Caricom’s ‘big conversation’

Norman Girvan, Irwin LaRocque and Sir Dennis Byron, three prominent Caribbean personalities, have all been in the news in the past couple of weeks, signalling another upsurge of interest in the health of the regional integration process.

As we indicated in last Friday’s editorial, Prof Girvan recommended a fortnight ago that the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) be “reinvented,” principally through a change of sectoral focus and the mobilisation of civil society, presumably to make the integration process more people-driven and less dependent on the whims of officialdom.

The previous day, on October 3, Caricom Secretary-General LaRocque, in a lecture at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad on the status of regional integration and his vision for the future of Caricom, highlighted the Community’s successes over the past 40 years, mainly in the so-called functional cooperation areas of health, education and youth development. In acknowledging that the current situation cried out for change, he announced that a change facilitation team had begun a three-year programme, involving consultations in member states, to assist with this transformation and the preparation of a five-year strategic plan.

The plan is expected to encompass the restructuring of the Caricom Secretariat and a review of Caricom’s governance architecture, purportedly to address the need for more timely and efficient delivery of results and “restore growth to our economies.” Mr LaRocque also stated that this “reform process is central to the future of the integration movement” and noted that the call for participatory governance during the consultations was a clear sign that the top-down form of integration was no longer acceptable to the people of the Community. In this respect, he referred to St Lucia Prime Minister Kenny Anthony’s call for a “big conversation” across the region and declared that it had already begun.

All well and good, except that the process to prepare a five-year plan appears to be programmed for all of three years. Moreover, in choosing to accentuate the positive, Mr LaRocque omitted to elaborate on how Caricom leaders intend to deal effectively with the daunting economic challenges facing the region, including stepping up the pace of integration, beyond picking the low-hanging fruit in health and education.

Indeed, he himself posited that the CSME, particularly with regard to the Single Economy, involved the setting of “overambitious and unrealistic targets, which by their very nature, doom us to apparent failure when they are not met.” In somewhat similar vein to Prof Girvan, he recommends a ‘recalibration’ of the CSME. But he takes a different line, advocating private sector-led production integration and addressing the problem of governance. In the latter respect, he argues that the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas (RTC), “as it now exists, may be limited as a tool to advance the integration movement” and that “the governing arrangements for the CSME have become bureaucratic, unwieldy and lethargic and we spend more time and resources discussing the same issues rather than making decisions we can effectively implement. There is need for more care and attention in the decision-making process, including an effective consultative mechanism.”

Perhaps, when taken together, Prof Girvan’s and Mr LaRocque’s recommendations are, from their differing vantage points, an attempt to scale back CARICOM’s ambitions in the interest of pragmatism. From where the secretary-general sits, the need for an incremental approach, given the well-documented absence of political will on the part of the regional leadership, may well be a more realistic approach to the integration imbroglio and is certainly better than putting the CSME “on pause.” But isn’t there more of a need for a push towards closer engagement?

By happy coincidence, the day after Mr LaRocque’s lecture, Sir Dennis Byron delivered the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on the Shanique Myrie case against the government of Barbados. It is being hailed across the region as a “landmark” ruling that could well be a shot in the arm for the regional integration process. Indeed, it goes beyond the right of Community nationals to hassle-free travel, as the CCJ has reaffirmed the RTC as the cornerstone of the integration movement and made clear the primacy of Community law based on decisions of the Conference of Heads of Government. This should, hopefully, dispel concerns about the irreconcilability of national sovereignty with the joint obligations of states as members of Caricom and the CSME.

The time is therefore ripe for the “big conversation” to become bigger and, as Mr LaRocque stated, in quoting former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister ANR Robinson when he called for the establishment of the West Indian Commission, “Let all ideas contend.”

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