Like many Caribbean nations, Antigua and Barbuda’s modern economy was founded on sugar cultivation. British colonists established large-scale sugar production plants, tearing down many rainforests in the process and “importing” slaves from Africa. With a decline in the sugar industry and the abolition of slavery, agriculture’s contribution to the country’s GDP decreased and other sectors like tourism and banking arose.
Known as the “Land of 365 Islands,” Antigua and Barbuda is a great destination for tourists. Tourism today accounts for most of the country’s GDP, both because of the income it generates from visitors as well as through the jobs it creates for citizens. In addition, a number of other industries like manufacturing, textiles and retail are prominent on the islands. The country is also known for being an offshore tax haven for financial institutions and individuals from the United States.
So why is Antigua and Barbuda poor? Like many post-colonial states, the country’s long history of exploitation resulted in a government structure that cannot always meet the needs of its people. More importantly, like in other island nations, climate change and environmental degradation have consistently wreaked havoc on the country’s infrastructure.
The region has experienced many storms, floods and soil erosion. Without proper drainage systems, an adequate supply of freshwater resources, evacuation plans and relief services, the Antiguan government has been unable to help many of the people displaced and affected by climate disasters. After the recent Hurricane Irma, hundreds of Antiguans died or were displaced. 95 percent of the islands’ infrastructure has been destroyed, with an estimated $100 million required to rebuild the country.
As a result of environmental damage and the global economic crash in 2008, tourism has declined by almost 4 percent in the last ten years. To mitigate some of these changes, Prime Minister Gaston Browne, from the Antigua Labour Party (ALP), came into office in June 2014 by running on a platform of human development, infrastructure strengthening and a diversification of the country’s economy. The ALP puts the poverty level at around 35 percent (poverty line drawn at EC$10 a day). There has been pushback on this figure by the United Progressive Party (UPP), who place the poverty rate at 12 percent. This would make Antigua and Barbuda one of the least poor countries in the Caribbean.
Nonetheless, the Antiguan population remains very vulnerable to poverty and climate change. Now that we know the answer to the question “why is Antigua and Barbuda poor?”, more attention can be given to solutions. Strong efforts on the ground are being made to improve living conditions and remedy environmental devastation, particularly by a number of local foundations like the Calvin Ayre Foundation and the Antigua and Barbuda Basketball Association.
A host of wealthy nations, as well as celebrities like Robert De Niro, have pledged millions in aid relief. Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., urged the World Trade Organization and the United States to make good on its approximately $270 million debt to the country. In an inspiring speech, he spoke about how, despite being a tiny island nation, Antigua and Barbuda is resilient and will continue to improve its economy and infrastructure.
– Paroma Soni