A little over a year ago this column observed that the pandemic will pass, but noted that more telling will be the way in which the region responds to the impact of a virus-induced recession.
At the time, it was apparent that once the most immediate and pressing regional tasks such as vaccination had been achieved, an economic recovery plan should be developed that pays particular attention to the region-wide structural shortcomings that the pandemic has shone a light on.
At its most obvious, the pandemic has pointed to the absence of a region-wide integrated approach to food security; CARICOM member states’ continuing failure to address the logistical and infrastructural challenge of having efficient intra-Caribbean shipping and air transport links; the importance of tourism; and shortcomings in the region’s IT infrastructure and connectivity. It has underlined the need to act decisively to encourage investment in e.commerce and e.governance, which the COVID crisis has proved to be central to future efficiency.
The pandemic has also highlighted the failure to address the already well understood Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) implementation deficit, and the need for much improved region-wide procurement and inter-operability if the region is to be able to respond to future crises in a unified way.
On February 24 and 25 Caribbean Heads of Government, meeting virtually, recognised that the region now needs to move rapidly to address these issues in the context of the looming post-pandemic economic crisis that will face the Caribbean once most citizens are vaccinated, and the time comes to engineer recovery.
In this respect, three outcomes from the recently held intersessional are particularly striking.
The first is the much discussed and reported on failings of the regional integration process and the need for all governments to address and implement the measures necessary to have a genuine Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME).
On this the communiqué was forthright.
Expressing concern about the continuing lack of progress on implementation of the CSME, it noted that to ensure recovery, Heads “agreed to review urgently the entire consultation and decision-making processes at all levels in the effort to establish the most effective strategy for effecting increased levels of implementation”. They also urged all CARICOM states to remove non-tariff barriers between each other to boost the region’s economic output, and to simplify administrative procedures relating to the free movement of people.
The second is the recognition that unless structural problems that should have been remedied long ago are not swiftly addressed, recovery may be a long way off.
It was agreed that the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, will lead a review of implementation and Finance Ministers will meet no later than the end of March 2021, to resolve issues outstanding on the still awaited CARICOM Financial Services Agreement, the Regional Securities Market, and the Community Investment Policy and Credit Reporting. In addition, COTED – CARICOM’s Trade Council – was “urged” to expedite and make recommendations by July on creating a single ICT Space, reducing roaming rates, enhancing broadband access, and exploring the creation of a single regional telecommunications regulator. Heads also “instructed” COTED (transportation) to take the actions necessary to create “an effective air transportation system”, build maritime capacity for the transportation of agricultural produce, and review existing port facilities to support intra-regional cargo.
And the third is the long overdue recognition by governments that the private sector in the region, if enabled, can deliver many of the desired outcomes.
In a line about the role of the private sector that seems to put to bed many years of public-private dissonance, the communiqué observes: “The region is depending [on it] to fuel the recovery of its economies and which need[s] to be fully engaged at both the national and regional levels.”
In a similar vein, Heads placed stress on the private sector’s role in developing a joint CARICOM tourism policy aimed at restoring “revenues, employment, foreign exchange retention and currency stability”. An “iterative” emergency tourism plan was agreed, a subsequent more detailed policy and strategy will be delivered before the third quarter of this year, and in future the words ‘West Indies’ will be used to market the Anglophone Caribbean through a Tourism Reserve Fund in part supported by “willing Member States”. Put another way, the pandemic has dramatically proved private sector-led tourism to be existential to most CARICOM states’ future economic recovery and viability.
Other private sector-related outcomes may see the creation of a “commercial” food security strategy through a strategic public-private partnership involving long-term private funding.
Having over many decades observed CARICOM in action – if that is the right word – and seen the post-summit enthusiasm of Heads then turn to dust, it is hard not to be cynical about the latest decisions.
Many, myself included, will say they have heard it all before and will observe that over decades, lacking executive authority and the transfer of sovereignty from governments, CARICOM continues to suffer the post-summit paradox of Caribbean Heads, becoming unwilling to act, see implementation through to the bitter end, or determine accountability.
That said, there is every indication that the pandemic and the need for a politically joined-up response makes this crisis completely different, not least because a failure to deliver economic recovery may redound on the whole Caribbean political class.
Spurred by a potentially disastrous economic collapse, it would seem that all member states recognise that unless key issues are addressed now, they could consign the region to a hard to resolve long-term economic crisis.
This time, the option of ‘business as usual’ is unlikely to be available as much has changed globally, requiring industry and governments in the Caribbean to think differently.
The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink the Caribbean economic model, and to explore alternative ways in which smallness and fragmentation can be overcome through integration. There is no shortage of viable solutions.
At issue is whether CARICOM, as presently constituted, is the right vehicle to deliver the long overdue structural changes that COVID-19 has highlighted, and whether Heads are able to fulfil the promises they have made.