Former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill who led Britain through World War II is credited as saying “never let a good crisis go to waste.” It is with these words that I pen this article to advance my opinion on the way forward for the regional integration movement in light of the upcoming virtual 32nd Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of CARICOM Government, scheduled for February 23-24 2021.This regular meeting allows the regional Prime Ministers and Presidents to further collaborate and discuss a plethora of regional topics namely the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, CSME Implementation, Regional Security, Reparations, new US-CARICOM relations and the regional economic recovery inclusive of solutions to increase resilience and to redesign regional tourism.
To our Regional Prime Ministers and Presidents, I say going forward, the battle will not be easy to rebuild and revitalize your respective territories. The data points to the regional risks on the horizon such as prolonged economic stagnation, livelihood crises, youth disillusionment, the erosion of social cohesion and the ever-increasing digital inequality regionally. Geopolitically, you have to be cognizant of any potential activities that could further erode the base of your state and be prepared to arm your best negotiators and ambassadors with all available expertise to build strong and contemporary arguments supporting the cause of multilateralism as integral to our existence as small island states within the global arena. To compound the scenario, there is an increasing number of regional citizens disagreeing with the credible sources of scientific evidence on the efficacy of vaccines necessary to jumpstart national livelihoods, so your government must be prepared to prevent any additional backlash against science.
The impact of the global pandemic on the region has severely disrupted global supply chains. The average regional consumer has come to grips with the reality of food insecurity nationally where they are confronted with empty supermarket shelves, discontinued products by distributors, farmers with a surplus of agricultural produce and manufacturers willing to dump raw materials due to the unavailability of a ready market. From March 2020 to now, the region has had to grapple with the transformation of transient forms of poverty into chronic poverty and in the near future an increase in cases of abject poverty which may serve to significantly rollback our regional gains.
Prime Ministers and Presidents, over the years of pursuing Caribbean integration, several regional decisions were agreed but with no follow up national action. Oftentimes it has been blamed on an implementation deficit and lack of political will. But it is in times of crisis that we reflect, we introspect and we project for the future. Your citizens have already paved the way for your collective action. Unable to secure a consistent livelihood outside their doors, several householders started looking inwards. They started at home and initiated DIY projects, they developed home/backyard gardens and they reconnected with their immediate neighbours and recreated that Community spirit. I propose it is time to cascade it up and outwards to our Caribbean community. Evidence-based decisions must now support difficult conversations with all in our community as to what is required and by when so the Caribbean can increase our individual, economic, social, infrastructural and environmental resilience to these crises.
After all, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us they we do not need high winds, long hours of rainfall or severe flooding to completely devastate our economies and decimate livelihoods. It has shown that by extensively opening borders that viruses creep in like parasites on suitcase wheels and when we least expect it. As a region, we already have best practices for natural disasters but we are now in unchartered waters and we need to collectively conceptualize and design a regional response to COVID-19 that involves increasing intra-regional agricultural trade, increasing the resilience of MSMEs and increase the number of regional citizens accessing regional tourism products.
But that is not a reason to raise the white flag and surrender to the pandemic. Now is to the time to directly confront past regional inaction and arrest the deficits plaguing the community. Let us start with reopening the Caribbean by utilizing the CARICOM Single Domestic Space (CSDS). The CSDS was initiated for the 9 Host Countries and Dominica as part of the International Cricket Council Cricket World Cup (ICC CWC) 2007. [i] It included security components such as the Advance Passenger Information System, Advanced Cargo Information System and a CARICOM Travel Card with embedded biometrics. Together these security components can assist with national trade facilitation efforts and increasing the efficiency of the movement of goods and people across regional borders.
Looking inward again, when Covid-19 caused the immediate cessation of intra-regional flights, the region saw the immediate repurposing of the Regional Security System (RSS) aircraft which delivered vital supplies and even the recent vaccines to several islands within the community. If it has not yet been realized, within a Community you need to have a permanent network of transportation options to connect countries and deliver vital supplies. Perhaps the establishment of an intra-regional airline not driven by profit or laden with taxes may be the answer to increasing intra-regional movement and intra-regional trade especially agricultural trade.
As we face the eventual Post-COVID-19 future together, let us decide to utilize new international measurements rather than the systemically flawed GDP per capita assessment to determine levels of development. I recommend the adoption of the UNCTAD Productive Capacities Index (PCI) which is the first comprehensive attempt to measure a country’s productive resources, entrepreneurial capabilities and production linkages which together determine the capacity of a country to produce goods and services and enable it to grow and develop.[ii]The PCI utilizes 8 components of productive capacities and its scales range from 0 to 100 with 100 being the top score. PCI data for the region in 2016, show the following averages of 25.35 in Energy, 47.37 in Human Capital, 12.73 in ICTs, 58.43 in Institutions, 45.82 in Natural Capital, 79.14 in Private Sector, 17.45 in Structural Change and 25.98 in Transport. It is most noteworthy that the PCI for the Private Sector is the highest average among 11 CARICOM countries. This score represents the cost of exporting/importing a container and lead times to export/import goods among other items.
Prime Ministers and Presidents, if there is one lesson that everyone has learnt as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic is that individual as well as national resilience requires some form of adaptability accompanied by the capacity to innovate. Thus, now is the time to design plans to increase economic growth, industrial policies, increase innovative capabilities, increase local entrepreneurship and re-insert regional products into global value chains. All in all, the future of regional economic progress lies within your grasp, now is simply time for regional action. I will conclude with the words of an old African proverb, “if you walk alone you go faster, but if you walk together, you go farther.”
[i] Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago
[ii] UNCTAD Least Developed Countries Report 2020
Dr. Kai-Ann Skeete is Trade Research Fellow with the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy & Services of The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. Learn more about the SRC at www.shridathramphalcentre.com.