Sun | Apr 23, 2017

The problem with CARICOM (Part 4)

Published:Monday | June 22, 2015 | 6:00 AM
Bharrat Jagdeo, former president of Guyana and force behind the Jagdeo Initiative.
Former Prime Minister Bruce Golding
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It is unfair to say, as so many are wont to do, that CARICOM has been a total failure. Valuable achievements have been made through functional cooperation. There is a range of institutions and facilities from which member countries have benefited.

The Caribbean Development Bank, from which Jamaica has secured some US$250 million in concessionary loans and grants, is a prime example. Others such as the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute, Caribbean Examinations Council, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, Caribbean Public Health Agency, and the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility are of great value, although most are underfunded and underutilised by member states.

Not to be disregarded is the much-sought-out influence we exert when we act in concert in important international and regional bodies such as the United Nations, Organization of American States, and Inter-American Development Bank.

It is in improving the economic fortunes of the Caribbean people that CARICOM has failed - and that is where it needs to be fixed. And it is Professor Norman Girvan's approach - not the reaffirmed ambitions of the Strategic Plan - that offer a better framework for actions that are themselves ambitious but doable.

I do not share Professor Girvan's emphasis on maritime transport to the extent that it is intended primarily to facilitate intraregional trade, which does not, in my view, offer significant shared benefits. However, I support his view that agriculture and food security must be a strategic objective.

CARICOM countries spend US$4.75 billion each year, one-third of their import bill, importing food from elsewhere, including dairy products from as far away as New Zealand, grain from the US, fish and a wide range of food-processing inputs from Southeast Asia.

 

Subsistence farming

 

The agricultural sector in most of our countries is based largely on subsistence farming. Most of them do not have the amount of flat, irrigable land to facilitate efficient, large-scale agricultural production. Guyana is the exception. It possesses a vast amount of flat, arable land washed by its countless number of rivers which the Guyana government has said it is prepared to make available for major agricultural investment projects.

The possibilities for significant import substitution and exports to third countries are huge. There are tremendous possibilities for forestry (Guyana and Belize), timber being a major import item, as there are for properly managed and exploited fisheries throughout the Caribbean Sea.

It requires a proactive approach involving both regional governments and private-sector interests, as well as targeted efforts to attract foreign investment. It would require policy convergence among member states, but this should not be beyond us, since it would be geared to import substitution and extraregional exports, and the protection currently in place for domestic agriculture would be retained. In this regard, it would be useful to revisit the Regional Agricultural Development Process, otherwise called the Jagdeo Initiative, that was put forward by President Bharrat Jagdeo in 2003.

I would suggest two other planks for this new focus. CARICOM does possess capacity in manufacturing, especially food processing, and in the services sector. That capacity is fragmented and isolated and is unable to make any significant mark in the global market. The 10 largest food-processing 'conglomerates' in CARICOM, taken together, are smaller than Heinz and one-third the size of Kraft in terms of assets, revenues and income. Size does matter if we are to penetrate the global market in a meaningful way, even if we are only targeting niche markets.

As a deliberate strategy, CARICOM should facilitate and incentivise new investment or joint-venturing by Caribbean companies and/or foreign investors, with special emphasis on external-market penetration and with those incentives being linked to a threshold value of third-country exports.

At present, there are wide disparities among CARICOM member countries in the level of incentives offered to attract investments. A visit to the website of the Caribbean Association of Investment Promotion Agencies is astonishingly revealing. While Jamaica's economic reform programme requires a rollback of incentives, it would not be difficult to accommodate a CARICOM-wide incentive programme that facilitates mega export projects that generate new foreign-exchange earnings and create new jobs.

 

More research

 

The other area of focus I would suggest is the issue of research and innovation. I know of no country enjoying sustained economic growth where that growth is not driven, in large part, by the application of technology. That is what is needed to enable us to do what we do more efficiently and to do efficiently things that we have never done before.

Research and innovation are an expensive undertaking that individual CARICOM countries cannot adequately afford. A well-equipped, expertly staffed and properly mandated research and innovation facility, networking with similar entities internationally, could be a huge game-changer to serve the needs of existing and potential investors and entrepreneurs throughout the Caribbean.

This approach may well be seen as a downsizing of the CSME and is hardly likely to appease the ardent regionalists who see Caribbean integration as a righteous cause and an end in itself. I suggest that it provides us with a framework for actions that are relevant, strategic, doable and measurable and can avoid CARICOM, in the words of Professor Girvan, from being either "shipwrecked on the rocks of the world crisis or becalmed in a backwater of marginalisation while the rest of the world moves on".

- Bruce Golding is a former prime minister of Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.