Modesty can be a virtue

Modesty can be a virtue

A lot was said and written in the past days about the tenth anniversary of 10-10-10 and what a decade of being an “autonomous country within the kingdom” has – or rather, has not – brought St. Maarten. Opinions vary, but the general feeling seems to be that there is little cause for celebration a decade later.

Apart from major setbacks like Hurricane Irma and now the coronavirus-related crisis, it appears many had expected more locally, but also in The Hague. One cannot change the course of history, but the important thing is to learn from such.

The public administration introduced back then was probably too elaborate for the relatively small territory and population, despite warnings for this at the time. Until then locally unknown functions such as general secretaries and sector directors were created in addition to existing department heads, a seven-member Council of Ministers plus one in The Hague replaced a handful of commissioners and the dualistic system meant legislators could no longer be part of the executive branch, all of which added to the payroll for politicians and high-ranking officials. Of course, the frequent “ship-jumping” in the legislature prompting changes in government as well as early elections did not exactly help.

The current governmental structure was designed by consultants, in many cases from the Netherlands, partly based on the old federal bureaucracy in Willemstad and European Dutch criteria. Perhaps it might have been wiser to look at what Aruba did when it gained “separate status” in 1986, as that island had similar characteristics regarding a large private and limited public sector.

Granted, some of these adjustments were needed and simply came with the new status, but they greatly contributed to the financial and human resources burden of taking over tasks from the former Netherlands Antilles. The same goes for the bigger salaries involved compared to the other kingdom partners due to the higher cost of living.

All this was to be paid for with taxes including those going to the no-longer-existent Central Government. Some referred to the size of the tourism economy to justify raising government expenditure, but it had also been known that fiscal compliance was strikingly low and still is.

In addition, because St. Maarten could not sufficiently substantiate certain arrears, it missed out on much of the debt relief by the Netherlands accompanying the constitutional reforms. This meant there was no “healthy starting position” as envisaged.

Especially considering the vulnerability of its one-pillar economy and continued problems collecting taxes, the new country might have been better off with a more prudent and tailor-made approach to building up its civil service. Modesty can be a virtue.