The Eighth Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Council of Ministers: Human and Social Development (COM: HSD) , hosted by Antigua and Barbuda on April 18, 2023 at the John E. St. Luce Finance and Conference Centre was successfully concluded with the adoption of Key Decisions. The high-level annual meeting was convened under the theme “Touching Lives through Data-Driven Development” and was attended by Ministers for Social Development in the OECS region and Development Partners. The Honourable Samantha Marshall, Minister of Social Development, Antigua and Barbuda chaired the one-day meeting.
In her welcoming remarks, at the Opening Ceremony, The Honourable Samantha Marshall stated:
“As Small Island Developing States navigating our paths in a protracted global health pandemic with limited resources and restricted physical space we must continue to strive towards The Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda. Countries with determined and hardworking human capability can achieve wonders when working towards a unified goal in a holistic and integrated approach.”
The annual meeting provides a platform for Ministers of Social Development across the OECS region to collectively reflect on issues in social development, share on local strategies and innovations to address some of these challenges and to collaborate in troubleshooting issues to develop joint approaches, policies and practices to improve access to quality social services in the region. It is proceeded by the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) Meeting comprised of the Permanent Secretaries of the OECS Member States and Development Partners, who discuss key issues and challenges at the technical level.
Delivering an address at the Opening Ceremony, Dr. Didacus Jules, Director General of the OECS, remarked:
“For us in the OECS, this eighth meeting of the Human and Social Development is an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the effect of all this on the people of the OECS, to examine their debilitating subjective and objective impact on community, family and individuals to establish the priorities for action. All of this in the face of deep fiscal contraction but exponential enlargment of human needs.”
Underscoring the importance of data-driven development he further stated:
“To successfully address any problem, one needs to understand the size and scale of the problem so that the solutions can be equal to the challenge….We are clear in our understanding that poverty has increased significantly between March 2020 and today but the only reliable statistics that we have go back in 2018. Updating the precise scale of inequity and disadvantage must be a first step in confronting the problem”
He also highlighted the need for shared responsibility, collective action and community building:
“Not even in the most controversial of social issues – increased levels of crime- can one realistically ascribe all responsibility to sitting governments. Let us be clear that governments can and must be held accountable for their action or inaction, but responsibility is a shared burden. This is an important distinction because there are many social issues that can only be mitigated and ultimately resolved through whole of society approaches. As individuals, as families, as communities there are levels and spheres of responsibility that must be shouldered if our societies are to become more caring and humane. There is an ancient African concept that we have lost- Umbuntu….meaning “humanity to others”. Umbuntu reminds us that “I am what I am because of who we all are”.
The meeting discussed the Social Inclusion and Social Protection (SISP) Strategic Priorities. The SISP Action Plan, as well as key challenges such as economic vulnerability and uncertainty, quality of education, environmental vulnerability, reducing poverty and socio-economic disparities and meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formed a central part of discussions.
The strengthening of the overall youth justice systems through legislation and rehabilitative initiatives was discussed. The OECS Opportunities to Advance and Support Youth for Success (OASYS) Project which follows the Juvenile Justice Reform Project (JJRP) will build on the work done by JJRP to transform the youth justice system to provide opportunities for diversion, rehabilitation, and reintegration of youth in conflict with the law.
Discussions highlighted the need for Child Online Protection and examined OECS GIGA, a global initiative “to connect every school to the internet by 2030”. The project was designed by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and International Telecommunication Union and is being implemented in the OECS region by the OECS Commission with an emphasis on promoting and enforcing child online protection. The meeting discussions focused on a harmonized approach to addressing online risks and child and youth safety.
Youth inclusion is a core aspect of the SISP portfolio, and is aligned with the seven strategic pillars of the OECS Youth Empowerment Strategy (OECS YES): Child and Youth Protection; Education and Training; Employment and Entrepreneurship; Creativity and Culture; Healthy Lifestyles and Sports; Environment and Sustainable Development; and Citizenship and Identity.
Youth representatives Ms. Wendy Wallace, U-Report OECS Lead Ambassador presented on the key achievements and priorities under the U-Report youth engagement platform. U-Report is a free tool for community participation designed to collect data and address societal issues. It also includes FunDoo, a U-Report initiative which teaches young people real world life skills to successfully meet the challenges of everyday life. Mr. Steven A. Phillip, OECS Youth Advisory Network Chairperson presented on Youth Empowerment and the OECS Youth Assembly. Both ambassadors asserted that the Youth of the region are ready to help progress development, saying:
“Tell us how we can help”.
This inclusion of youth was addressed by the Director General, he noted:
“The Commission continues to provide technical support to the OECS Youth Advisory Network in their quest to complete the OECS Youth Empowerment Strategy and Action Plan.The development of the strategy is a long-term project that seeks to create a final strategy for youth, by youth themselves.Upon the completion of the youth strategy, the commission will bring together the brightest minds for the OECS Youth Assembly, and this is not going to be a mock parliament but an elected assembly of young persons.”
The meeting concluded with the adoption of Key Decisions by the Council of Ministers. Ministers agreed to:
Endorsed recommendations of the Technical Advisory Committee for the adoption;of the Social Inclusion and Social Protection Action Plan;Suggested rules for online engagement be integrated in the curriculum with a focus on strengthening moral/value systems;Supported the Child Online Protection Strategic Framework;Requested the role of key Ministries (Education, Social) be clearly delineated within an Implementation Plan for the COP Strategic Framework;Suggested consideration of Mental Health Assessments when reviewing the legislation for amendments to support Child and Youth Justice;Committed to pushing the agenda to effect the Child Justice Legislation;Supported the U-Report initiative;Committed to supporting the Draft Youth Strategy;Committed to continued engagement through quarterly meetings and WhatsApp engagement; and Saint Kitts and Nevis has agreed to host the 9th Council of Ministers Meeting for Human and Social Development.