DfID in Montserrat: Aid gone wrong?

    The Soufrière Hills volcano of Montserrat in the distance. An eruption of the previously dormant volcano in July 1995 almost destroyed the British overseas territory's capital city, Plymouth and two-thirds of the population was forced to flee. Photo by: Lauren Delizia / CC BY-ND

    A new airport meant to increase tourism and help the island of Montserrat move toward aid independence is doing the opposite, and the U.K.’s aid agency is getting flak for what seems to be a decision gone wrong.

    The tiny British overseas territory in the southeastern Caribbean has long suffered numerous natural disasters, from strong hurricanes to volcanic eruptions that almost wiped out the island in 1997. The U.K. Department for International Development has helped restore some normalcy in the region, where human activities are now limited to the northern part of the island, the only safe area is the rest is prone to volcanic eruptions.

    DfID invested some 8.8 million pounds in Montserrat’s Gerald’s Park Airport, which replaced the old Bramble Airport, now part of the so-called “exclusion zone.” 

    The aim was to end aid subsidies to the island’s helicopter and ferry services, and boost tourism in the island, which would help provide revenue for the government.

    But the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s review of the airport, operational since 2005, runs against the agenc’’s expectations for the project. DfID had envisioned for tourist arrivals to reach some 33,000 by 2013, but figures from recent years show gloomy results — in 2012, the island’s Tourist Board registered only 9,905 visitors.

    In addition, DfID’s “assumptions about the willingness of ferry passengers to transfer to an air service have proved to be incorrect,” the aid watchdog argued in a report published on Monday.

    While some find it better to travel to the island by air, many still prefer using the ferry. Businesses, for instance, find it cheaper to export goods and encourage visitors to the island via the ferry services, ICAI explained

    In the end, subsidies for ferry services were resumed, and this could cost the government an additional 4.5 million pounds in the next five years.

    Lack of coherent, clear strategy

    The report underscored DfID’s hand in Montserrat’s recovery following the volcanic eruption in 1997, but argued the agency does not have a firm plan on how to help the island be self-sufficient in the long term.

    While it lauded some of the agency’s investments, particularly in the water and road sectors, ICAI noted that it remains “unclear what targets DfID is hoping to achieve in Montserrat”  a similar problem raised by the aid watchdog in its review of the agency’s PPA funding for civil society.

    “DFID has not developed a coherent and complementary portfolio of capital projects which could contribute to improving self-sufficiency,” said the report, adding that actions to attract private sector investment has been futile to date.

    ICAI suggests DfID develop “a more detailed understanding of self-sufficiency for Montserrat” by making use of external experts (and listening to their advice), agreeing on plans that are affordable and realistic for the island and engaging islanders in decision making. 

    The agency should also develop a “robust three-to-five year plan with clear assumptions and targets,” focusing on those that can be sustained by the government with its limited resources.

    DfID expects to provide some 24 million pounds to Montserrat until 2015 through technical assistance, budgetary support and capital investment.

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    About the author

    • Jenny Lei Ravelo

      Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

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