David Jessop | Connectivity and the future of Caricom
The appointment of Dr Carla Barnett as the next secretary general of Caricom should be an inflection point, a moment when the institution, and more importantly its member states rise to the challenge of delivering the post-pandemic decisions that could propel the regional integration process into the 21st century.
Whether Dr Barnett, importantly the first woman and the first Belizean to lead the regional institution, can negotiate a way out of the organisation’s inability to act because of its lack of executive authority, candidly explain, or find a way around commitments that are made at summit after summit and then not delivered by its member states, time will tell.
However, it would be good to assume that her appointment is rather more than ‘historic’ and will have real substance when she takes up the post in mid-August.
There can be few institutions globally that have been the subject of so conspicuously ignored or set-aside reports and recommendations provided over decades by the best, most thoughtful, and respected individuals in a region.
The latest, presented last October by the Caricom Commission on the Economy, succinctly summarises the thinking and recommendations of its commissioners, eight from the region and two of high international standing from elsewhere. It is now the subject of an implementation plan being developed for consideration by heads of government in July.
The report takes a radical approach that seeks to circumvent the normal reasons given for the lack of implementation: funding, external inequities, and a lack of political will.
Instead, the Chair of the Commission, Professor Avinash Persaud, observes in a prologue that while these challenges are real, what the commission is recommending initially requires no new external financing, and if adopted, could provide a platform for a larger and faster-growing Caricom Single Market and Economy, or CSME.
To this end, the report makes a series of practical suggestions aimed at spurring regional development in ways that recognise that change in future might be on the basis that groups of member states implement and develop what is agreed regionally at different paces. It proposes a minimum of five countries, or a third of member states, take forward proposals in ways that encourage a two or more speed Caricom to gradually become a genuine single market and economy.
This common-sense, economically interesting but politically and even emotionally difficult solution, although distant from the high ambition of the CSME, offers a way out of the present implementation impasse. This is especially so when linked to the commission’s other recommendations on connectivity, education, a larger regional role for the private sector, genuine free movement, and alternative approaches to inter-regional transport.
When it comes to free movement, the commissioners offer a radical solution: any Caricom citizen should be treated in all fifteen states as if they are a skilled national with the right to stay and work if they have more than two digitally verified Caribbean Secondary Education Certificates or their equivalent. They argue that this might provide an incentive to overcome the currently low levels of attainment in many of the region’s schools and provide a basis for improving the region’s skills pool.
The report also recognises that accelerating learning online must not be just about providing a tablet, but ensuring good digital freely available educational content, an affordable Internet, and an acceptance that a successful teacher in one Caribbean nation should be able to teach online in another.
The commission suggests that ‘prioritising public infrastructure expenditure makes sense’. This, they write, should include all that is needed to develop a regional digital economy that can leap the legacy of history in a world that no longer sees all opportunity as being tied to a physical location.
The report, in effect, proposes a single Caribbean or at least a Caricom digitally enabled economy that enables the region to develop a skilled, well-trained workforce operating within a well-regulated single environment able to drive transformation and provide equity of opportunity.
Apart from stressing the importance of a reduction in the rates charged for moving data, the commissioners make the point that there is no reason why a new interconnected regional economy should not respond to public- and private-sector demand for software development by encouraging a resident industry.
There is much more. The report puts forward practical ideas for private sector- led investment in resilience and for the freer movement of services and cross-border capital flows. When it comes to transport, it observes the need for a network of privately run and owned unsubsidised fast ferries, using new technology in ways that integrate sea and air transport into a single comprehensive network.
It links the obvious and focuses on the practical. The region cannot, it says, ‘have a single market and economy if people, goods, services, and data cannot travel easily, frequently, and inexpensively’.
Put another way, the geographically fragmented and underpopulated anglophone Caribbean will never succeed or attain unity unless it is able to develop connectivity in a manner that enhances the educational standards of all, enables free movement, and supports a viable regional capital market.
For heads of government to agree to the report’s most significant recommendations will require a new mindset, foresight, and a commitment to delivery. Hopefully, the pandemic will have focused minds and made clear that the region cannot successfully recover and insert itself into the global economy if it does not now demonstrate, first through its own actions, what it intends to do to speed up development.
If the region’s leadership accept a two-speed region and what is proposed on free movement, it will mean that in future, geography, politics, new-found wealth, economics, and nationalism will likely determine which nations decide to travel together. For this reason, the report requires much wider Caribbean debate and dissemination, and at the very least, publishing on Caricom’s website.
No doubt Dr Barnett made clear her expectations of her new role as secretary general.
What better way to implement a post-pandemic recovery than for heads to agree that they and she take forward together some of the key measures the Economic Commission proposes. If they do not and let the commission’s relatively limited but low-cost far-reaching proposals go the way of the Golding and Ramphal reports, it will be hard to avoid asking bluntly whether Caricom and its single market has a long-term future.