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Lack of British hurricane support is telling

Work undone: scenes of devastation sent from Tortola, the most populated of the British Virgin Islands, in the wake of Hurricane Irma (Photograph supplied)

As the peak of the 2018 hurricane season progresses, Britain is on standby as its Caribbean territories remain vulnerable after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria a year earlier.

In the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks & Caicos Islands, repairs on many homes and businesses are incomplete and works on wrecked infrastructure are still getting under way. Recovery from the two powerful Category 5 hurricanes is a challenge for these small societies.

In particular, Irma inflicted catastrophic damage on the British Virgin Islands, whose losses are estimated at more than $3 billion, three times its GDP.

The tourism sector, which was largely wiped out, accounted for the largest share of employment and economic activity on the islands whose population is roughly 30,000. Rebuilding the industry will take another two years.

Britain will back up to $400 million in loans by the local government, which will add to the $115 million the territory has already borrowed on its own from the Caribbean Development Bank to fund the recovery. This will significantly increase the debt burden of the islands, which have been self-funded for the past 40 years.

Thirteen million dollars in grants is also being provided by Britain. These funds are earmarked in part for administrative purposes and are paying for continuing clean-up of debris from the 2017 hurricanes.

This was the financial package agreed by the British Government after it opted to not provide direct grants for reconstruction and would not use the UK aid budget to assist its hurricane-affected Overseas Territories on the basis of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s development assistance committee rules that restrict aid spending on high and middle-income countries.

At the same time, Antigua & Barbuda and Dominica, two high and upper middle-income countries also struck by the hurricanes, each received tens of millions of dollars in British aid to support their recoveries.

Britain’s limited direct financial support to its Caribbean territories for reconstruction brings into question the extent of its responsibilities to British Overseas Territories after a natural or national disaster.

Britain met its sovereign obligation to assist the territories in the period after Irma and Maria struck, but treated them as foreign entities when it came to funding their recovery. This paradox is a function of the ambiguous status of the Overseas Territories in relation to Britain.

They are not an integral part of Britain, being located in far-flung places around the globe, but maintain a constitutional link to the mainland that is responsible for their internal security, defence and those areas of external affairs not devolved to them.

Any UK government spending of British taxpayer dollars on the Overseas Territories not eligible for grant-in-aid is largely a political decision, even where it concerns their recovery after a disaster.

By any measure, this is not an efficient means by which to operate during or immediately after a hurricane or emergency, when lives are at stake or there is a pressing need for support.

Clarification is urgently needed on Britain’s responsibilities in this area before another natural or national disaster strikes its Caribbean territories located in the heart of the hurricane belt to which the “mother country” must respond.

Britain should treat its Overseas Territories as valued parts of the UK family, with whom they share a long history and to whom they have obligations until their statuses change.

Benito Wheatley is a Policy Fellow at Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy, and the former British Virgin Islands representative to Britain and the European Union. He can be contacted at benitowheatley@gmail.com