By Suzanne Koelega
ROTTERDAM–Is Unleashed Potential Group (UPG) a victim of local forces that are not keen on including a group of young professionals from St. Maarten living in the Netherlands with a fierce desire to assist their island, or is it that St. Maarten is not yet ready to embrace an innovative concept? Maybe it’s both.
UPG set two major goals that sounded simple: delivering knowledge and quality improvement by helping to build the local socio-economic system, and learning by doing, taking the island’s issues and helping to solve them, while gaining experience for the young professionals in the process. How? By analysing issues, developing ideas, action plans and project plans, and helping to execute these plans, coached by senior expertise.
After developing several initial project proposals, including a plan of approach for the highly problematic St. Maarten solid-waste dump, the UPG team took it upon themselves to draft the Integral Development Plan St. Maarten. Completed mid-August 2017, the plan was offered to then-Prime Minister William Marlin and Finance Minister at the time Richard Gibson. Then came Hurricane Irma and everything changed.
UPG Recovery Plan
Team UPG decided to update and adjust the Integral Development Plan to incorporate the damage inflicted by the hurricane and the actions needed to rebuild St. Maarten. The plan was renamed the Recovery and Regeneration Plan and called “Operation Pelican.” The idea was that this plan could be used as a basis to help rebuild the island, with the input and love of St. Maarteners in the Netherlands.
The adapted plan and some meetings: that is as far as UPG got. There has been radio silence on the part of the St. Maarten government for months now.
UPG is not in it for the money; it just wants to help in St. Maarten’s recovery, the organisation continuously told the stakeholders in St. Maarten. “Profit is not our model. We are in it for the love of our island where we grew up and where our family lives,” said Brooks, who, like Nicodem, still has a hard time accepting how “disrespectfully” the St. Maarteners of the UPG team are treated by the St. Maarten government, the politicians.
For starters, the then-William Marlin cabinet never responded to the UPG Integral Development Plan or to the Recovery and Regeneration Plan. The Marlin government fell after the hurricane and “informateur” Franklin Meyers proved to be a lot more receptive.
“He was immediately enthusiastic and charmed by the idea to involve young professional St. Maarteners in the reconstruction process,” said Nicodem. “It did create a lot of energy.”
Meyers pulled himself from the screening process, but UPG asked him to put in a good word with the interim cabinet of Leona Romeo-Marlin, and all the candidate ministers forwarded their input which was included in the process. The UPG document was provided to the candidate interim cabinet and the group prepared for the visit of new Prime Minister Romeo-Marlin to the Netherlands late January this year.
However, a formal decision of the Council of Ministers on the recovery plan and the involvement of UPG was still needed. UPG was invited to attend a meeting of the Council of Ministers, right after the presentation by representatives of the World Bank. The lone UPG representative stood no chance.
“It was a done deal,” said Nicodem.
A meeting with Romeo-Marlin and Finance Minister Mike Ferrier in The Hague did not yield positive results either, besides a “thank you” to the St. Maarten members of UPG. UPG sent a letter “on behalf of the St. Maarteners” to the government that same month, pleading for decisive action in the interest of the people.
“Up to this day we have not received any response, despite the promises made. After the hurricane, we didn’t pack containers with relief goods. Instead, we decided to assist the government with the reconstruction process,” said Nicodem.
After the February elections, UPG approached the St. Maarten Christian Party (SMCP) as the new potential coalition partner. UPG gave input on the “informateur” process – of course, again free of charge.
“We advised on how to create a coalition that would last the full four years,” said Brooks. Two meetings in person of the UPG team with SMCP leader Wycliffe Smith in The Hague during the Inter-Parliamentary Consultation for the Kingdom IPKO, which appeared positive, were the last contact with the new government.
The events have left a bitter taste in the mouths of the entire UPG team, but especially Nicodem, a retired seasoned project manager of a renowned accounting and consultancy firm who dedicated full-time effort to the UPG cause, on a completely voluntary basis.
“I do feel very bad for the rest of the team, where the focus is on, because the St. Maarten government puts down its own people and that is a very bad thing. This is the umpteenth initiative of St. Maarten’s own people that gets thwarted – people with brains and with commitment, people that you as a government implore to come back after studying,” said Nicodem.
Brooks, who recently completed his Master’s degree in Financial Law at Leiden University, has a theory as to why St. Maarten does not embrace UPG’s innovative ideas: “When people don’t understand something, they tend to toss it aside as nonsensical. Instead of opening up themselves to something new, they stick their head in the sand and push it away.”
Nicodem referred to the attitude of government as “bouncing onto a rubber wall.” “In my professional life, I am used to handling difficult projects. The reconstruction programme is a large, but relatively simple project. You can move mountains at a high pace with the right people and structure in place,” he said.
Brooks: “Our strength is that we work outside the realms of government. No bureaucracy. We are a small team and we communicate fast.”
Nicodem: “It doesn’t matter to us who gets the credit for doing the work, as long as it happens and St. Maarten gets back on the map.”
The UPG team knew beforehand that it would not be a smooth ride, said Nicodem. “We were determined to make a difference. We worked hard as a team. We remained behind the scenes and we placed everything on the government’s table, free of charge. The government did nothing with our work. It was simply ignored, which is a slap in the face of the young St. Maarteners who have been working tirelessly to help their island.”
To kill any excuses to avoid the UPG because it is headed by a “white, mister-know-it-all Dutchman,” as he put it, Nicodem decided to relinquish his position as chairman, to get out of the organisation and let it be run by only St. Maarteners, although two St. Maarteners have been on the UPG board since day one. Brooks has been the new UPG chairman since August 1.
“We will not change who we are, but with the new set-up, we are confident that we, as born St. Maarteners, will be able to better interact with government. Our goal is to still deal with the issues that keep St. Maarteners from returning home after their studies. We will remain involved in the reconstruction because we want to contribute. It won’t be easy, but we are determined and we are here to help rebuild our island,” said Brooks.