Last July, former Prime Minister of Barbados, Owen Arthur, delivered a speech at the Gleaner Editors’ Forum, held at the company’s Kingston office, in which he alluded to the changing economic circumstances facing Caribbean countries and the kinds of adjustments we must make if we are to survive in a rather dynamic and rapidly evolving world.
In his own words: “There was a time in our history when we were the entities in the developing world that were relatively more open to capital flows. In the 70s we didn’t have to worry about China (because it was) a closed economy… China is now an open (and) liberalised economy and a lot of the industrial capital that would have come to the Caribbean is now going to China.”
This description of the reconfiguration of the global economic reality with China now a leading player both in relation to the inflow and outflow of foreign direct investment is something that we in the Caribbean ought to treat seriously because the tight fiscal performances we have recorded in the past five years and our inabilities to grow our economies in a significant and sustained manner do suggest that our countries require a tremendous amount of foreign capital to flow our way.
Even if we are able to attract some foreign capital to buttress available domestic resources, we still would not be out of the woods because our economies continue to rely heavily on external factors.
And therein lies one of our greatest, if not our greatest challenge.
You see, back in the 1970s, some of our regional thinkers in the area of development economics recognised that the transformation of Caribbean economies ought to have been more internally-propelled because the global environment would never be so organised as to be in our favour. Hence, our continued dependence on external considerations such as preferential access for bananas to the European market and foreign aid for developmental purposes could only have been temporary assistance with no long-term growth benefits. And so, an approach to our economic development that included the birth of CARICOM became the order of the day.
Nowadays, it should be clear to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear that the winds of change that started to blow within our region in the early 1970s with regional integration as the engine that can propel our economies to higher heights ought to have continued and become much stronger in magnitude. But sadly, that surely is not the case! We have since tried to give momentum to regional integration through the establishment of the CSME but the viability of that institutional apparatus remains in serious doubt. Where are we going in relation to the CSME? Are we at all serious about advancing this initiative for the sake of our peoples and countries? Is the CSME alive and kicking or slowly dying?
Frankly, I could easily have asked whether the CSME is dead. But, the optimist I am sprouting into with each passing day is forcing me to see the proverbial regional integration glass as half full as opposed to half empty. For that reason alone, I chose the title of this week’s contribution.
But even with the best of intentions, it is extremely difficult for me to conceptualise a scenario in which we in CARICOM will one day fully and truly embrace regional integration as our best option to secure the quality of life we deserve for ourselves and our children and grandchildren. That inference is made against the backdrop that as small countries with so much in common economically, culturally and historically, we continue after decades of attempts at coming together as a strong, single unit, to debate the merits and demerits of our most recent effort at regional integration: the CSME!
Despite all the old talk about our development, about our political independence from Great Britain and our eagerness to boast and celebrate such great achievements, the fact remains that we in CARICOM are much more inventive with respect to possible reasons why regional integration and the CSME specifically cannot and should not proceed as planned.
Debates on this issue range from concerns over xenophobia to the question of sovereignty. While these discussions intensify, we the people continue to experience deteriorating standard of living, poor quality health care, limited access to top-class education that is relevant to the needs of the 21st Century, high incidence of poverty, rising cost of living, and the list of woes goes on!
Admittedly, all of the member countries of CARICOM have made tremendous amounts of positive strides economically, politically and otherwise over the years but the weightiness of the challenges we face daily makes it essential that those areas of difficulties be highlighted and corrected in as belligerent a manner as deemed feasible.
Folks, we in CARICOM cannot continue to fool ourselves. We have proven to the entire world that as small countries trying to navigate the rough waters of globalisation and that trade liberalisation alone is fast becoming an ideal that is insurmountable. Yet, our people continue to demand inter alia more and better paying jobs, improved health care, strong and stable governments, reductions in major crimes and other criminal activities, lower public debt, healthier fiscal positions and stronger economic growth. But how can we deliver on those fundamentals if we continue to drag our feet on the question of deeper regional integration?
Going forward, therefore, your humble servant asks simply: CSME or not?
(Dr. Brian Francis, a former Permanent Secretary in the local Ministry of Finance, is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the Cave Hill Campus in Barbados of the University of the West Indies)