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COMMENTARY: Fire in Their Bellies: Do Caribbean Leaders Have It?

Posted by kinchendavid on January 6, 2007

By Sir Ronald Sanders

The heads of government of the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries will meet shortly to decide how they could take their nations forward economically in a highly competitive global environment.

Amongst the matters they will consider is the governance of CARICOM and a specific proposal that they should establish a Commission which would oversee certain agreed matters such as the external trade relations of the grouping and the development of the Caribbean Single Market (CSM) which was established last year.

The proposal for such a Commission was made 15 years ago by the West Indian Commission, but it was never implemented.

Recently, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga, predicted that CARICOM is ‘likely to face a slide, not a climb, in the future” because of the absence from regional decision-making at a governmental level of certain leaders. Specifically, he named two former Prime Ministers, P J Patterson of Jamaica and Kenny Anthony of St Lucia.

He claimed that apart from Owen Arthur of Barbados (who, he said, has indicated that he will be retiring soon) and Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent, “the present group of leaders are supporters but have far less fire in their bellies to carry on a campaign (for greater regional economic integration) with passion”.

Mr Seaga also posited the view that the establishment of a CARICOM Commission would not work, and that anyone who believes that it would “does not understand the psyche of Caribbean leaders nor, indeed, the people”.

Implicit in Mr Seaga’s presentation is that neither the majority of the present crop of CARICOM leaders, nor the majority of the people, want a more economically integrated region, and, certainly, they do not want a CARICOM Commission making decisions for their countries.

Of course, on the matter of the Commission, Mr Seaga’s presentation overlooks the specific recommendation of every proposal that any Commission must take instructions from, and be answerable to, CARICOM Heads of Government. Further, the Commission will have delegated authority and accountability only for such matters as national governments assign to it particularly because those matters are better handled with the collective strength of regional governments than by a weaker national government on its own.

As to the issue of whether leaders have “less fire in their bellies” for the regional integration project generally and a CARICOM Commission in particular, time will tell and the forthcoming meeting of Heads of Government will be a good indicator. If the establishment of the Commission is again delayed despite three reports that strongly recommend it, then CARICOM leaders would have proved Mr Seaga to be right.

And, there would be wider implications for the region.

Many businesses in the member states of CARICOM are eager to widen their markets beyond their national boundaries and into the wider Caribbean community. They are anxious that governments should provide the environment by which they can do so; they want the barriers to trade lifted in both goods and services.

Financial institutions – insurance companies and banks – based in Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica are already engaging in pan-Caribbean transactions providing capital to governments and businesses – Jamaica, Barbados, Belize and several of the Leeward and Windward islands have been beneficiaries of such financing. The financial institutions could do more if the cross-border controls and restrictions are lifted.

Governments might well wake up one morning to find that, to a certain extent, both market and production integration have taken place around them. But, in this scenario there will be more losers in the business community than there might be if the process of liberalization is orderly and regulated.

Already, there should have been deeper and more meaningful involvement of the region’s private sector and its trade unions in both the development of the Caribbean Single Market and in the trade and investment negotiations with the European Union (EU) and at the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, theoretically sound may be the studies of the region’s technical experts, there is a practicality to doing business whose requirements are best addressed by business people themselves.

Both at the national and regional levels, the private sector ought to be integral parties to negotiations. Some businesses in the Leeward and Windward Islands, the members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), are worried about being displaced in their own domestic markets by firms from the larger CARICOM countries.

In this connection, there is a crying need for the private sector throughout the region to map out their own strategy for sharing the Single Market through mergers, alliances or cooperation. There is urgency for a bargain between them which allows for equity in how the market is shared. Whatever formula results from a bargain will hurt some businesses, but no bargain will harm far more.

Further, the private sector should have a team that plays an advisory and consultative role to the region’s trade and aid negotiators.

The initiative for such activity should be taken by the regional private sector itself. If it fails to do so, it cannot complain if it is dissatisfied with the results of the trade and investment negotiations in which CARICOM governments are now involved. In this regard, the Caribbean Hotels Association (CHA) have shown the way by being forceful in pushing tourism on to the agenda of discussion between the EU and the Caribbean. Others in the services industry should follow.

It is to be hoped that there is still “fire in the bellies” for deeper regional integration not only of the private sector firms that are already forging ahead, but of government leaders, the trade union movement and others in the CARICOM business community.

* * *

Sir Ronald Sanders is a business executive and former Caribbean Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation who publishes widely on Small States in the global community. He is a regular contributor to Huntington News Network. Responses to: ronaldsanders29@hotmail.com

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