The British Virgin Islands (BVI) is no stranger to adversity. In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the British Overseas Territory, leaving devastation in their wake. When the winds quieted, lives were lost, and infrastructure, homes, and businesses were laid bare. Estimates of the widespread damage were in excess of $3.6 billion. Recovery efforts were still ongoing when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in March 2020. In response, the Government implemented drastic measures to ensure public health and safety with the knock-on effect of revenue losses, economic contraction, and a marked increase in unemployment.
One year later, as the Territory began to cast off the heavy blanket of COVID-19 restrictions, new challenges loomed. Allegations of a lack of transparency and accountability, and corruption at the highest levels of its administration, thrust the BVI into the international spotlight once again. A Commission of Inquiry into these allegations was established in 2021 to review the Territory’s governance, making recommendations for improvement.
The Commission of Inquiry report (2021) highlighted challenges related to good governance, namely in the area of discretionary grants which were distributed outside of the Social Development Department (SDD) channel; and a need to strengthen SDD processes. In response to recommendations arising from the report two UN organizations, collaborating under the UN SDG-Funded Resilient Caribbean Joint Programme, provided policy and programmatic support to the government of the BVI to accelerate ongoing social protection reform.
Ms. Petrona Davies, Permanent Secretary for Health and Social Development, described the interventions as timely and necessary stating,
“The support we are receiving through the Joint Programme builds our capacity to meet increasing demands for social assistance, while strengthening the social protection in line with international standards, both in terms of its policy and legislative frameworks, and enhanced operational efficiency”.
At the policy level, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has worked closely with the Government to prepare a draft plan for Cabinet aimed at improving Social Assistance. The plan addresses the removal of discretionary grants and makes proposals for a suite of enhanced offerings including (i) a universal child grant, (ii) a disability grant, (iii) an unemployment benefit, (iii) a social pension, and (iv) an increase in the minimum wage. Legislative instructions were also developed and are expected to be finalised in 2023.
On the programmatic front, the World Food Programme (WFP) has provided broad technical assistance, commencing with a comprehensive assessment of the existing Public Assistance Programme (PAP) and the development of Standard Operating Procedures for implementation and delivery. The process of re-certification and the successful migration of eligible beneficiaries of now-defunct discretionary grants to the Public Assistance Programme (PAP) has been completed with the support of WFP. Further support is being rendered to digitalize the Territory’s social protection data systems. The development and implementation of an information management system is expected to improve efficiencies, increase access and generate cost savings.
Developing a Grievance Response Mechanism and public awareness materials was also jointly supported.
In speaking to the work being done in the BVI, UN Resident Coordinator, Didier Trebucq explained;
“The Joint SDG Fund-supported Resilient Caribbean Programme aims to increase the resilience of Caribbean SIDS, by helping to expand national social protection mechanisms in a way that truly leaves no one behind. By working together and delivering as one, which characterizes the UN’s new approach to doing business, we will support regional Governments, including the BVI, to ensure greater accountability, efficiency, transparency, inclusion, and expansion of Social Assistance programmes, to benefit those most left behind, and to advance progress on the 2030 Agenda.”
Support for social protection reform through the Joint Programme is expected to benefit the 31,000 residents including the poor and other vulnerable groups.