October 30, 2020

Addressing our ‘grave economic crisis’


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financial-crisis-2By Ronald Sanders From Trinidad Express

In a commentary on the statement by St Lucia Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony that there is a grave economic crisis gnawing away at Caribbean coun­-

tries and “governments are busy looking inward rather than pursuing a Caribbean solution”, I drew attention to several possible areas of practical action that governments of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) could take immediately.

One of the suggested actions is to revisit a paper entitled “Re-energising Caricom” that leaders set aside at a special retreat in May 2011 in Guyana.

Although the retreat was called to discuss the “way forward for Caricom” against a background in which, just three months before, leaders themselves had acknowledged “a loss of the momentum with regard to the regional integration agenda”, they decided to “pause” development of a Caribbean single economy.

What does the “Re-energising Caricom” paper say? Authored by Prof Norman Girvan, economist Havelock Brewster and others, it covered a number of critical areas that have been repeatedly discussed by leaders but never implemented. But it is the paper’s proposals to prioritise the benefits of economic integration that are urgent for governments to consider, and it is these that I précis below for the information of a wide Caribbean audience.

The paper proposed that revitalising efforts be focused on three sectors: a regional agricultural and food security programme, a regional maritime transport programme and a regional renewable energy programme.

On agriculture and food, the paper pointed out that in 2009, import of food products by Caricom countries amounted to US$3.5 billion, having increased 350 per cent over the period 2000-2009. Yet on a regional scale, there is no shortage of fertile land and non-saline water. Huge opportunities are available for pooling these resources, with the aim of satisfying a substantial portion of regional demand and supplying extra-regional markets.

The paper contended that action should be centred on a regional investment plan for food production that, at the same time, catalyses action in other necessary areas such as research and development, sanitary and phyto- sanitary measures, quality standards, market information and intelligence, and transport.

On regional maritime transport, which has been the bane of moving agricultural and manufactured products around the region, the paper noted that Caribbean regional maritime transport services are both inadequate and very expensive compared with other parts of the world. And it pointed out that substantial opportunities are available for: intraregional cargo and passenger shipments, transhipment services, cross-roads port and shipping services, and containerisation.

Acknowledging that substantial investments are required, the paper emphasised that such investments need to be organised around a holistic approach to expanding and moderni­sing maritime assets, creating larger-scale, specialised vessels and upgrading seaports within a regionally harmonised, regulatory, legal and policy framework.

On the huge sums of money spent on the importation of oil and gas by every Caricom country, except Trinidad and Tobago, the paper proposed a regional renewable energy production programme.

Pointing out that imports of petroleum (oils and oils obtained from bituminous minerals crude) amounted in 2008 to about US$6 billion, it argued that there is a huge resource base in the region that can support substantial production of renewable energy: solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biofuels. Not only are there opportunities for sharing renewable energy resources and technology but also for interconnectivity among interested member states.

What is required to achieve these goals that would save every Caricom country tens of millions of dollars every year is a regional investment programme. Governments would have to take joint action on fiscal incentives, harmonisation of the legal basis for the sale of excess power to the main power grids serving the region, training, standards and testing.

The big questions would be how to finance the investment programme and how to implement these three crucial initiatives? The paper provides a very practical answer: the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) has an explicit mandate to promote regional integration. The CDB, in collaboration with other Caricom agencies and the private sector, should be brought together in the form of a public-private partnership to devise a programme to attract local and foreign investment in these potential growth sectors.

Setting out a structure for such a partnership, the paper suggested it should be composed of the president of the CDB as chair, appropriate private-sector representatives and other relevant agencies. The CDB would have responsibility for the organisation, coordination and execution of the investments required for the priority areas, and would work closely with the regional private sector, including through a joint commission on regional development. The CDB would be expected to establish clear timelines for the execution of the programmes and to report regularly to the relevant Caricom organs on execution, particularly to finance minsters and heads of government.

With regard to external assistance, the creation of such a joint commission should find favour with donor agencies and governments, particularly because it will be a body comprising both the public and private sectors and would be subject to the international “best practices” rules that guide the CDB. An important effect of such a joint approach would be support for projects that promote new investment. Another benefit would be that the blessing of official donor agencies would encourage additional financing in loans and equity from the external commercial market.

It would be necessary for Caricom governments to agree with the donors, such as the European Union, that contribute to regional co-operation and integration programmes to co-ordinate and focus such regional programmes under the umbrella of the proposed joint commission.

Those basically are the proposals contained in the “Re-energising Caricom” paper. No Caricom country would lose by its implementation and every Caricom country would gain from reduced costs for food, oil and gas. They would also gain from structured, regular and reliable maritime transportation for agricultural and manufactured goods and, therefore, an increase in inter-regional trade. Additionally, both in the build-out of programmes in the crucial areas of food production, renewable energy and maritime transport, and in their eventual operations, existing businesses would expand, new businesses created and new employment genera­ted.

One blueprint for using regional tools to achieve national growth exists in the “Re-energising Caricom” paper. What is required is the political will to do it.

• Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant, senior research fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat.

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