing states in New York this week as the international community gathers for the United Nations general assembly, the Commonwealth foreign affairs ministers meeting and the UK-hosted pre-2018 Commonwealth summit reception.

On Tuesday, as St Kitts and Nevis braces in anticipation of Hurricane Maria, it also marks its 34th anniversary of independence. We pray that it has cause for thanksgiving and, if it comes to the worst, that the Commonwealth will demonstrate duty of care and the international community will follow in doing what is right and just and come to its aid. Like every island ravaged by hurricane, it deserves it.

• Guy Hewitt is Barbados high commissioner


Guy Hewitt

The GuardianTramp

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