The Great Comeback

December 10, 2019

UNDP/J-CCCP Partnership with the Government of Dominica on the Bagatelle Alternate Water Harvesting and Storage Project

On 18 September 2017 and over the following night, the island of Dominica was destroyed.

Its physical and economic infrastructure was blown away by a demolition hurricane that decimated homes, schools, markets, hospitals, government offices, hotels, water management systems, telecommunications, bridges, roads, ports, the two airports, the power grid, the heavy machinery on the island, boats, vehicles, gas stations, factories and shops. The coconut, cocoa and citrus trees were either destroyed or damaged, half of the cattle and farm animals were killed, crops were washed away... One still wonders how such calamity didn’t bring a genocide in its wake.

Less than two years down the road, Dominica is staging a great comeback. If one had to put an example of human resilience, of a Caribbean people’s resourcefulness, of a society’s determination, that example, that people, that society would be Dominica. Against all odds, Dominica has survived.

The economic impact of the devastation is worth two years of the country’s wealth. The impact of the recovery aid that followed is still to be assessed. Both will affect Dominica’s position in the world welfare ranking, UNDP’s Human Development Index, which had until now featured the island as 103rd and amongst the high human development nations. GDP in 2017 declined almost by 10%. In 2018 the decline continued, but in 2019 ECLAC forecasted a close to two-digit recovery. Other OECS members are in the top-100, led by Barbados (58), but Dominica still makes it into the group, with similar values as Samoa, Belize, the Marshall Islands or the Maldives; ahead of large countries like The Philippines or South Africa and well-ahead of neighbours like Guyana.  


Many nations and their Governments showed solidarity in the aftermath of the shock. With Canada, China, the EU, India and the UK in the lead, Denmark, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Romania, Venezuela, and many more, as well as civil society and philanthropies like the Clinton Climate Initiative or the Maria Holder Trust were generous and committed. The WB and CDB mobilised concessional finance to boost the economic recovery. The UN, with UNDP as first responder, helped Dominica build almost everything back, building better than before. The Dominicans led from the front. No one invested as much as they did in reconstructing their country, and none was as generous as the neighbour to their neighbour. The Parliament heard Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit say that “extensive clearing has been done, roofs have been repaired; electricity, water and internet have been restored; our communities are accessible and in the majority of instances, we can once again drive relatively comfortably on several of our country’s roads.” I have just done it myself – comfortably indeed – all the way to meet the Kalinago Chief and his Council.

Dominica is back in business. A 0.7Bn Economy, with under 10,000US$ GDP per capita (about the half of Barbados) received the double in remittances as in Foreign Direct Investment and ten times as in Official Development Assistance, a symptom of the large home-connected diaspora. The tax revenue of the country is a fifth of the GDP, like in St. Lucia and Grenada. Non-tax revenues are half the public income, thanks to the successful Citizenship by Investment programme, which the Financial Times ranked as the world’s strictest and most affordable. It is also the source of capital expenditure of the public sector to attract foreign investment.

A unique tourism offer, different from much of the Caribbean, targets those in the quest of the ecology, the organic, the nature off the beaten path, the place you have never been to, the unspoiled. Cruise ship tourism has returned, hotel chains are building big, the government has a strategy and a plan. It also has an agency to develop capital projects, the CREAD – a modern and executive formula led by top development experts, to develop implementation capacities, disentangle red tape, manage with dynamism and innovate in public-private partnerships. International recovery finance needs now to be followed by comprehensive funding for the resilience strategy. Public Expenditure containment plans are underway – in a country where public salaries are comparatively low.  

Dominica is a 2/3rd population Internet user and enjoys a 78 years’ life expectancy, with Cuba one of the highest in the Caribbean. It is said to be the country with more centennials in the world, something that the US Ross University School of Medicine was researching before relocating to Barbados. Young people enjoy almost 13 years of schooling. Kids are universally immunized for DPT but 23% are uncovered against measles. A 31% infant mortality is the highest of the region. This is not due to the lack of antenatal care, again at 100%, or of skilled personnel attendance of births, 96%. According to PAHO data, the 5.4% GDP Health expenditure is below what would be needed. The 20% primary dropout is high, and the 3.4% GDP Education expenditure is again too low. At the other point of the spectrum, only 29% of the relevant age group gets a pension (compared with 83% in Antigua and Barbuda!) The Government has recently increased the non-contributory “over 70” pension to $300 per month.

Dominica has been hit many times: David in 1979, Allen the following year, Dean in 2007, extreme rainfalls on 2013 Christmas Eve, Erika in 2015 and finally Maria in 2017, the last landfall causing a US$1Bn devastation. Most recently the authorities have applied the best possible reconstruction methods: “Building Back Better” proved an excellent strategy. Resilient and climate-proof infrastructure built after Erika resisted Maria’s punches and stands tall to prove it.

The Economist reported back then that “Maria killed 65 people during the storm and its immediate aftermath. It damaged nearly every building and destroyed a quarter of them.” And yet Dominica is on the road to becoming the first climate-resilient nation of the world, by seizing the opportunity of the destruction to rebuild with foresight, burying under the ground its utility cables, betting on renewable energy sources like geothermal, and on a diversified Blue Economy. It has the chance of staging one of the greatest comebacks in recent times by imagining its future, instead of merely running away from what has ruined its past. This effort for its future generations will afford them to continue having a place they can call home.

A place that is a vibrant democracy, coming at the upcoming elections amidst heated debates, with passion and with hope, from all sides of the political spectrum.