01 December 2008

Development and Social Decline in the British Virgin Islands

The linkage between rapid economic development and the effects on the social climate of the small island developing country of the British Virgin Islands is examined by Benito Wheatley, Program Board Associate and Co-Chair of Youth Programs and Initiatives at the Institute of Caribbean Studies in Washington, DC., and is published below with the kind permission of Mr. Wheatley.

In the wake of nearly three decades of unprecedented economic growth, the British Virgin Islands has slipped into a period of social decline. No where is this more apparent than in the increase in crime and other social ills affecting the society. Crimes such as burglary, armed robbery, and drug trafficking have become commonplace, while social ills like teen pregnancies and high school drop-outs have become an ugly feature of the territory. How the BVI arrived at this point and what can be done to reverse the negative trends that have arisen are important questions for discussion.

The poor social climate emerging in the British Virgin Islands is a byproduct of changing social and economic conditions that have eroded the social foundation of the society. Prior to the economic rise of the territory, the islands were a smallholder society made up of a number of remote villages. These villages were populated by several close-knit families which relied upon subsistence farming, animal husbandry, fishing, handicraft, and barter for their survival and livelihood. The economic and social needs of the population encouraged close cooperation between the families, which fostered a strong sense of community.

Both the family and the church played vital roles in the functioning of the smallholder society. Within the family the close working relationship between parents and children was a critical factor in their survival under what were challenging economic circumstances. Parents or caretakers worked inside or in close proximity to the home, enlisting the children of the house or community in their trades and livelihoods. This instilled a great deal of discipline in the youth, encouraged a healthy respect for hard work, and helped develop good character in the individual. Many young men and women also served as apprentices under local artisans and craftsmen and women from whom they learned a trade. The extended family and larger community were also very important, and provided a social safety net for those vulnerable members of society in need of support and protection, including children and the elderly. The smallholder society literally embodied the creed “it takes a village to raise a child”.

The church was at the very center of social life and education in the villages, and acted as the moral authority over the community. Together, the family and the church, served as the primary transmitters of moral and social values from one generation to the next; and the close linkages between the extended family, church, and community ensured the healthy development of the society. Notably, the moral fabric of the smallholder society was predicated upon a high sense of integrity, respect for elders, and collective responsibility.

By the end of the 1970s the territory had undergone a significant economic transformation. Two successive governments had begun laying the foundation for a modern society by expanding education, building roads, modernizing ports; and providing services such as electricity, running water, and telecommunications. The marked improvement in economic and social conditions contributed to rising expectations among the population which desired a modern lifestyle. This in turn stimulated local demand for modern goods and services and the need for income to purchase them.

The confluence of British Virgin Islanders’ demand for earned income and demand for labor in the rapidly growing economy, drew a new generation of workers (i.e. Baby Boomers) into the newly emerging market economy, being driven by tourism, financial services, and an expanding civil service; and away from the traditional agrarian economy of the past. Simultaneously the church began to lose its relevance as many of its functions like education and social organization were assumed by the government, civic organizations, and social clubs. By the mid-1990s, the smallholder society had all but withered away and vanished.

The transition to a modern society had serious implications for the BVI and brought with it a host of challenges. The shifting of the labor force into the public and private sectors of the new economy effectively changed the family structure. The new workplace imposed unprecedented demands upon employees which required a disproportional amount of their time and energy. Households became dual-income and parents began dedicating more time and attention to their jobs for the purpose of survival and financial gain, while having less time for children, extended family, and the larger community. Under the new circumstances, the importance of the church and community declined as the close social bonds that had developed out of the economic and social needs of the past lost their force in the face of a booming economy.

With the family, church, and community’s influence diminished, other influences emerged, many of which were introduced by exposure to the outside world that came with economic change. Key among these influences were television, radio, and eventually the internet. The content of these mediums, which included music, movies, and information, strongly influenced the ideas, identity, and culture of British Virgin Islanders. Not only did these mediums become major forms of entertainment, but they also became major instruments in the socialization of children in the home, daycare, and school.

In addition to new information, the new economy also brought with it a wave of guest workers who arrived to fill in gaps in manpower unfulfilled by BVIslanders. These expatriates brought with them their own set of values and interests from their countries, some of which ran counter to the traditional culture of the BVI. The influx of immigrants and their ideas and attitudes about life impacted the attitudes, identity, and values of British Virgin Islanders who worked, lived, and grew up alongside them.

Another influence that came with the new economy is drug-trafficking and drug dealing. The heightened profile of the BVI and easy access to its waters attracted narcotics dealers who viewed the islands as an ideal transit/drop point. Some BVIslanders partnered with outsiders in this underground business as a means of earning income and achieving financial success in the modern society. Among some elements of the population, particularly youth, drug dealers and drug traffickers were, and still are, idolized for their glamorous lifestyles and wealth.

What is important to note is that there are two generations of British Virgin Islanders (i.e. Generation X, Generation Y) who have grown up far removed from the traditional values of their parents and grandparents. They are a generation that has been raised under the influences of a modern society filled with great possibilities, but littered with materialism and many practices and attitudes that are counter to progress.

The diminished role of the family, church, and community, coupled with the impact of outside influences, has opened up the society to a whole slew of social ills that are now being felt. Crime in particular is a major problem, with serious implications for the economy. Both the tourism and financial services sectors depend heavily upon the image of the British Virgin Islands as a safe and friendly destination where people can visit and do business. Ongoing crime and social deviancy are only hurting the territory’s image and driving business away. Steps must be taken to address the underlying causes of the society’s social problems before they become worse.

Addressing social decline in the British Virgin Islands will require a concerted effort to instill and promote values, particularly in the youth, which encourages making an honest living and living a modest lifestyle. The process can begin with restoring the influence of the family and its traditional role as the central transmitter of moral and social values. Parents must lead the way by paying adequate attention to their children and setting a good example, as opposed to leaving this example to be set by television/movie characters, entertainers, athletes, or unscrupulous people on the streets. In addition, steps must be taken to restore a sense of community and collective responsibility for the society. The church and other civic institutions can support these efforts through various religious and civic campaigns targeting the family and community. The government can also play a role by implementing a social policy that addresses the social needs of the territory. It can start by boosting its social services capacity to provide support for those families and individuals in need of assistance regarding their own specific set of circumstances.

A crime free and socially stable BVI is in the best interest of the territory and absolutely essential to the long-term economic prosperity and well-being of the islands. No effort should be spared in reversing the current negative social trends if the British Virgin Islands is to continue to thrive and prosper in the 21st century.

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