The Propensity for Political Dependence in Island Microstates*

Jerome L. McElroy and Megan Mahoney

Department of Business Administration and Economics

Saint Mary's College

Notre Dame, IN 465556

(219) 284-4488

Since 1960 the UN has actively promoted decolonization in dependent territories (DTs). In the postwar era, some two dozen tropical islands across the various oceanic basins have become independent countries. However, since the early 1980s, small (less than one million population) island DTs have consistently voted in repeated elections and referenda to retain the status quo. As a result, more than three dozen overseas territories still persist in what has come to be called a new "era of colonial permanence."

Why? Most of the literature argues external and internal political factors. This paper focuses on economic determinants. In addition to the obvious trade, aid, and migration advantages associated with metropolitan affiliation, two inter-related forces stand out: the robust world-wide growth of international tourism and the restructuring of small island economies away from traditional colonial staples (sugar, copra) to tourism and related facility and infrastructure construction. As a result, tourism now dominates small island commerce and, within the space of a generation, tourism-dependent DTs have significantly outpaced their larger sovereign neighbors in socio-economic performance.

This paper details this superior socio-economic performance by contrasting the average values of eleven Caribbean DTs with eleven of their sovereign neighbors across roughly a dozen indicators. These include per capita GDP, motor vehicles and electricity production, annual GDP growth, unemployment, life expectancy, infant mortality, educational and medical access and so on. The same contrasts are performed on ten Pacific island DTs with a seven of their independent neighbors with similar results.

The paper further argues indirectly that behind the islanders' propensity for dependence is an awareness of their relative affluence and an understanding that this affluence is rooted in the political stability afforded by affiliation in general, and in particular in the many special concessions associated with territorial status that facilitate tourism, their engine of growth. A case study of the U.S. Virgin Islands illustrates the point. Despite their periodic chafing and complaints of neglect, territorial islanders vote their pocketbooks just like everyone else.


*An earlier version of this paper was delivered to the Indiana Association of Social Sciences, Indiana University, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (October 16, 1998).