Who will reform Caricom?

There is a pervasive view within and beyond the Caribbean that the regional integration process is foundering, and that its progress is being held back by an absence of political compromise and a failing bureaucracy. The outcome of the recently held Caricom Heads of government meeting in Grenada did nothing to dispel such concerns.

Although numerous important decisions were taken on education, ICT, security, tourism, air transport, and non-communicable diseases, the sense was that a lack of financial and human resources, an absence of implementation, and political differences on major issues, make it unlikely that all but the most pressing matters will be acted upon expeditiously.

Worse, Caricom’s largely anodyne press notices and communiqué, appeared to be at odds with what was said to the media by regional leaders before, during and after the summit; suggesting the papering-over of irreconcilable divisions over a host of inter-regional and other issues that continue to bedevil the regional integration process. 

In his public remarks at the opening of the summit, Caricom’s outgoing Chairman, the President of Guyana, David Granger, was direct in setting out the strategic implications of disunity and continuing to behave as if nothing has changed. Warning his fellow heads of government that the Caribbean Community must do more to protect its interests internationally against a background of global uncertainty and complexity, he said: “The Caribbean Community cannot cling to an obsolete model of insularity … The mirage of fifteen airlines, fifteen cricket teams, defence forces and fifteen embassies in the capitals of the world might mesmerise a few sentimental romantics but could deplete the treasuries of our states”.

In an apparent reference to recent political divisions between Caricom states over how to respond to the internal situation in Venezuela, he observed that Caricom was larger and stronger when it was united. “(Caricom) must not underestimate the value of its solidarity or its strength when it speaks with a single voice as a Community … Foreign policy coordination is the sharp instrument, the cutting edge, of our diplomacy, to gain our great advantage. We should not damage it”, he declared.

He said that the CSME must not be allowed to become the regions’ “most ambiguous” project; was critical of the Community’s annual food import bill, which exceeds US$4 billion, describing it as “a notorious indictment of [the region’s] ability to promote investment and stimulate intra-regional trade in agricultural commodities”; and called on his colleagues to re-examine how to dismantle non-tariff barriers to inter-regional trade in agricultural products, to generate employment

He was not alone in being critical. Other leaders at the summit also questioned whether the Community was sufficiently demonstrating an active collective engagement in resolving the region’s challenges. Despite such warnings, there was little sense of fundamental progress.

The meeting saw strong personal differences emerge, and heard concerns about external lobbying on matters of foreign policy. There were continuing disagreements about free movement and the operation of the CSME, fundamental divisions over the operation and viability of LIAT, and some extraordinary public exchanges over the extent to which heads of government should intervene in the management of West Indies cricket.

Unfortunately, much of this was predictable, has been heard before, diminishes respect for the Caribbean’s political class, and undermines regionalism. Worse, it comes at a time when resolution of these and other long outstanding issues should not be further delayed if the Caribbean is to be able to resist the divisive and ideological nature of the political and economic pressures now emerging globally.

As if to make the point about the implications of disunity on economic issues, the communiqué contains the frank line “Heads of Government acknowledged the consistent lag in growth performance between Caricom States and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS)” before going on to acknowledge that the implementation deficit had become a critical constraint on sustainable growth and development.

In business and in well-managed institutions, decision making involves those with executive authority (in this case governments) ensuring management (the Caricom Secretariat) delivers what has been agreed, being held accountable and responding publicly to the concerns of shareholders (in this case the citizens of the region). It also involves detailing the deliverables, time lines and budgets against which performance can be measured.

No one reasonable would suggest that the cultures of the public and private sectors are interchangeable as there are important and justifiable functional differences between the two. However, best practice in publicly funded multilateral institutions elsewhere in the developing and developed world suggests that the time has passed when efficiency and accountability can be ignored.

Earlier this year, Jamaica’s former Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, delivered a report on the country’s future relationship with the CSME and Caricom. It was the outcome of a Caricom Review Commission which he led. At the summit in Grenada, Prime Minister Holness confirmed to journalists that the report and its recommendations were now with him and cabinet and that it would go to Parliament at a time of his choosing.

Whether or not this document addresses the ways in which Caricom can be made more accountable and efficient remains to be seen, but its much-anticipated publication, one suspects, is likely to have resonance far beyond Jamaica.

None of which is to say that Caricom has ceased to be relevant. Nor is it intended to be critical of the many good people who work within the region’s institutions who strongly believe in the importance of finding and delivering Caribbean solutions to the problems the region faces. However, if Caricom citizens, and the young in particular, are to believe that the regional project has a future, there is a need to find a fresh, inspirational and above all practical model that better relates, as President Granger pointed out, to a rapidly changing world.

At worst, Caricom can drift on, achieving success when unity prevails on existential issues like climate change, security, and epidemics while functioning more generally on a reactive basis. At best, for it to fulfil its much-needed potential, it urgently needs reform, new thinking, and to prove it can deliver on programmes that touch the lives of Caribbean citizens.

How change will happen and who can achieve it is far from clear.


Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org


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