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Onslaught of natural disaster raises concerns about the Caribbean's resiliency

As areas in the Caribbean struggle to bounce back after recent natural disasters, IU professor Kalim Shah explored what makes this region so vulnerable in a talk at the Global and International Studies building Thursday evening.

Shah said economic factors combine with natural disasters to make it more difficult for these areas to recover and be resilient.

“There’s a lack of diversification in these economies,” he said. “They rely on tourism and agriculture, which can be devastated by natural disaster.”

Shah said looking at the economic vulnerability of Caribbean countries is especially important as climate change and natural disaster looms.

She said natural disasters devastate these regions every couple of years, which can make it difficult for countries to get up just to be knocked down again.

“It can be a total wipe-out that cripples these small economies for years,” he said.

IU graduate student Matthew Cesnik said he hopes countries sending aid to the Caribbean and making strategy decisions for natural disaster recovery will keep these underlying issues in mind.

Shah said the Caribbean’s vulnerability means the region has to rely on foreign investment to stay afloat.

He said the United States is the biggest investor in the region and has a far economic reach.

IU freshman Mallory Oswalt said the deep relationship between the United States and the Caribbean is why it is so important for U.S. citizens to pay attention to the Caribbean.

“All relationships between countries are important, especially when looking at the Caribbean because we’re so close to them geographically and have really close ties to them,” she said.

Despite the amount of investment, there is still an emphasis on benefiting U.S. citizens rather than people in the Caribbean, Shah said.

“You want to provide an incentive for foreign investment and have a tangible benefit,” he said. “Every benefit is meant for the benefit of the U.S. and every U.S. citizen.”

Japan and China are new players in terms of investors in the Caribbean, Shah said.

He said Japan has invested in climate change plans, including working toward more renewable energy options, for 12 Caribbean countries.

“These countries are so vulnerable to climate change issues, and their governments are saying they don’t have the money to make plans to build resiliency, so Japan has been helping step in,” he said.

While the small economies and lack of resources in the Caribbean have not been enough to attract Chinese investment in the past, Shah said China is taking a new interest because of the Chinese communities in the Caribbean, especially Chinese-Jamaican communities.

“You may look at me and think, ‘What there are Chinese communities in the Caribbean?’ he said. “But there are, and the Chinese government is doing more to rekindle relationships with these communities.”

But one problem with Chinese investment is there is a lack of transparency and regulation, he said. As a result, it is difficult to see how much money is going to the people rather than into the pockets of politicians and businesspeople.

While more transparency and regulation is needed, Shah said any foreign investment, whether through aid or through business partnerships, can help the Caribbean build a resiliency against natural disaster.

“Any foreign aid or investment is helpful to offset the effects of these storms and climate change,” he said.

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