Last week, the Bureau of the Council of Ministers of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States which was established to select a Secretary General from the shortlist of three submitted by the Caribbean in accordance with rules established by the Group, selected Dr Patrick Gomes.
The post is shared between the six regions of the Group and the Caribbean’s turn came some 25 years after it had last had its turn. It is often forgotten however that the region did have the position out of sequence via yours truly when the African Group, and southern Africa in particular, could not secure agreement of a regional candidate between the years 1995 and 1996. I served as S.G. during that time during when the mid-term review of Lome was launched, a review which shaped the change in approach that underlay the Cotonou Agreement and when the Group took a decision to have the first meeting of ACP Ministers of Finance as well as a biennial Summit of Heads of State and Governments. Mr Edwin Carrington of Trinidad and Tobago, my Caribbean predecessor as SG headed the Group until March 1990.
Without offering an assessment of the performances of those predecessors of Dr Gomes let me simply say that they were both challenging and rewarding times. The Group is currently undertaking a review that should inform the future of the most under-rated North-South forum. The ideas raised and discussed by the Group have not caught, in any meaningful way, the imaginations of ACP citizens and their leaders, in part I believe because the Group has lost focus. That loss partly a reflection of the confused perception in the minds of leaders in particular as regards the role of trade in development and trade and its liberalization. This confusion reached its nadir in the remarkable and sometimes ill-informed criticisms of the EPA agreements as the Caribbean agreement came to the point of conclusion in 2008. The Caribbean had played a powerful role in Lome. It may therefore have been fitting that the move away from that truly non-reciprocal accord should have attracted Caribbean-led approbation. The truth is however that the region has had nothing to offer in its place and the recent criticism of the region’s approach to the trade negotiations with Canada, surely one of our most accommodating and non-threatening partners over the last century, must say something about the lack of ambition of the region in trade in general not just in relation to Canada. The position of the region vis a vis the EU and vis a vis the Pacific and Africa is now very much in question. The EU has gone ahead, for example, with a variety of initiatives which clearly seek to raise Sub-saharan Africa and its cooperation with the EU to a level above that which is accorded to the Caribbean.
Into this difficult and changing situation steps Dr P. I. Gomes who started off adulthood in a seminary at Mount St Benedict, T&T, as a Jesuit priest. He has brought to his work in Brussels as an Ambassador since 2005 a certain ability to listen and to empathise, a capacity to network and analytical skills honed at UWI and CARTAC. That bundle of skills has helped him to stand out from his rivals in the race for the post.
The ACP Group is the largest North-South-S Grouping with its own headquarters and bureaucracy in the world. The Cotonou Agreement under which it now operates, provides as did Lomé, the only North-South platform with a standing forum via which negotiations, monitoring of implementation, decisions and resolution of disputes are jointly managed between North-South partners, the ACP Group and the EU. Changes in EU membership, its attitude to development, the assertion of African capacity, the apparent lack of focus of the Caribbean and the Pacific as regards regional integration and the quality of the Secretariat and its relationship with the EU Commission are areas which reflect development in need of attention.
It is fitting, even ironic therefore, that the leadership of the Group should be held by a Guyanese at this challenging stage of its evolution for a Guyanese also it was who played a pivotal role in its establishment. Sir Shridath Ramphal was a mid-wife to that delivery, if not a real ’god-father’, not to put too fine a point on it, and the role of the formidable Guyana team of diplomats who supported him should not be forgotten – Rashleigh Jackson, Rudy Insanally, Harry Dyett and later James Matheson, David Hales and Dennis Benn etc. The Georgetown Agreement in which all these Guyanese played a part was the framework for the birth and maturity of the Group and it is now time for the Group to be guided out of a painful adolescence and into maturity. Ramphal’s dexterity and vision together with that of PJ Patterson, his Jamaican counterpart, when melded with Nigeria’s interest and influence as head of the OAU ensured the creation of an international institution that few had thought possible at the time.
The Group is again in need of clear political vision at the political level today. Such vision is not evident in the region at this point in time. No head of state or Government has shown the interest and commitment that Burnham showed in the Group and I am not aware that any set of Ministers has mustered the intellectual apparatus to do for Cotonou what Ramphal and company did for Lome.
Hopefully, P.I.’s closeness to the Guyana Government will help him either to muster active and sustained support from Georgetown in the initiatives he champions and /or enable him to rely on at least one Caribbean state with its eye on the ball and which will be trying to mobilise the other states behind new paths. It seems to be a time when regional leaders seem to have become quite listless as regards cohesive and coordinated external policy. Their pre-occupation is with securing special and differential treatment equivalent to that extended by the international community to LDCs, which they are not.
Today, the small size of states is now considered in international relations as just as much an asset as a handicap. The talk is now of adaptability and resilience. So smallness no longer automatically commands special funds as do states economically disadvantaged by the ravages of poverty. Many of the EU members with average per capita incomes lower than those of the Bahamas and Barbados, for example, are asking why their lower income taxpayers should subsidise the fat cats of our countries. They argue that in many of our developing states, including the Caribbean, poverty amongst plenty and extreme income and wealth disparities are a function of economic, political and social policies. Policies are by definition a matter of choice. If that is our choice we cannot expect to have the luxury of having others subsidise it.
But now I am beginning to sound a bit like the debate is the counterpart of the very one currently starting to erupt in Guyana.
Suffice it for me to say therefore that Dr P.I. Gomes, a friend, has his work cut out. The fact that he chaired the ACP’s reflection group on the Group’s future would no doubt help enormously. I wish him well and extend to him congratulations and assurances of my continued support as indeed he extended to me unhesitatingly as soon as he was appointed to Brussels.