Editorial | Shaw should welcome CARICOM ICT initiative
Audley Shaw probably doesn't travel much in the Caribbean, so he is unlikely, as a consumer, to be a personal beneficiary when, and if, it happens.
Nonetheless, even without the finance minister's penchant for burdening taxpayers with huge mobile telephone bills - like the J$8.33 million in charges he racked up in a single year, to last March - Jamaican individuals and firms should find value in the information and communications technology (ICT) promoted by Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries.
At their summit in Grenada earlier this month, CARICOM leaders, including Prime Minister Andrew Holness, mandated their officials to accelerate their work to establish a "single ICT space" within the Community. To this end, the heads of government endorsed a work plan previously approved by their technology ministers.
"The implementation of the work plan would provide an enabling environment for innovation to flourish, a larger market for investors, support for a sustainable increase in growth and jobs, enhance efficiency, and increase access to higher-value public services," the leaders said in their post-summit communiquÈ.
While this regional initiative is little discussed and has hardly received public attention in Kingston, Jamaica is well placed to be among the big gainers in their proposed expansion of CARICOM's frontiers towards a genuine single market and economy.
The accounting of benefits that Jamaica receives from its membership in CARICOM usually focuses on visible trade, where the country runs a huge deficit with its regional partners - more than half a billion US dollars, representing mostly the value of the import of fuels from Trinidad and Tobago. However, the effort in recent years by Jamaica's Government to maintain rational fiscal and other macroeconomic policies has been having noticeable success. Though a big deficit remains, the disparities have eased, the result, primarily, of the displacement of imports by domestic production.
But this newspaper believes, and has argued, that Jamaica possesses an underappreciated comparative advantage over its regional partners in the provision of services. ICT is among the services where we believe such an advantage exists, ready for serious exploitation once the regional ICT market is harmonised and firms can operate in CARICOM on the same basis, without having to hurdle protective regulatory barriers that increase costs.
Mr Shaw, perchance he has business in a CARICOM state, would probably appreciate the value of this. If the appropriate regulatory arrangements are in force in the 'single ICT space', he would not have to disable the roaming feature on his phone, but, as now happens in the European Union, genuinely roam like at home, without having to sign up for special plans or pay exorbitantly for roaming services.
Jamaica, in this regard, has the most experience of operating in a competitive telecoms market, having liberalised its sector nearly two decades ago. Indeed, the country has a well-established business process outsourcing (BPO) sector that employs more than 22,000 people and generates around US$400 million in business. While those numbers are not large by global standards, Jamaica is well ahead of its CARICOM partners, which, including oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago, want some of the BPO action.
Jamaica, from its pole position, may be able to leverage its expertise to extract the value of a seamless CARICOM ICT market to service global clients more efficiently, as well as sell a range of services, including legal, accounting and design, in the regional market.