The Commonwealth Business Forum

It will be recalled that a similar forum arranged to coincide with the Summit of the Americas earlier this year was decorated by similar high-sounding expressions of optimism. Not a great deal has happened since then anywhere in the region to suggest that intra-Americas private sector economic activity is about to be fast-tracked to a point where such activity can result in increased levels of investment between and among countries in the hemisphere.

One of the better-known examples of this failure to transform rhetoric into reality has been the failed efforts – at least up until now – to persuade the private sector in CARICOM territories to pay more interest investing in regional agriculture; this, despite the high-profile efforts that have been made by President Bharrat Jagdeo to link greater regional private sector investment  in agriculture to the broader pursuit of strengthening the region’s food security position in a global environment of threatened food scarcity.

Perhaps the most upbeat of the statements from a Caribbean official at the Commonwealth Business Forum came from Dr. Carrington whose brief presentation was clearly intended to ‘sell’ the Community as a region characterized by significant natural resources and a stable political environment all of which suggests that, as the Secretary General put it, the Community is “open for business.”

A cursory examination of the list of countries comprising the Commonwealth suggests that there is significant potential for highly profitable collaboration between and among the private sectors in those countries. Numbered among the member countries of the Commonwealth are countries that have already secured a high level of technological advancement – like India, Canada and the United Kingdom; countries with an abundance of natural resources – like Australia, Guyana and Nigeria, among others and countries with highly developed private sector infrastructures – like Canada and the United Kingdom, again, among others and countries – again like India, the United Kingdom and Canada – with highly-skilled populations.

As far as the track record of intra-Commonwealth investment involving CARICOM and the rest of the movement is concerned the CARICOM Secretary General pointed out in his presentation that countries in the region have already benefited from investments from “our Commonwealth partners,” particularly the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and India. In the cases of the United Kingdom and Canada, particularly, the former, much of the investment relationship derives from the old colonial linkages though both the UK and Canada – the latter particularly in the extractive industries – have shown some level of interest in private sector investment in the Caribbean.

Commonwealth Africa, of course, has no tradition of major private sector cooperation with CARICOM and this, unquestionably, is one of the challenges that the movement as a whole will have to overcome if it is to realize lasting private sector ties across the very broad spectrum of countries comprising the Commonwealth. In this context there will be challenges associated with differences in the various business cultures of member countries, particularly those associated with investment regulations. We know, for example, that issues of red tape continue to impact on investor perceptions of the business climate here in Guyana and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Moreover, the private sector in the Caribbean will need to work hard to understand the business culture (s) in the African Commonwealth, for example if CARICOM is to benefit from new investments coming from the Commonwealth.

The message from the CARICOM Secretary General to the Commonwealth Business Forum is that the region is open for business, “ready and waiting to welcome you,” as he put it, “notwithstanding the global economic and financial crisis.” The Secretary General’s eagerness to talk up increased private sector investment among Commonwealth countries, notwithstanding, one suspects that the current environment is bound to act as a hindrance to any sudden and significant upsurge in intra-Commonwealth business activity involving member states as a whole. The reality is that such activity as is likely to be forthcoming is more likely to flow from the MDC’s within the Commonwealth like Britain and Canada and some of the middle income member countries like India to the developing and underdeveloped member countries mostly in the Caribbean   and Africa.  The broader intra-Commonwealth investment and business links which, presumably, were at least envisaged by the Port-of-Spain forum remain a considerable distance away.

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