Dr Keith Mitchell is Grenada’s longest serving Prime Minister. He led the government from 1995 to 2008 and returned to start his fourth term in February 2013 after a spell in opposition. But that’s not all that stands out on Mitchell’s CV.
In his 20s he captained Grenada’s cricket team, before going on to get a PhD in maths in the USA, then lecturing at the USA’s Howard University.
Mitchell’s New National Party (NNP) fought the 2013 election on the promise of creating new jobs, with a view to cutting the 30 per cent unemployment rate drastically. And he’s wasted no time in trying to get the nation back to work. So what are the key elements in the government’s strategy?
“Attracting investment is one thing,” says Mitchell, “and training our workforce for whatever opportunities come. If incoming companies have to start without a trained workforce, they will have to bring in people from abroad to work in their facility, but we don’t want that. We want our young people to prepare for the jobs that are likely to come.”
Developing ICT facilities on the islands is also crucial to generating future employment. Mitchell has been working with other Caribbean nations on a project that will see ICT infrastructure improve across the region. “ICT can also provide opportunities in improving health and agriculture in the productive sectors – tourism, manufacturing, education. This is crucial for the successful development of our country. I see enormous potential. While we have high unemployment at this time, we have a small population and it’s a trainable population.
“Any initiative in those areas can bring a quick response, as far as the unemployment situation goes. We think we can bring that down significantly and we’re already seeing it starting to reduce. There are medium-term plans for bringing on employment and in the long term, there are plans for all these facilities. I think we will bring down unemployment significantly in the not-too-distant future.”
Getting foreign multinationals to see the value in Grenada is key to the country’s economic recovery. Mitchell believes that Grenada has a lot to offer companies that are looking for a Caribbean base. Unlike other countries in the region, Grenada has a low crime rate, which makes it a popular destination for tourists.
He is also hoping to attract financial support from major powers at a governmental level – the USA, Britain, France, Germany and Canada – to give the Treasury some breathing space while it restructures the country’s debt.
“Grenada is one of the most peaceful nations in the region. If you check the statistics of Caribbean people, when they come to Grenada, they come because of the lack of violent activities in the country. Trinidadians and other Caribbeans flock to Grenada.
“Historically we have had a very stable society, one of peace and harmony, that is fundamental to people wanting to come to your country to invest. Not only that, there are also tax incentives and the ability to export your earnings. There’s also a well-trained workforce. Grenada’s got one of the highest literacy rates, over 98 per cent – a workforce of very educated people.”
Grenada can offer investment opportunities in light manufacturing, hotel development and agriculture – Grenada is the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg and it is known for its fine cocoa. “As you know our nutmeg is a very special product – the country is known as the ‘island of spice’.”
Most farming in Grenada is organic – an up-and-coming sector. Health care is another growth area.
“There is a first-class medical school in Grenada,” says Mitchell, “and there is the opportunity to build a new teaching hospital.”
He believes that the country’s ability to offer high-quality health care could also be key to attracting people who would like to retire to Grenada. And, of course, an improving economy will also appeal to Grenadians living abroad who may consider moving back home. Like many small countries, Grenada sees large numbers of its young people moving abroad to seek better opportunities in higher education and work.
Many of them continue to contribute to the economy from afar, too, by sending home money to relatives. Mitchell is keen to keep first- and second-generation emigrants in the loop, meeting with the diaspora whenever he visits the UK and the USA.
When Mitchell spoke to Global, he had just been addressing the UK-based diaspora in London.
“We have a number of Grenadians who’ve lived here [London] for years and there are second-generation Grenadians here too. We believe in the importance of human resources outside the country, so we’ve initiated a number of opportunities to attract the diaspora to talk to us about opportunities in Grenada for people who’ve trained and excelled abroad to get involved in further development of the country.
“We’re making it attractive for Grenadians to return home through tax incentives and a generally attractive package, because we know many of them can give something back to the country.”
Like other countries located on small islands, extreme weather is a concern for Grenada. In 2004 hurricane Ivan devastated the islands, destroying four out of every five houses; flattening cocoa and nutmeg trees; washing away roads; and knocking out electricity and telecoms connections. The islanders seized on the opportunity to improve housing and agriculture in the wake of the hurricane, with the Mitchell-led government coining the slogan ‘Building back better’.
“Within three years, we were able to build back most of our homes, so that was seen as a miraculous activity from the standpoint of where we were. We’re not yet back at the level of production we had prior to Ivan, because a nutmeg tree takes about eight to ten years to produce and cocoa about four to five years, so we’re seeing an increase in production, but it will take another couple of years to get back to where we were.”
Grenada has also learnt lessons from Ivan’s destructive force, such as improving its disaster response planning. “We have been used by the international community as a model for building back better after destruction,” explains Mitchell.
“And I would say we are far better prepared today to deal with any disasters. We have regular sessions to train ourselves for events like storm surges and earthquakes.”
He attended an environmental summit in the British Virgin Islands in May 2013, which saw leaders and commercial partners pledge to protect marine life and develop sustainable energy sources to curtail reliance on fossil fuels. “We have seen the devastating effect that climate change can have,” says Mitchell, “and we have also seen serious flooding – sea surges that have destroyed infrastructure. We’ve been putting up sea walls around the country, which has cost, of course, an enormous amount.”
With a population of just 105,000 – encompassing the island of Grenada and the Southern Grenadines – the nation of Grenada is one of the smallest countries in the Commonwealth. There are pros and cons to being a small country, says Mitchell.
“As I said earlier, because of its size, any serious initiative can make a serious dent on the level of employment in the country. It’s also easy to implement ICT – it’s easier to implement a platform and get that penetration in a small country. With the advent of agriculture as a main thrust towards development, with our small size it’s not difficult to involve technology in our modernisation, compared to doing that in a large country. With health care too, it doesn’t cost as much as it would in a bigger country to make a serious dent in the country’s health care problems.”
As a small nation, however, it can be difficult to have a significant impact on the international stage.
“On the negative side, in an independent country there’s a certain amount of infrastructure that has to be in place. It is difficult, financially and otherwise, for a country like Grenada to have embassies all over the place and to support that. We have an embassy in London, one of the most expensive places in the world. Each of the small countries have an embassy here. The British government has one embassy in Barbados that serves all of us. We have to do something about that, there’s no way we can maintain it. So that’s the problem with being a small country – having the resources to do things that you would like to do to support an independent nation.”
Mitchell values the work that the Commonwealth does. He has attended several Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and says that the organisation has helped Grenada to modernise its society.
“The ability to advance Grenada’s success within the context of the Commonwealth of Nations has been a major plus for us. We have consistently been involved in all levels of Commonwealth activities and we have a rich history of democratic institutions.”
The next step in Grenada’s development is to reform its constitution – a relic from its colonial past. A national referendum will take place to make the reformed constitution genuinely representative of 21st-century Grenada and its people.
“Having constitutional reform will be crucial, because we must recognise after 40 years where our areas of weakness are, and give our people decisions on how we modernise our constitution to deal with future generations.”
(Interview by Katie Silvester)