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The View from Europe: Who will deliver the structural changes the pandemic has highlighted?

A timely and comprehensive policy paper produced by the Ramphal Centre has set out the structural changes required to deliver Caribbean post-COVID economic recovery. Welcoming the study, David Jessop, questions however whether the region still has the unity of purpose to deliver what it recommends.

By David Jessop

A little earlier this month, the University of the West Indies’ Shridath Ramphal Centre, published a policy paper that called for a new, integrated regional approach to post-COVID Caribbean economic recovery.  It asked in effect whether the region should seek to re-embrace the ‘old normal’ or seek solutions to the existing and new economic challenges that the pandemic has highlighted.

The study, ‘Trading Our Way to Recovery During  COVID-19: Recommendations for CARICOM Countries’ describes in its 96 pages the multiple and long-overdue structural reforms that are needed if post-COVID the Caribbean is to successfully recover and compete in what is likely to be a much-changed world.

It represents, according to Neil Paul, the Ramphal Centre’s Director, the thoughts and analysis of young Caribbean researchers who are using the opportunity of COVID-19 to recommend new ways of confronting these topics in a Caribbean context.

The document’s authors argue that in the short-term trade remains the best avenue for economic recovery, can strengthen critical sectors, and make economies competitive, sustainable,  and inclusive. They suggest that in the longer term, trade policy can be used to sustainably build economic resilience and diversification.

They variously propose a comprehensive approach to industrial policy that involves regulatory reform, innovative linkages across sectors, and the involvement of government, academia, and the private sector in the identification of new higher value-added opportunities. Their report also recommends a changed approach to agricultural development and food security, much greater attention being paid to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, and a new focus on investment. In the case of the latter, the document recommends accelerating and broadening existing proposals for the creation of a single regulatory CSME investment space in order to mitigate the constraints of the Anglophone Caribbean’s small geographic and population size.

The report’s authors also argue that greatly enhanced connectivity and e-commerce should be integral to the region’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery. They recommend ‘ubiquitous and affordable’ internet and telecommunications services, the development of digital skills and entrepreneurship and makes other recommendations, relating for example to the urgent need to develop digital payment solutions.

The document is at one and the same time, both stimulating and disheartening.

It is positive in that it clearly describes the principal long-standing economic policy issues holding back the region’s development and suggests several new initiatives that might be pursed. By placing them all in a post-COVID recovery context the report effectively challenges governments and the private sector to address each of its forty-four policy recommendations as a part of a coherent deliverable recovery package.

It is disheartening  because much of what it says should have been addressed decades ago when the region’s financial capacity and the will to deliver regional solutions was much greater.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007/8, resolution of the region’s structural problems has become more difficult as around that time most if not all Caribbean nations began to take an a la carte approach to regional integration.

This has made it hard to see who exactly is going to pick up and run with the Ramphal Centre’s important recommendations. While there will be many external agencies who will love its coherence and see it as a basis to fund more granular studies, the authors have virtually nothing to say about who they believe has the strength or influence to drive their proposals forward, and just as importantly who is able to rapidly implement the common-sense solutions they propose.

As such, the danger is that like the much broader Golding report or Sir Shridath’s ‘Time for Action’ – his largely set aside now three-decades-old proposal for the comprehensive reform of regional governance – this economic policy document could well become just one more testimonial to the Caribbean’s outstanding thinking and analysis, but practical inability to deliver.

Clearly, delivery cannot come from the CARICOM Secretariat which absent having an executive role and the transfer of sovereignty from governments, can only ever be as good as Caribbean Heads willingness to act, see the implementation through to the bitter end, and determine accountability.

Despite its profound sense of cultural unity, the Caribbean is a fragmented region in the process of dividing into economic interest groups with on the horizon the probability of new configurations based on complementary production chains and other synergies.

For example, it is quite possible that Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad, and a post-Maduro Venezuela could form one powerful oil and mineral-rich integrated economic community, while Barbados could well become a hub driving the tourism economy of much of the Eastern Caribbean. In the case of Jamaica, it has the size and capacity to become a standalone high-value services centre for the Americas and could find other synergies with some of its larger northern Caribbean neighbours, while pursuing closer economic integration with the US.

This is not a reason to give up on finding regional solutions but to ask CAROCOM’s younger generation and in particular its impressive cadre of highly educated women and men in the public and private sector and in academia how they envisage the regional economic thinking and integration they seek, being delivered politically?

When the focus is on national survival and recovery, most governments initially seek more easily delivered domestic solutions and external support rather than the consensus-building and long-term attention needed to deliver regional solutions; particularly if faced with intra-regional obstinacy, bureaucracy and uncompromising national self-interest.

Despite this and as the academics at the Ramphal Centre point out, the pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink the Caribbean economic model, and to explore alternative ways in which smallness and fragmentation can be overcome. There is no shortage of viable solutions. The issue is who can deliver regionally the long-overdue structural changes that COVID-19 has highlighted?



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