There was no question that Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar quickly and accurately read the tea leaves of public opinion after her surprising decision to attach conditions to this country's response to islands ravaged by the passing of Hurricane Tomas. The Prime Minister was almost immediately found in pictures inspecting goods being prepared for shipment to afflicted Caribbean islands.
Putting shoe leather to reversing perceptions, the PM donned her metaphorical disaster inspection boots, flying ahead of a shipment of supplies to St Lucia, which now faces a staggering $3billion price tag for its restoration effort. There would be no Divali deyas for this Prime Minister, now on a mission to reverse the potentially damaging groundswell of regional rejection of the proposed "friends with strings" compact that was suggested by this Government as a response to islands stripped bare of their income generating crops and flooded with muddy water.
Instead of cheerful Shubh Divali greetings, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar was pictured frowning on the frontlines of storm wrought disaster bearing hampers of critical necessities in St Lucia on Friday, accompanied by private sector professionals, ministers and government technocrats.
The truly surprising thing about the shocking announcement was both how ineptly it was phrased and prepared for prime ministerial elocution and how predictable the response to it was. The expanded explanations in the wake of the initial public relations disaster began to tease some kind of sense out of what had seemed to be a blunt statement of coldheartedness, but to date, there has been far too little clarity about what exactly the Government has in mind for its future approach to lending regional support to natural disasters.
Some business professionals have stepped forward in support of the initiative, but there remains much to be explained for a regional audience that is appalled by the Prime Minister's statement.
Trinidad and Tobago hasn't done a particularly good job of creating an internal disaster response strategy capable of responding to local incidents of flooding.
Perhaps a project that builds a disaster response capacity scaled for islands in the Caribbean cannot help but fortify what we're trying to build for ourselves. How would such a Government's strategy play out in the heat of disaster response efforts? Were the Coast Guard vessels bringing goods to St Lucia an expression of the new approach? Far from stepping back from previous standards of regional aid, the Prime Minister's still to be fully formed approach offers opportunities to raise disaster response from being led by the public sector and making it an initiative that invites participation from the private sector and public at large.
If the focus is shifted from the perspectives of donor to that of the recipient, what people in a situation of natural disaster need is the organisation, clarity of thinking and needs driven approaches that a proper response team can bring to situations of chaos.
What's needed is a mechanism, overseen by the Government but enabled by volunteer efforts, to build an infrastructure that identifies disaster resources, provides structures that can warehouse them for distribution and moves quickly to respond when desperate situations arise. There's no point stockpiling goods that will deteriorate when they aren't needed.
Corporate entities might pledge a certain value of goods and services that would be delivered for distribution only when they are require. Professionals, from doctors to architects, might offer their services on call for situations in which they are called on and shipping and transport services might participate by making a certain value of services available when they are needed.
Perhaps there might be a tax mechanism that kicks in when the pledged resources are put into play that would allow businesses to offer these services under the rubric of formal charity.
Such an initiative might well find itself well stocked with virtual resources that it can invoke when needed without having to deal with personnel and stocking issues when things are going well.
If the Prime Minister is determined to absolve the effect of those first words on the destruction wrought by Tomas, she must replace them with more resonant, lasting statements that bring real and sustainable value to disaster victims both at home and abroad.