Mon | Sep 25, 2017

David Jessop | The urgency of now

Published:Sunday | May 29, 2016 | 5:00 AM

There is no shortage of astute advice or practical thinking about the region's future.

In the last two weeks alone, speeches from significant regional figures have again made clear what, practically, is required if the anglophone part of the region is to become better integrated, prosper, and offer its citizens a brighter future.

On May 17 in Jamaica, in remarks to the Caribbean Development Bank's (CDB) annual Board of Governors meeting, the general manager of Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS), Earl Jarrett, spoke about the immediacy of the challenges facing the region. In doing so, he set out the core issues that he believes need addressing as a matter of urgency if CARICOM is ever to fulfil its regional mandate to catalyse regional integration.

Although speaking in the context of the existential threat that the region's financial system is now facing in relation to its indigenous banking system, he raised fundamental questions about the meaning of independence and regionalism.

His remarks had at their heart a passage that implied that the anglophone Caribbean has not yet fully embraced what it means to be independent and to uncomplainingly and responsibly deliver its own destiny through what he described as mutuality.

Speaking about the need to understand this in the context of the region's history, the JNBS general manager observed that in CARICOM, independence truly took hold following the removal of trade preferences in European markets, the imposition of rigid visa requirements, and the demand for greater investment in security in the Caribbean.

"Today, we are experiencing the de-risking of financial institutions. And, I suggest to you that this is the final step to complete the independence of the Caribbean from Europe and the rest of the world. It is now up to us to begin to craft a new response to this 'independence'," Jarrett said.

He then all but issued a challenge, calling on all present "to reflect on and to accept the need to recognise that ... we must now look to each other ... Our future will require us to embrace fully this spirit of mutuality," he said.

In his remarks, Jarrett - who quoted Martin Luther King's observations on mutuality in his 1963 letter from jail - went on to urge that a now well-funded CDB to play a greater role in delivering change, taking the steps necessary to encourage new thinking, connectivity and integration.

He proposed the creation of a space where the region's business people can meet and exchange ideas to drive progress in ways that involve the University of the West Indies; a commitment to improving inter-regional transport and high-speed telecommunications; a medium by which goods can be traded in the region through a regional payments system; acceptance of the truth that the Caribbean will never again be a major agricultural player; the creation of a common secure regional immigration system; and the development of a Caribbean financial institution located in the major trading markets of the world.

Coincidentally, two days later in St Lucia, Sir Ronald Sanders, the diplomat and commentator, addressed the St Lucia Tourist Board, in itself a creative departure for an industry that has tended to avoid the politically challenging. His remarks considered in a different way the same issue of mutuality.

He noted that although the region had rightly shed colonial rule more than half a century ago, and assumed control of its own affairs, the outlook was not bright, although CARICOM, Sir Ronald argued, was "created as the framework for pooling individual sovereignties" and "the foundation upon which structures of cooperation would be built to deliver their individual and collective betterment".

"Sadly," he said, CARICOM has "wandered from its purpose."

He made the point that the reinvigoration of CARICOM has all the urgency of now, observing that the scepticism and disillusionment resulting from the 'implementation deficit' of the last decade has already undermined the previous three decades of work.

"Continuing to neglect it, and only to pay lip service to it in ritualistic meetings and wordy press conferences, will hasten the process of decline and adversely impact every sector of the economy, including tourism," he said.

Both Earl Jarrett and Sir Ronald, who I count as friends, reflect an uncomfortable truth about today's Caribbean. It is that if the political leadership of the region cannot find a way to encourage and deliver the mutuality on which CARICOM is based, its members will surely drift towards new platforms and relationships, resulting in the emergence of alternative groupings and identities.

Unfortunately, what is lacking is anyone in a present or past position of regional political seniority who is willing to speak as frankly about the region's failings; someone who can demonstrate practical thinking, inspire those beyond the narrow confines of their supporters and country, and encourage the young to develop a regional platform for change and its delivery.

Instead, most anglophone Caribbean politicians - there are some exceptions - at a regional level, continue to speak in platitudes, reported by a media that have become disinterested and now rarely ask difficult and informed questions about the region's future or issues such as non-delivery or inaction.

In many other parts of the world that have open liberal democracies, similar to those in the region, electorates are abandoning traditional politics, moving towards populists, and are organising through social media as their anger and resentment against austerity, privilege, and the remoteness of elites takes hold.

This has not happened in the Caribbean - why, being a subject of a future column - but that is not to say it will not.

In almost every CARICOM nation, independence took place before the majority of the population was born. Speak to young people coming out of the region's schools and universities and it is clear they want more than is on offer. Beyond employment and a good standard of living, they wish to be provided with outcomes that will enable them in the wider world to be proud and self-confident about their region, their West Indian identity, and be inspired to know where independence can take them, both figuratively and literally.

In a few weeks' time, CARICOM Heads of Government will meet again. As usual, they will have a packed agenda, making it unlikely they will address issues of the kind that Sir Ronald and Earl Jarrett raised.

Importantly, however, both suggested alternative ways to drive change. They proposed that the regional agenda should be seized by others; driven forward by intermediary institutions such as the CDB, the network of industries that occupy today and tomorrow's economic high ground such as tourism, and by other representatives of civil society. What they implied is that there are other ways to move a mountain.

- David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council. david.jessop@caribbean-council.org.