Sun | Dec 4, 2022

Editorial | Make Guyana foray a first step

Published:Thursday | October 6, 2022 | 12:06 AM

It is more than half a decade since this newspaper began actively urging Jamaica’s public and private sector interests to look for economic opportunities in Guyana, before the crowd descended on the country, after its oil boom became obvious.

Last year, Guyana’s economy grew by an estimated 23.9 per cent, after expanding 20 per cent in 2020 – both years when economic activity was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic and natural hazards. This year, growth is expected to be close to 58 per cent.

This week, Jamaica’s trade and investment minister, Aubyn Hill, is at the helm of a Jamaica mission to Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, doing precisely what The Gleaner has been suggesting for so long, although Mr Hill and other officials attempted, unnecessarily, to coat the foray in high-minded altruism.

“Jamaica and Guyana have a shared history of good bilateral relations,” Mr Hill said. “With both our nations currently experiencing economic growth, strategically, there are many mutual benefits to be explored on this mission to Guyana, where regional collaboration and partnership will be central to the business engagements of the mission.”

As the saying goes, better late than never.

But Jamaica’s lethargy, either in recognising or responding to Guyana’s economic prospects, is generally in congruence with this country’s, especially our non-financial corporations’ approach to the Caribbean. Opportunities are overlooked, leaving extra-regional players, or other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) partners, to grasp them. The complaints usually are that it is too difficult to do business in the Caribbean, or that the region’s markets, particularly those of CARICOM’s eastern Caribbean members, are too small.

That attitude should change. It causes Jamaica to forfeit opportunities.

We have no clarity about the mindset with which Minister Hill’s mission went to Guyana. Hopefully it wasn’t with a notion that the country’s prospects lay only in oil, and, therefore, that there are no opportunities in traditional areas of business. That would be myopic and limiting.

With respect to the first observation, for the better part of a decade, well before the take-off of the energy economy, Guyana has been enjoying, by recent Caribbean standards, decent growth – averaging around 4 per cent a year. Indeed, the country’s non-oil sector grew 4.6 per cent in 2021 and is projected to expand by over 7 per cent this year. The point is, oil isn’t the only game in town.

In that regard, if Jamaicans are diligent and creative, there is business to be done in the traditional sectors of the economy, not least of which is agriculture, where Guyana’s government has encouraged regional participation as part of a broad effort to build CARICOM’s food security.

That notwithstanding, we repeat an argument we have consistently made since it was clear that large commercial quantities of oil were likely to be discovered in Guyana: that it presented an opportunity for Jamaican institutions to train skilled professionals who will be needed in the new economy, until domestic institutions can meet the training demand for workers such as engineers, pipe fitters and a host of marine skills, among others. It is possibly still not too late for the institutions like the University of Technology (UTech), the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) and HEART/NSTA Trust to attempt to develop partnerships with the Guyanese authorities and their education institutions. Moreover, trained Jamaicans in related fields might consider job prospects in Guyana in both technical areas in services. Indeed, prospects for the latter have widened since advances in digital technologies made working from remote locations increasingly viable.

Beyond the prospecting for business in that economy, the Guyana mission is an opportune platform from which Jamaica can launch something larger: a reset of its business engagement in CARICOM, to make it robust and to more aggressively compete for opportunities. Jamaican businesses used to consistently whinge about barriers to their goods in other parts of a supposed regional single market. It showed, they argued, in Jamaica’s deficit (US$194 million in 2021) in visible trade with CARICOM.

The complaints are less consistent and vociferous these days, which perhaps has to do with Trinidadian exports no longer being as dominant in Jamaica and that some Jamaican firms have become prominent in the eastern Caribbean. Perhaps, too, regional governments talk together more and resolve problems more expeditiously. Whatever the reason, it is a good sign that, despite the slow uptick, Jamaica’s export to the region has grown. That should be built upon.

Notably, too, in commenting on the Guyana mission, Diane Edwards, the head of Jamaica’s trade and investment promotions agency, JAMPRO, said: “The great regional challenge for 2022 is to consolidate the economic recovery of the region and lay the foundation for more inclusive inter-Caribbean growth.” Which suggests that Jamaica sees economic cooperation and coordination in CARICOM as being in concert with its development strategy, while at the same time being in concert with Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ 2016 declaration of Jamaica seeking its fair share of the region’s market.

At that time, Mr Holness told CARICOM that “Jamaica is back”. Yet, its return was still, it seemed, tentative. Maybe that has now turned full and firm – which doesn’t mean not competing for its fair share from the community. In visible goods and services.