Vending and the Issue of Governance
Patrick Martin, MD
Citizen & Student
Governance is about decision-making and implementation. When political governance is good, public policy is transparent and responsive to the needs of society, policy leaders are answerable and unafraid of media scrutiny, and deception and corruption are minimized (adapted from the United Nations definition of “Good Governance”).
Two vending-related governance tests came to the fore in “Beautiful Basseterre” during History and Heritage Month. People using sidewalks to earn a living were removed because of pedestrian and business interference, and the fourth global fast food franchise was opened. The irony is that local pot food was taken off the street while more foreign fast food came on-stream. Interestingly, the public outcry about the treatment of street vendors was matched, decibel for decibel, by the outpouring of joy over more imported burgers, soda and fries.
Vending is a political governance issue because holding public office is fundamentally about the decisions made that improve the lives of ordinary people. It should be our government’s policy to encourage, regulate and protect street vending. Celebrated pioneers of the fast food industry started on the street. Street vending is a ticket out of poverty to wealth creation but it must be done “decently and in order”. Nothing can be allowed to comprise public order, public safety and public health.
Vending is also a trade issue. In the Federation, the value of food imports reached ECD 65 million in 2011 (wits.worldbank.org). Such is the consumption of factory-produced, ultra-processed food and artificial beverages that non-communicable disorders (NCDs) like obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are epidemic. NCDs cause personal savings and pensions to be wiped out by the doctor and hospital bills. Furthermore, relatively high rates of cancer and kidney failure are threats to the viability of Social Security and National Health Insurance. Yet, there is sheer delight over the expanding footprint of foreign fast food. Clearly, external-origin psychological and economic manipulation still rule after fifty years of self-determination.
Solutions are in-hand. Government and the private sector can collaborate to develop incubators to stimulate local people to get into private enterprise. Well-designed and -managed vending areas enhance the appeal of a beachfront, a town center and the overall image of a destination. Food security will be greater once there is solidarity among OECS/CARICOM nations to regain control of the region’s food environment. Financial and other incentives provided to farmers and fishers will maximize local food production. Sports and cultural icons can be contracted to be spokespersons for homegrown produce. The predatory marketing of unhealthy food can be curtailed as was done in the campaign against tobacco. In St. Kitts and Nevis, a 34% VAT (17% x 2) on high fat, high salt, high sugar, and highly chemicalized food and artificial beverages will reduce their consumption.
“Our health is our wealth” is the proclamation of the Caribbean Community. The NCD crisis is proof of the yawning gap between words and deeds. This is not for the want of research and advice; government shelves are overflowing with sound recommendations. Where governance paralysis exists, fear of criticism, reprisal and loss of popularity trumps fearlessness. My recommendation to our political leadership is to invoke the spirit of the national heroes, adopt a “Nationals/Caribbean First” policy in relation to concessions supportive of indigenous vending, and press on with the crucial task of governance “for the good you can do”.