Making the ‘big conversation’ bigger

In echoing St Lucia Prime Minister Kenny Anthony’s call for a “big conversation” on the regional integration movement “to chart a new paradigm for growth, review the role and performance of our regional institutions to determine how they can help in these times and better assist us to restore growth to our economies,” Caricom Secretary-General Irwin LaRocque, in his October 3 lecture at St Augustine, also declared that the “big conversation” had already begun.

With regard to the core issue of the status of the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME), Mr LaRocque averred, “We have begun a discussion on whether the construct of the CSME addresses the immediate concerns of member states.” He opined further that there was a need to “recalibrate and focus more on the productive sector and making our economies more competitive,” through, among other things, stronger private sector involvement and production integration.

As we pointed out in last Friday’s editorial and as Caricom observers are aware, other well-known voices have recently been heard pronouncing on the health and future of Caricom. But beyond the usual suspects, where are the voices of the people who matter most, the citizens who can make the regional movement a community in the fullest possible sense?

It will be recalled that, in his lecture, Mr LaRocque also stated that a change facilitation team had begun a three-year programme to assist with a reform process currently under way, including the preparation of “the first ever Strategic Plan for the Community.” In this respect, the secretary-general added with something of a rhetorical flourish, “These country consultations provide an opportunity for nationals of each member state and associate member to influence the strategic direction of the Community, their Community, our Community.”

According to a brief Caricom Secretariat press release dated September 13, 2013, “vibrant consultations” have so far been held in Barbados, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Grenada and St Lucia, with “a wide range of stakeholders.” An August 9 press release had informed that consultations were also scheduled to be held in Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago in September and in The Bahamas, Belize, Haiti, Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis in October. It is not clear what the status of these consultations is nor is there specific information available on the outcome of those thus far undertaken.

Now, the secretariat and its change facilitators may be dismayed at our skepticism, but given the paucity of information being released and the relative lack of publicity in the regional media regarding the process, we can only surmise that they have not yet learnt the value of keeping the regional public fully informed on matters directly related to their wellbeing and future.

Indeed, in spite of Mr LaRocque acknowledging, in the context of the “big conversation,” that “voices from our civil society must be heard as the call for participatory governance in the consultations is a clear sign that the top down form of integration will not be accepted by our people,” there is scant evidence that civil society is being engaged in a manner that would make the integration process more inclusive, bottom-up and people-driven.

The January 2012 consultants’ report on ‘Turning Around Caricom’ had included, in its proposals to restructure the secretariat, recommendations on revamping communications, especially through the use of social media to connect with the region’s youth and making the “main platform” for communications. Regular visitors to the site will have noticed that a start has been made in this regard but more needs to be done.

Here is a relatively low-cost and practical suggestion to have more voices heard, to make the “big conversation” bigger. Until the secretariat’s human, technical and financial resource constraints can be adequately resolved to implement more of the recommended communications strategy, the secretariat should, as a priority to facilitate a wider consultative process, establish a live, interactive forum on its website, with themed, moderated discussion groups to solicit and collate people’s ideas, with a view to contributing to the current reform process, informing meetings of the Community’s organs and, ultimately, advancing the integration process.

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