The challenge of transforming St Kitts and Nevis

St Kitts & Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris

By Debbie Ransome


There tends to be a near-missionary zeal in new leaders who replace governments that have served for a long time.
This is the case for St Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Timothy Harris, who won general elections on 16 February and ousted one of the Caribbean’s longest-serving leaders, Denzil Douglas.
After bedding down his new administration at home, Dr Harris visited London in July 2015 to promote St Kitts and Nevis to investors.
His pitch was strongly based on “high-end” tourism, “due diligence” in foreign investment structures, a strong belief in the role of renewable energy and a “more inclusive” approach to economic growth.
A Kittitian USP
Dr Harris starts from a position that St Kitts and Nevis [population: 54,191] has to find a way of refining its product beyond the sun, sand, sea and passport sales of some of its neighbours.
On the much-tarnished image of the Citizenship-By-Investment Programme (CBI), the prime minister is quick to point out that the St Kitts and Nevis programme is the oldest in the world (set up in 1984) and has brought “some of the wealthiest people to St Kitts & Nevis”.
He hailed the CBI programme as providing a much-needed spur to the islands’ economy during the global economic slump.
According to the June 2015 International Monetary Fund report on St Kitts and Nevis, the country’s construction boom was fuelled by inflows from the CBI programme.
“The citizenship programme has been a mixed bag,” Dr Harris told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“The negative downside has been the reputational damage that has come from a small group of investors.”
The solution, according to the Kittitian leader, is to keep the programme and any weaknesses under constant review.
He wants a CBI programme which is “not only the most experienced [in the world] but the best”.
Dr Harris added that his government wanted to attract people who not only wanted a passport, but who also wanted to be attached to the aspirations of his country and to invest in its future in a positive way.
“We are in the market for the best citizens,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
What was needed, he stated, was the “most effective” due diligence to weed out what he called a “small group of players”.
His government has hired a risk management firm to reform the CBI and to support the country’s due diligence unit.
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Seeking the high end
One of the sponsors of the Kittitian delegation’s visit – Kittitian Hill – embodies the type of high-end niche product that the Harris government has been offering to investors during their visit.
The area, which promotes itself as “real estate with a purpose”, offers apartments, suites, a farm-to-table boutique hotel and a locally-sourced ethos which screams eco-tourism and niche.
Sitting behind this flagship are the other projects the new St Kitts and Nevis government is keen to promote in areas such as an expansion into medical, educational and sports tourism, further development of alternative energy and a move from basic agriculture to agro-processing.
Asked by Caribbean Intelligence© how he planned to distinguish his country from the other territories in the region offering such services, Dr Harris says that his government hopes to learn the lessons from those already in the race to the high end.
St Kitts & Nevis has fierce competition, as it is surrounded in the Caribbean island chain by the high-end luxury destinations of St Barts and the French Caribbean.
“St Kitts will never be a French St Martin, St Kitts will never be a Caymans,” Dr Harris told Caribbean Intelligence©.
He put the emphasis on a “unique” experience, including the sourcing of local and Caribbean food only and even Caribbean-only music at some resorts.
His plan is for St Kitts and Nevis to be seen as providing an “authentic” and “unique” experience.
Products on offer and in the pipeline include the world’s first edible golf course (fruit trees as you putt), a hospitality school to avoid the downfalls of staff surliness encountered in some Caribbean hotels and a host of events that play to what he sees as his islands’ strengths.
As crime figures rocket in bigger Caribbean nations, Dr Harris’s government highlights the nature of the Kittitian people, fast access to the powers-that-be for decision-making and relative transparency in government as a USP which he hopes will give St Kitts and Nevis a different offer in the Caribbean region.
Even the pre-election court challenges on constituency boundaries, that took the decision to the brink of the general election, are highlighted by Dr Harris as an example of the peace-loving democratic nature of his country and its people. 
His government appointed a new elections supervisor and elections commission chairman following the poll.
Fuelling the growth
Dr Harris speaks passionately to investors about his view for renewable energy to fuel his vision of the future of St Kitts and Nevis.
The debate and research into the geothermal potential in Nevis, in particular, has been going on for some years.
The St Kitts and Nevis leader’s plans for tourism, financial services, manufacturing growth and the transformation of the agricultural industry are underpinned by the development of alternative energy on both islands.
“We’re seeing alternative as a way of satisfying the need for new industries,” Dr Harris told Caribbean Intelligence©.
He also has hopes to provide geothermal energy to neighbouring islands, from Antigua and St Martin to Puerto Rico, with the accompanying foreign exchange potential.
Tackling crime
Dr Harris avoided the temptation of new leaders to blame the former government and instead stated his plans for tackling the hurdles en route to his own development plan.
On the rapid crackdown on gang crime, the prime minister stated that violent crime had gone down and that his police force was now tackling the murder culture.
“It is a challenge,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©. “We accept that and that is why we are being so robust.”
He described the tackling of crime as a complex matter which involved not only a police crackdown, but also the enlisting of the support of families and churches, with “a zeal to instil good values in people”.
Dr Harris said that he wanted changes in training and in school programmes. He is particularly determined to look again at rehabilitation in prisons.
“Proper programmes of [prison] rehabilitation,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©, ”when they [prisoners] leave, they do not go back from whence they came”.
His emphasis is on training “idle hands” and turning them into “gifted hands”.
He outlined a programme that included counselling and support, so that prisoners were “not seen for who you are but for who you are attempting to be”.
Tackling transportation
Even on the great conversation downer for many Eastern Caribbean leaders, Dr Harris was upbeat about island-hopping airline Liat.
“It is a pity that, for so long, we have not been able to develop a proper system of transport,” he told Caribbean Intelligence©.
The Kittitian leader said that a Caricom study on regional transport should go some way towards looking at the options in a field where there are “multiple layers” of island airlines, none of which are strong enough by themselves.
He talks of “important space for collaboration” and says that the label – whether it’s Liat, Caribbean Airlines, Winair or Air Jamaica – is not as important as a structure that works.
“A regional airline does not necessarily mean Liat,” he said.
While Caricom is getting the structure right, the prime minister said he planned to look at “pro-active” solutions, including opportunities for private charter facilities and helicopter-type services.
Next phase
In 2014, Caribbean Intelligence© spoke to Dr Harris’s predecessor, then Prime Minister Denzil Douglas, who described his legacy as dismantling what had been one big sugar plantation and developing a modern nation with more land and resources being broken down for the use of the many.
Now Dr Harris plans to take today’s St Kitts and Nevis to the next level – a type of SKN 2.0 – where farmers on the redistributed former plantation land can move from subsistence farming into value-added and agro-processing ventures.
The Kittitian leader identified financial services as another growth area for his country while Caricom works on a new agenda for disclosure and transparency of the much-maligned sector.
While he talked about the potential of selling geothermal energy as far as Puerto Rico, he also highlighted the potential for manufacturing growth following a partial agreement with Brazil.
The June 2015 IMF report on the country said: “St Kitts and Nevis is at a turning point, where it has the opportunity to establish itself on a sustainable long-term growth path. This will require difficult decisions and careful choices to preserve the hard-earned gains. It will also require continued fiscal discipline and the implementation of structural reforms to expand growth potential.”
Dr Harris outlined for investors and for Caribbean Intelligence© a strategy aimed at achieving exactly this: reform, growth potential and a sustainable long-term growth path.
He said that his government would put itself up for re-election in five years’ time under the promises of delivering “good governance” and “economic growth and development which will be much more inclusive and much more job-rich”.
Both the IMF and the St Kitts and Nevis population will be watching closely to see whether he delivers.
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