Oil Production Limbo: An Untapped Opportunity?

By Mr. Cecil Charles, Research Officer in the Division of Public Sector Modernisation,   Ministry of Public Service, Information and Broadcasting

Oil Production

On Sunday April 17, 2016 a meeting of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and non-OPEC countries failed to reach an agreement which would see oil production frozen at the January 2016 levels, in an effort to cease the global surplus of oil, thereby stimulating some increases in the price of the precious commodity. For the past 15 to 18 months prices of ‘brent oil’ have been uncharacteristically low, bottoming out at US $29 per barrel, which is almost unheard of in the present day oil markets. The oil industry has been historically characterized with seasons of price booms and busts, but the recent downturn in prices has been the most severe since the mid to late 1980. The main causes of the severe dip in oil prices are: the slowed economic activity globally, particularly in China, which has stifled global demand for the commodity; the significant increase in oil production by the United States of America as a result of the production of shale oil; and the persistence of the Saudi Arabians, who will not sacrifice market share to curb the falling prices of oil. The lifting of trade restrictions on Iran, and the general return of the trading of Iran’s oil in the global market, certainly has not helped the cause either.

In fact, the role of Iran on the global market was perhaps one of the main reasons an agreement was not reached on the freezing of production. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil, was adamant that Iran should agree to freeze, if they (Saudi Arabia) were being asked to do the same. However, Iran which recently returned to the global oil trade was reluctant to hold back on its production levels, as it is attempting to carve out its own share of the market. With that being said it is very likely, that prices will remain somewhat subdued for the foreseeable future, and barring any global calamity oil prices should not be returning to the US$90 to US$100 per barrel which we have grown accustomed to.

Based on the above, it is therefore safe to assume that oil exporters are not benefiting from the present glut in the price of oil.  The questions must then be asked, “Who are the winners from the falling prices?” and “Where do oil importing countries like Saint Lucia, fit into the equation?”

The basic answer regarding the winners from falling oil prices, are the users of the commodity. This is almost everyone globally, as we need oil or one of its many derivatives to fuel our transportation, power our machinery and feed electricity companies which do not use renewable sources. It is estimated that for every 10% reduction in the price of oil, there is a 0.1% increase in economic output, for countries which are net importers of oil and its derivatives.  Obviously, this relationship will differ from one country to another, based on their energy mix and demand for energy. Notwithstanding differences, the inverse relationship exists between oil prices and economic output, for oil importing countries. For example Saint Lucia’s tourism, transportation and manufacturing sectors are all heavily dependent on oil and on oil prices. Saint Lucia boasts one of the most efficient electricity companies in the region, but this comes at a cost, as we also have one of the most expensive electrical utilities in the region. The high cost of electricity has made us inherently, less competitive and attractive to most of our near-by neighbours, especially to our nearby net exporter of oil in Trinidad & Tobago. Trinidad & Tobago enjoys the lowest energy, and one of the lowest fuel costs in the Caribbean.

The recent downturn in oil prices has certainly impacted on the Trinidadian economy, as their government was forced to introduce new and increased taxes, to cover the revenue shortfall, and to reduce its spending in the medium to short term. Certainly, this shift in prices has also shifted the scales and competitiveness balance between Saint Lucia, and Trinidad & Tobago, albeit but for a moment.

Therefore, one can deduce that countries who are net importers of oil are enjoying the present fall in prices, Saint Lucia included. This should have resulted in increased economic activity as individuals now have a higher purchasing power, once oil price reductions have been passed on to individuals; less expenditure of foreign reserves on purchasing fuel  and a lower cost of production. Prudent, policymakers will not be satisfied only with enjoying the lowered prices, but will seek to capitalize on these dwarfed prices.

It is important to note that the downward shift in oil prices should not allow us to shift our focus away from renewable energy and the related technology. We must be reminded that the price lull is like any other bubble, and is temporary, and the bubble will eventually burst. The low oil prices may make investments in renewables seem burdensome and unnecessary at the moment, but one conflict in the middle-east if severe enough, can cause oil prices to quickly shoot upwards. We must be reminded that as net importers of oils and fuels we have absolutely no control over the prices at which we purchases fuels. These are all determined by the forces of supply and demand. But, if we are to harness our renewable resource, we can take back and have some control over the cost of our energy. The lessened effects on the environment and energy security are also factors which should motivate Saint Lucia, as a country to continue to pursue the renewable energy agenda.

Nationally, governments should also see this as an opportunity to restructure their economy, making it more efficient, productive and competitive. Within the past decade oil prices averaged well over US 100.00 per barrel resulting in many countries placing subsidies on fuel, liquefied petroleum gas (cooking gas) and other oil based bi-products, to provide financial relief to their citizens and businesses. For those countries which have not already removed or adjusted subsidies, now may be the time to do so.  Lower oil prices provide some fiscal space for small states such as Saint Lucia, whereby any subsidies on oil based products can be removed or reduced, and directed to initiatives which can provide a more substantial return. Perhaps, there should be investments in technologies which will make some of our sectors more competitive, or attractive to foreign direct investment.

The global glut in oil prices may be hurting net exporters such as Nigeria, Iran and Venezuela; however, this provides a tremendous opportunity for small open economies such as Saint Lucia which are so heavily dependent on these products. The decisions made at this critical juncture should not only be in the best interest of persons in the short run, but should be considered investments which will propel our country and economy forward, thereby making us more competitive and attractive, not only regionally but globally.

Article submitted by Guest Contributor Mr. Cecil Charles, Research Officer in the Division of Public Sector Modernisation of the Ministry of Public Service, Information and Broadcasting. For more information about productivity, visit the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council (NCPC) Secretariat, 2nd floor, Financial Centre Building, Bridge Street, Castries, log on to the NCPC website; www.stluciancpc.org; www.facebook.com/stluciancpc, call 468-5571/5576 or send an e-mail to stluciancpc@gmail.com.


PROCOM Challenge Poised To Fuel MSME Productivity and Competitiveness

NCPC Executive Director- Fiona Hinkson

In today’s constantly evolving business climate, innovation makes all the difference when it comes to increasing competitiveness and improving productivity.

This was the thinking behind the PROCOM Challenge which was launched earlier this week by the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council (NCPC). The PROCOM Challenge, a collaboration between the NCPC, the Government of Saint Lucia and Compete Caribbean is intended to develop competitive businesses all while fueling innovation and productivity across Saint Lucia.

The PROCOM Challenge arrives at a time when enhancing productivity and competitiveness is attracting a significant amount of interest globally. Through this challenge micro, small and medium enterprises based in Saint Lucia are being invited to develop innovative solutions which will seek to address some of the productivity and competitiveness challenges facing the island. The PROCOM Challenge will provide co-financing of up to $100,000 XCD for the development and execution of winning proposals from businesses which focus on methods or technologies to reduce energy costs for business, compliance solutions to meet domestic, regional and international standards, technology to reduce operational costs and solutions to improve business processes.

NCPC Chairman Rayneau Gajadhar Delivers Welcome Remarks

Addressing the gathering at the Official Launch of the PROCOM Challenge, NCPC Chairman, Mr. Rayneau Gajadhar, stressed on the NCPC’s commitment to improving the business climate in Saint Lucia through its mandate. He said: “We are here once again to deliver on our mandate, by launching the PROCOM Challenge. The Challenge was designed in response to the various barriers faced by the private sector in enhancing their productivity and competitiveness. The NCPC is not satisfied with only identifying problems, but also seek to formulate and be part of the solution.”

The PROCOM Challenge complements ongoing reforms by the Government of Saint Lucia to facilitate an enabling environment for business growth. Prime Minister, Dr. Kenny D. Anthony who delivered brief remarks at the activity, emphasized the direct relationship between innovation and economic growth.

“We understand that innovation projects are often expensive undertakings due to the associated risk. Therefore, as part of our commitment to supporting firms to be more productive and competitive, the Government of Saint Lucia through the NCPC will be financing the PROCOM Challenge. We have taken the first initiative by providing seed capital for this project. We are therefore looking forward to the success of the PROCOM Challenge and to build upon the success by partnering with the private sector especially the financial institutions and other key stakeholders for continued sustainability and growth of this initiative.”

The NCPC’s Executive Director, Fiona Hinkson highlighted the endless possibilities which exist with this new undertaking, “Having recently attended a very information and eye-opening exchange in Arizona and California at the Americas Competitiveness Exchange (ACE) on Entrepreneurship and Innovation, today shows that we are taking steps in the right direction. The best practice that is shown from the recent exchange is the partnerships between the government, the private sector and academia. These partnerships in the US have resulted in innovative products, processes and practices that we can adapt to our realities in Saint Lucia. I believe that the PROCOM Challenge provides us with an opportunity to do so.”

While firm-based solutions will be considered, the NCPC is encouraging solutions which can be applied across a multitude of organisations and/or sectors.

The PROCOM Challenge will run from April 18th to May 27th, 2016.

The  PROCOM Challenge ManualPROCOM Challenge Brochure  will help to determine whether your business meets the eligibility requirements and whether the challenge can help you.

MSMEs are encouraged to visit the NCPC website and Facebook pages www.stluciancpc.org, www.facebook.com/stluciancpc  for regular updates on the challenge or call 468-5571/468-5576 with any questions/queries.

If you meet the requirements and have an innovative idea which you believe can improve competitiveness and productivity in Saint Lucia, complete the PROCOM Challenge Application Form  and send us an  e-mail.




ProCom-LogoThrough the work of the NCPC, the Government of St. Lucia established the PROCOM Challenge. The Challenge, (grant-based) will be accepting applications from April 18th to May 27th, 2016 and  is poised to be a catalyst that specifically co-finances the private sector to implement solutions or initiatives that either enhances productivity and competitiveness within the Saint Lucian economy.

During the 2014/ 2015 budget address the Government of Saint Lucia committed EC$500,000 towards this Challenge.  Since then the NCPC, Compete Caribbean along with the Government collaborated on the design of the Challenge which will officially launch on Monday, April 18th, 2016.  As part of the process, consultations were held with the private and public sectors on the areas that the Challenge should target.


The PROCOM Challenge will run from April 18th to May 27th, 2016.

Download  PROCOM Challenge ManualPROCOM Challenge Brochure  to determine whether your business meets the eligibility requirements and whether the challenge can help you.

MSMEs are encouraged to visit the NCPC website and Facebook pages www.stluciancpc.org, www.facebook.com/stluciancpc  for regular updates on the PROCOM challenge or call 468-5571/468-5576 with any questions/queries.

If you meet the requirements and have an innovative idea which you believe can improve competitiveness and productivity in Saint Lucia, complete the PROCOM Challenge Application Form  and send us an  e-mail.



It was agreed, generally that projects focused on the following will be considered:

  • Delivery of methods and or technologies to reduce energy costs for businesses
  • Standard adherence and compliance solutions to meet domestic, regional and international needs
  • Development of new or the adaptation of current technology to reduce operational costs and improve efficiency
  • Projects or solutions to improve business processes for greater efficiency and productivity

Guidelines on which the Challenge will operate include:                                                                                       

  • Registered St. Lucian private sector company, (a Saint Lucian having 65% voting rights in the company).
  • The proposed Challenge will specifically deploy an indirect transmission mechanism, co-financing service providers.
  • The Challenge will provide co-financing of EC$100,000 or less.
  • The Challenge will fund capital goods and assets of up to 40% of the project cost, and
  • The Challenge has a hybrid grant disbursement mechanism mixing up front disbursement and results-based payments.

To access the Challenge applicants will need to demonstrate a level of commitment whether in cash or in kind. Capital accessed via the Challenge can be used for activities and items such as staff time costs, technical assistance, and capital goods required to design, pilot or implement a new service. The Challenge however cannot be used as working capital, as an investment on equipment not directly related or critical to the project or the purchase of real estate.

The establishment of the NCPC PROCOM Challenge is a large undertaking with the objective of enhancing both productivity and competitiveness in St. Lucia. The Challenge is one that will back positive ideas and innovation within the private sector, bringing with it a much needed productive impact on the country’s competitiveness climate.

Visit  www.stluciancpc.org, www.facebook.com/stluciancpc or call 468-5571 or 468-5576 if you have any questions/queries reference the PROCOM Challenge.

Business Focus NCPC PROCOM Challenge-02


The Quality of the Workforce: Productivity Piece

By Mr. Janai Leonce, Deputy Chief Economist, Research & Policy Unity, Ministry of Finance

STEP_frameworkProductivity refers to the efficiency at which inputs can be transformed into outputs.  The more productive a society or entity the better it can transform a given set of inputs into outputs. Within any society or entity many different factors can influence that efficiency. These factors range from work arrangements and systems to the level of technological adaptation and capital infrastructure used.   In this piece however we focus on the quality of the workforce which is a key input and factor of production. The quality of the workforce is important and speaks to the intrinsic and intangible aspect of workers including their drive, analytical skills, ingenuity and ability to innovate.  These traits, particularly the ability to innovate and be driven often results in the worker in conjunction with an open minded management team identifying new approaches to doing business which often redounds to the benefit of both the worker and work environment.

Despite the importance of these intangible traits its often difficult to speak about them in an objective and measured way given that there is little empirical ways to capture and measure them.  Consequently, other variables are often used to serve as a proxy for workforce quality.  The most used of those are the performance at various educational stages of the worker.  The thinking behind this is that success in those exams can be a rough proxy for drive and analytical skills.  The better an individual performs the more drive and skills he/she is assumed to have.  While this assessment is not without its flaws reasonable levels of data for St Lucia exist on the education system and as provides for an interesting case study.  How well are our students (and therefore soon to be workers) performing at various exams and does this say anything about the quality of persons entering the work force? Information on the average percentage pass rates for the CXC examinations and for the A’ Level Cambridge and CAPE exams will be our two references points in this piece.

 Over the last 10 years the average number of CXC subject entries, which is a function of the number who sat the exam multiplied by the number of subjects written, was 15,166 annually with an average pass rate of 68.7 per cent.  While there has been some volatility in both the subject entries and pass rate, in the main, both have been on an upward trend. The number of subject entries rose to 15,096 in 2014 from 12,817 in 2005 while the pass rate rose to 71.4 per cent in 2014 from 70.6 per cent in 2005.  An interesting dynamic of this performance can be found by assessing the distribution of said passes between the grades i.e. passes at grades 1 through to 6 with a grade one being the highest and a 6 the lowest.  Over the full period studied (10 years) the percentage of subject entries which were grades of one or two averaged 13.1 and 25.2 per cent respectively while the majority of entries (30.3 per cent) were grades three.  The distribution of exam performance across the remaining three classifications in sequential order were 18.3, 11.8 and 1.0 per cent respectively.  Taking a more recent view however there have been some positive developments with increased percentages of passes at both the grades one and two levels and reductions at the grade three and four. The percentage of students who received grade ones inched up to 14.8 per cent from 13.1 per cent while the increase was more nuanced on the grade two with an increase to 25.8 from 25.2 per cent.  Tempering this positive news concerning pass rates is the fact that the dropout rate at the secondary school level for males has averaged 1.9 per cent between 2004 to 2013 with a high of 2.4 per cent in 2011, seemingly on an upward trend and for females 1.0 per cent. 

Although there are many levels of tertiary education which we can assesses to gauge worker quality the most readily available series of data is the percentage pass rate at the Division of Arts Science and General Studies (DASGS).  As such we’ll briefly assess those results.  At the DASGS percentage pass rates rose to an average of 75.6 in 2014 from 73.8 per cent in 2007 and the percentage of passes between grades A to C rose to 41.5 per cent from 23.1 per cent in 2007.  Complementing these statistics is the fact that enrollment at the main divisions of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College 2346 in 2013/14 from 1689 in 2006/07 and a fall in the dropout rate from a high of 5.9 per cent in 2008/09 to 3.4 per cent 2012/13.

In the previous paragraphs we’ve sought to assesses the percentage pass rates and distribution of grades receive at two education levels secondary and tertiary to provide a rough approximation of the quality of the workforce.  In both instances evidence suggest that our students are performing better but there are many caveats which need to be mentioned.  The first is that there appears to be an imbalance balance between the number of students doing science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects relative to humanities.  Estimates for the year 2014 put this at 39.0 per cent which is low given that Sir Arthur Lewis in his writing on economic development urged developing countries to increase this number as a prerequisite for a truly innovative workforce.  The second is the number of drop outs are high with more than one hundred dropping out annually.  The third is that only a few students pursue education post-secondary school leading to a worker force without higher order skills sets.  Soft skills which include communication skills and emotional intelligence are traits which even the most successful in the academic arena may lack and we need to build systems which engender these into our citizenry. 

While we may be tempted to laud/celebrate the academic achievements of those students who achieve pass grades in the CXC and CAPE exams, the stark reality remains that a significant percentage of students are completing basic schooling functionally illiterate. 

The morale of the piece is that while we may have a basic foundation with which to build on, there is much work which would need to be done to build a truly productive workforce. When all is said and done, a low-quality workforce threatens the level of productivity and competitiveness that we are trying to achieve.

Article submitted by Guest Contributor Mr. Janai Leonce, Deputy Chief Economist, Research and Policy Unit, Ministry of Finance and NCPC Council Member. For more information about productivity, visit the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council (NCPC) Secretariat, 2nd floor, Financial Centre Building, Bridge Street, Castries, log on to the NCPC website; www.stluciancpc.org; www.facebook.com/stluciancpc, call 468-5571/5576 or send an e-mail to stluciancpc@gmail.com.





From April 10th- 16th, 2016, fifty-one (51) high-level representatives from twenty-four (24) countries around the world will gather in the United States for the V Americas Competitiveness Exchange (ACE) on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

For the past five (5) years, ACE has brought together together decision-makers to explore global and regional partnerships and economic development opportunities that will strengthen innovation and entrepreneurship. This year’s delegates will have the opportunity to meet with Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hubs throughout Arizona and Southern California.

Saint Lucia will be aptly represented by Honourable Emma Hippolyte, Minister for Commerce, Business Development, Investment and Consumer Affairs, Mrs. Fiona Hinkson, Executive Director of the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council and Mrs. Barbara Innocent- Charles, Director of the Small Business Development Centre (NCPC)

To find out more about the Americas Competiveness Exchange please visit www.riacnet.org.

Don’t forget to visit the NCPC Facebook page and website www.stluciancpc.org regularly for this and other news updates.


NCPC Secretariat Team Get Tools To Unleash Productivity Potential

Attitude is everything where productivity is concerned. As organizations continue to invest resources in improving organizational productivity, it is critical that emphasis be placed on equipping employees with the necessary tools they need to succeed in an effort to foster a culture of productivity. Training continues to play a key role in not only sharpening employees’ core skills but also improving individual attitudes which will have a significant impact on output and performance.

With this in mind, the dynamic team of women who coordinate the day-to-day operations of the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council (NCPC) recently completed The 5 Choice to Extraordinary Productivity. This two-day extensive training workshop was presented by Celestial Learning Development Centre, a full-service Human Resource and Business Consultancy firm in Saint Lucia. The training exercise was facilitated by Afra Schimming-Chase, L.L.B., LLM, CFP, a well-known Certified Financial Consultant and Motivational Speaker of Franklin Covey Namibia.

Like many of the solutions offered by Franklin Covey, a major focus of the 5 Choices training exercise was performance. The training group consisted of approximately 30 management professionals from companies across the island, (including the NCPC Secretariat Team). After having completed the workshop the trainees were equipped with the tools to enhance both their professional and personal productivity.

Fiona Hinkson, Executive Director of the NCPC Secretariat stressed on the importance of training as a critical component of any organization’s long term strategy. “Training is essential to any organization’s success. Since productivity affects companies’ bottom line, understanding the productivity culture of an organization and ensuring that at least the management is properly trained in productivity techniques will go a long way in improving performance. Part of our mandate at the NCPC is  identifying issues related to productivity and competitiveness in Saint Lucia, providing the necessary advocacy and research to produce timely and effective recommendations to policymakers on these issues. The decision for my team to receive the 5 Choices Training was an easy one for me. As the national body focused on productivity and competitiveness, this training has given us a more intimate understanding and greater sensitivity to productivity related issues. What I loved most about the workshop was that in addition to the theoretical information shared, there were many opportunities for us to share stories and personal experiences and we also walked away with practical tools which will help to enhance productivity in our professional and personal lives.

Since completing the workshop two-weeks ago employees at the NCPC Secretariat have noticed positive changes not just in the work place but also in their personal lives.

Sharma Mathurin, Economist at the NCPC Secretariat noted, “We have always been a very action-oriented team however the workshop has exposed us to practical tools and techniques which will allow us to become even more efficient at our jobs. The way in which we conduct our meetings has already changed. Additionally, the Secretariat has adopted practices from the training exercise which will continue to empower us to develop a culture of productivity within the team. We have also found that by constantly speaking the productivity language and always thinking in terms of the four quadrants, we have been better able to prioritize our work. This training is so much more than productivity training, the 5 Choices equips trainees with very essential tools for living a fuller life.

Productivity affects and benefits everyone. The more organizations learn about productivity the more poised they will be to improve organizational performance.

Cultivating A Productivity Mindset

If you talk about it, it’s a dream, if you envision it, it’s possible, but if you schedule it, it’s real.”- Anthony Robbins, Author of Get the Edge

Everyday we are faced with a myriad of choices; “staying in bed for a half an hour longer or getting up earlier to exercise, buying a beautiful new dress or suit or investing that money in a retirement savings plan, taking the stairs or the elevator.” Life is filled with limitless choices, but even when they are difficult we make them, often effortlessly. What makes the real difference is when we make a personal decision to recommit daily to our choices- to own them!  

Productivity is defined as “the measure of the efficiency of a person, machine, factory, system, etc., in converting inputs into useful outputs.” As employers become increasingly aware of employees’ contribution to organizational productivity, more emphasis is being placed on finding innovative ways to keep employees engaged and motivated, thereby ensuring greater results for the organization. The challenge with such an approach is that the perceived gain is often temporary. While employee engagement is extremely important, understanding the root cause of employee inefficiencies will translate to more sustainable results.

More often than not the major hindrance to productivity is the “mindset/culture” which exists within the organization. While we can’t force others to change their mindset/outlook, we can make a personal decision to make changes to our own mindset. Imagine the extraordinary productivity organizations could achieve if each individual decided to make a personal commitment to change?

Personally I think that the very same principles which are applied to a project can be adapted to our lives. When we decide to embark on a project, we always ensure that we have a detailed plan in place, we establish goals and objectives, we monitor progress and reevaluate goals, we update the plan. Why not use the very same method to help us achieve our personal productivity? Here are seven (7) simple steps to get you on the right track to improving your productivity:

  1. Want it

As with any project, buy-in is key. You are the Project Manager and if you aren’t excited about your project, or fully committed, there is no way it is going to work. You can’t wish to be more productive, you have to truly want it, immerse yourself in the lifestyle and continuously work at maintaining it.

  1. Write it down

So you’ve decided to commit to this personal productivity project, but what is really stopping you from breaking this decision just like you have a million other resolutions? If you want it to happen then you NEED to write it down. Get a post-it and a pen and write down your decision. Place it on your mirror or fridge or another prominent place in your home or office space. This will help to ensure that your productivity project is always top of mind.

  1. Select one or two areas that you wish to work on and set measurable objectives

You want to be productive? That’s a pretty broad statement! The key to a succeeding is taking this want and breaking it down into more specific areas you want to change and then setting measurable objectives. E.g. You have identified that your lack of organizational skills is hindering your productivity. You can then decide that for the next six weeks you are going to work on your organizational skills as opposed to productivity on a whole.

  1. Determine a detailed plan of action, establishing timelines for achieving different milestones

This is where you plan the work you will need to put in, how you plan to achieve this work (process) and the tools you will need to succeed. You will also determine the length of time required for the project based on your goals and different milestones which will be sort of a checkpoint that you are going in the right direction. 

  1. Do it!

With your plan in place your main focus here is doing the work that you set out to do in your plan.

  1. Regularly review/re-evaluate your plan to determine progress and update plan where necessary

While carrying out this project you will regularly review to see how close you are to achieving your objectives. You may realize that certain goals or objectives need to be reviewed or that your approach needs to be changed.

  1. Detail Lessons Learned

Your project is completed but the work is not over as yet. A very crucial component of your project is establishing lessons learned. There may have been processes which worked better than others, results which were particularly noteworthy and other key information which is worth writing down. By establishing lessons learned and making notes of successes and challenges, you are setting the pace for how other personal projects will go.

Cultivating a productivity mindset may seem like an insurmountable task but even the most meaningful work seems daunting at first. By making daily choices and acting on these choices, there is so much you can achieve.