Living in different times: On buying local and selling foreign

Time was, almost four decades ago, when the slogan ‘buy local’ was commonplace in Guyana; buying local was regarded as a progressive domestic development designed to encourage Guyanese to consume more of what was produced at home primarily as a means of conserving expenditure on imported foods.

There was even developed in the pages of our socio-political indoctrination, a line of reasoning which suggested that locally grown fruits, for example, were more nutritious than fruits imported from North America and Europe. The real truth of the matter was, of course, that the buy local campaign was driven entirely by an official desperation to conserve foreign exchange in the face of a severe shrinkage in our exports associated with the collapse of the country’s economy.

Times have changed, however, and while the still developing and in some cases underdeveloped countries in the region might continue to see some justification in persisting with aggressive buy local campaigns, persistence down that road could place them on collision courses with the now vastly altered rules of international trade.

The current buy local campaign in Barbados which is being promoted by an aggressive Barbados Manufacturing Association (BMA) is not without precedent. Just over four years ago an earlier Bajan buy local initiative raised eyebrows inside the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which reportedly dubbed the initiative anti-competitive and in violation of the rules of international trade. It appears, however, that at that time the Barbadian government managed to persuade the WTO that the initiative was a short-term one designed to hype up local appreciation for goods produced at home.

The current push in Barbados to persuade its nationals of the virtues of buying locally produced commodities is being driven in large measure by a realisation that the economies of the region can no longer afford the high costs of imported foods.

As far as the BMA was concerned, however, there were other good reasons for a buy local campaign, the best of which was the need to promote Bajan-manufactured goods.

Reports in the media in Barbados suggest that the biggest obstacles to a successful buy local campaign – apart from the objections of organisations like the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank – is the posture of sections of the local tourism industry which remains wedded to their commitment to tourist tastes. Beyond that, Barbadians, it appears are sometimes inclined to resist the buy local idea on the grounds that some locally produced goods are both pricy and inferior to imported products.

Here, there are some similarities with the situation in Guyana almost 40 years ago when attempts to replace some imported products with locally produced ones were generally frowned upon though the big difference in the Guyana case was that the banning of the imports left us no choice but to buy local, except one had contraband access, of course.

The international community has now fashioned a global trading regime which frowns upon what one might call the protectionist underpinnings of good, old-fashioned buy local campaigns. In fact, we in the region, ourselves, by embracing a Caricom single market, have made our own critical comment on the concept of buy local.

The problem here is that the current hype in the region about rising global food prices and the need for regional governments to beef up their agricultural sectors has already given rise to campaigns that seek to encourage nationals to pay greater attention to the virtues of eating local. Herein lies the danger that the WTO may begin to see such measures as the beginning of a regime of anti-competitive practices which, in the fullness of time, might even be supported by subtle though no less protective non-tariff barriers; and here one has to wonder whether, eventually, we, Caricom that is, might not even be shooting ourselves in the foot given our professed commitment to a single regional market.

Of course, it is not just a matter of either embracing or discouraging a buy local campaign for the reason that it may or not be in contravention of global trading rules. While we have gone to great lengths to criticise ourselves for being foreign-minded as far as our consumption patterns are concerned, consumers in the region have advanced some pretty persuasive reasons for buying foreign, some of them being quality, price, and availability.

“Somehow there is a popular view that Barbados is a high cost producer and therefore local goods would tend to be more expensive than the imported substitutes,” writes Jewel Braithwaite in the Barbados Advocate of January 7, 2013.

Our own local manufacturing sector has its own grim story to tell. Some of the episodes have to do with astronomical electricity costs, taxes on imported raw materials and illegal competition resulting from smuggling. All of these amount to a burden that makes the sector, as a whole, pretty uncompetitive. What this means in effect is that local manufacturers need to work  hard to gain market acceptance (and display space in local shops) on local supermarket shelves) for locally manufactured goods, initiatives that further increase costs of production thereby rendering them even more uncompetitive.

It is worth mentioning too that the Guyana manufacturing sector will, in 2013 and beyond, be confronted by even more giddying heights of protectionism resulting from new and evolving foreign food safety regulations that require them to make costly adjustments to their operating regimes. Our own state-run Food and Drugs Department has already declared that the overwhelming majority of our manufacturers will not be able to afford the cost of bringing their operations in line with the new United States Food Safety Manufacturing Act (FSMA) What happens when we are required to comply with the conditions of that piece of legislation is not a matter which either the government or the manufacturing sector has addressed convincingly up to this time.

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