St Lucian Prime Minister (PM) Dr Kenny Anthony in a lecture on Caribbean integration at the University of the West Indies' Trinidad campus recently concluded, as so many have before him, that the Caribbean Community has been "stalled at a crossroads" for a long time and runs the risk of continuing to be out of step with global realities.
That message coming from the St Lucian PM, himself a regionalist, is perhaps more significant than if it were said by others who have been consistently critical of CARICOM and its relative ineffectiveness.
Dr Anthony, speaking on the topic, Delivered or Denied: Integration's Costs and Benefits, was sobering in his conclusion that some 50 years after regional self-determination by these countries in the region, "we are still engaged in major battles against our worst enemies: poverty, ignorance, crime, disease and debt".
Perhaps, even more sobering is his admission that the region has been much too slow in embracing change towards new technology and product and sector diversification, and less than effective in the implementation of democratic governance that exercises fiscal prudence, world-class education for its people, and justice for all. Instead, we have spent more effort clinging to preserving our traditional commodity sectors through "preferred and exceptional arrangements", and in the process, lost out on opportunities to improve our competitiveness and relevance in world markets.
The St Lucian prime minister is correct in his assessment, but does CARICOM, as an institution, in its present form, and with its existing capacity, have what it takes to overcome its stalled state and make a turn for the better?
Do our regional leaders, like Dr Anthony, who collectively determine on critical policy positions that affect the structure and substance of the Caribbean Community and many of whom have been contributors to the stalling at the crossroads because of their indecisiveness or complacency through romanticism with regionalism, have the strength of will to make that turn?
Believe in CARICOM
As Caribbean people, we should continue to be hopeful and believe in the strength that can be derived from the collective capacities through deliberate collaboration by our Caribbean territories. At the same time, we must not be prepared to continue to dream, as so many regionalists have done, without waking up to the reality, as Dr Anthony seems to have done, that CARICOM is in a time warp, not adequately redefining its role for the future.
Take out the sentimentality and even the most ardent supporter of CARICOM will admit that the regional body needs an overhaul. CARICOM's structure and approach to decision-making is cumbersome, and the expressed attitude and support for the institution in the public fora are not necessarily reflected within the halls of CARICOM meetings, which oftentimes require compromise for agreement on critical issues being discussed. Despite the recognition that we must work together for the greater good of the region, we are fiercely loyal to our sovereignty and independence and oftentimes act more as competing interests rather than benefiting from the strength of collaboration. The obstacles at the country level, to movement of people within the region, are prime examples of this.
At the same time, CARICOM tries too often to be all things to all men, watering down its effectiveness, because of its limited resources and attempts at compromise without flexibility from its members. During my time as a minister of government, I found the camaraderie at CARICOM meetings warm and civil and I made many friends, but positions for substantial and radical reform were hard to come by. The binding constraints to CARICOM agricultural trade, for example, a much-talked-about challenge, is still a struggle for adequate solutions in areas like movements of goods or logistics.
Like Dr Anthony and other regionalists, I have a soft spot for CARICOM and regional collaboration. I will always feel indebted to the regional approach to education, and the opportunity I receive from the University of the West Indies. I feel proud and cheer for our West Indies cricket team, as I do for any Caribbean national who excels internationally in individual sports.
I share the view that the Caribbean court can work, but it's a matter of how and in what form and structure. Similarly, I am concerned when I hear news of our territories being ravaged by natural or man-made disasters.
I think CARICOM deserves support from all regional leaders and all Caribbean people - at least because of the reality that we share similar opportunities and threats, both regionally and globally. It is these opportunities and threats that should help us to determine what we focus on and why we need to collaborate on these critical issues.
CARICOM needs to downsize its operations to reflect these common realities. There are four that, in my opinion, are critical starting points.
n First, education and training should continue to be an important regional imperative as we seek to give exposure and development to our human capacity. Beyond UWI, we should be facilitating greater exchange of ideas both intraregionally, but with strategic institutions and stakeholders outside of the region. This collaborative approach to education and training should be supported by more openness to the movement of Caribbean people within the region, both for work and study. Similarly, there should be encouraged collaboration at utilising our trained intellectual capacity to strengthen our democracy and the management of our respective economies.
n A more deliberate attempt at regional security and disaster risk management represents, in my view, priorities two and three for regional collaboration. The Caribbean will continue to be vulnerable to risks associated with deviant behaviour associated with drug and gun smuggling and money laundering because of its geographical location, island configuration, and indebtedness.
n For the most part, we are a trans-shipment point between major producers and consumers of these illicit items. However, we all run the risk of being corrupted in the process and so should seek to collaborate more.
n Fourth and finally, CARICOM should seek to develop itself as a first-class lobby on matters of common interests like trade and market access, the environment, energy, and one-off but important initiatives like reparations. Each Caribbean country, irrespective of size, has votes in international arenas like the United Nations. Similarly, our combined large diaspora can be organised to influence political decisions in places like Washington, London and Ottawa. We must use our clout in this area to influence positions that benefit us.
CARICOM should demonstrate its capacity to effectively coordinate on these four key areas before it attempts to do more. Otherwise, as Dr Anthony said, we will run the risk of becoming anachronistic and out of step with reality and the rest of the world.
- Dr Chris Tufton is co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute - a University of the West Indies, Mona-based policy think tank - and a former minister of government. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.