CARICOM at 40: An Alternative Agenda


Sir Ronald Sanders

Sir Ronald Sanders

By Sir Ronald Sanders

By the time this commentary is read, Heads of Government of the 15-nation Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) will have celebrated the 40th anniversary of the inter-governmental organisation.   There is cause for celebration, but there is also reason for lamentation.

Heads of Government will have rightly pointed to many areas of common services in which there has been success in building on inherited institutions and creation of others. 

But there has been weakening of inherited institutions such as the University of the West Indies (UWI) that should by now have consolidated itself as a globally respected institution of research and development. Unfortunately, the three campuses of the University seem set on a course of competition with each other, replicating schools in various disciplines that squander resources and make for poor planning and flawed outputs.  Further, over the years, other Universities have been created within CARICOM states to compete with the UWI for scarce resources and in other respects. 

The most recent institutional creation of the Caribbean Community – the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) – while it serves as the court of original jurisdiction over matters related to the CARICOM Treaty is still to be accepted by 12 of the 15 states as their court of final appeal.  Many reasons have been advanced for this failure to embrace the CCJ but the root causes are undoubtedly pandering to insular nationalism and inaction by the powers-that-be to allay fears and build confidence in the Court.

On CARICOM’s 40th anniversary, the grounds for celebration are that it still exists and leaders are still proclaiming its worth.  But, the process of deeper integration that, by now, should have been far advanced rendering the countries of the Community as a whole stronger economically and less weak and vulnerable in the international community, has simply not occurred.

Despite all the natural resources of the region – oil, gas, bauxite, manganese, rare earth, uranium, gold, diamonds, forestry, agriculture/fisheries, tourism and renewable sources of energy such as sun, wind and geothermal and hydroelectric potential – 40 years from the establishment of CARICOM, member states have not co-operated to invest collectively in, and jointly exploit, these endowments to benefit the people of the region.

Its trade relationship, while increased in volume, has benefitted only a few of its member states, notably Trinidad and Tobago.   A start to implementing a Caribbean Single Market was delayed until 2008, nineteen years after the decision was made to do so in 1989.  It was then put on “pause” in 2011 ostensibly “to consolidate its gains” even though as remarked by the Chairman of the West Indian Commission Sir Shridath Ramphal, “this ran the real risk of severe erosion and even reversal”. 

On foreign policy, the 14 independent member countries of CARICOM have also been unable to fashion a common stance in a number of critical areas, the most important being a relationship with China.   The division among CARICOM countries weakens their bargaining position in the international community.   

After 40 years of existence, CARICOM should have progressed to bargaining collectively for the region not only at the World Trade Organisation but also in international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund. Instead, there has been a movement backward to separateness by CARICOM governments.

It is difficult to identify more than four CARICOM countries that could survive on their own if grants and concessionary loans from external agencies and countries were removed from their revenues.  As Owen Arthur the former Prime Minister of Barbados observed recently:

“The price of insular nationalism has been onerous. The cost of separate national development has been such that maintaining viable economies and societies is proving to be a task that is spiralling out of the reach of most Caribbean Societies”.

He went on to make the important point that:  “Nation building in the Caribbean therefore has to be driven, not by the present retreat from regional engagement, but by the philosophical commitment to make the region succeed through deploying more effective forms of regional co-operation”.

So what are the crucial areas that CARICOM governments could be addressing collectively that would bring benefits to the region as a whole and, consequently, to their countries individually.  First, on the agenda should be completing the arrangements for the Single Market. Last year, in a public statement, the CARICOM Secretariat said there was 64% compliance among the member states.  It identified major deficiencies in Free Movement of Services, the regime on the Right of Establishment and the regime for the Free Movement of Skills –things that matter to Caribbean people and businesses.

Then there are three matters that require urgent attention.  These are:   food security, regional maritime transportation and energy security.  The region is now importing US$4 billion in food annually.  Yet, Guyana, Suriname, Belize, Jamaica and Dominica produce enough food not only to feed the region but also to export.   Closely tied to food security is sea transportation without which food produced in the region cannot be distributed.  In turn this will call for categorization, regulation and modernisation of ports. Energy security has now become imperative particularly as, with the best will in the world, the Venezuelan government will not be able to continue the terms of the Petro Caribe arrangement that amounts to budgetary aid for many CARICOM states.  The region has to develop its abundant resources of renewable energy to reduce costs and make itself competitive in manufacturing and tourism.

According to Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, China’s President Xi pledged US$3 billion in loans to the Caribbean for infrastructural and other development when he visited Port-of-Spain last month to meet 9 Caribbean leaders.  If that pledge bears fruit, it would be beneficial to encourage Venezuela to join a relationship with the Chinese and CARICOM countries in which money is dedicated to regional spending on food security, maritime transportation and energy security. Such a development would encourage a range of public sector-private sector partnerships in shipping, port development, agriculture/fisheries and energy infrastructure that would lift the region economically, solve several of its pressing problems and float the national economies of CARICOM.

These investments are vital to improving the efficiency and competitiveness of CARICOM countries and to achieving a higher sustainable rate of economic growth to reduce the high debt of almost all of them and enhance the livelihood of their populations.  It is such a big regional approach that is needed.  After 40 years, petty and insular nationalism should end – its failure is evident.

(The writer is a Consultant, Visiting Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)
 

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