What CARICOM needs: A little less conversation, a little more action please!

Alicia Nicholls

This catchy line from Elvis Presley’s song from the late 60s “A little less conversation” immediately came to mind as I read the flurry of news reports, commentary and analyses swirling around in the regional media for the past two weeks about the current state of crisis of CARICOM. The opinions expressed therein ranged from concern over CARICOM’s ailing health to fears that it had flat-lined. All acknowledge that our main regional body is in deep trouble.

The backdrop to this latest death scare was yet another report highlighting the weaknesses of CARICOM and the urgent need for reform. This independent consultants’ report, commissioned by the CARICOM Secretariat back in July 2010 and thankfully made available online recently, predicted that, ceteris paribus, CARICOM could be in the mortuary by 2017. It comes on the heels of a frank letter sent by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines to CARICOM Secretary General, Irwin LaRocque, and copied to the other Heads of Government, expressing grave concern about the current state of CARICOM.

This hurricane of bad news has quickly elicited a tsunami of denials and pledges of commitment to CARICOM from our leaders across the region. For example, our Prime Minister here in Barbados while acknowledging the challenges facing the region and the regional integration process, vehemently denied that any funeral for CARICOM needed to be planned any time soon. The response from regional leaders, though predictable, is encouraging, given that for the past few years many keen onlookers have been left to wonder about whether our leaders’ commitment to the regional process goes beyond mere lip service.

Truth be told, it has long been common knowledge that CARICOM has stagnated and faces serious challenges to its survival. The problems identified by the CARICOM Secretariat report and by Prime Minister Gonsalves in his letter are not new. Yet, despite a plethora of studies and recommendations on the same, successive CARICOM heads of government have been unable or unwilling to rectify them. One of the main problems has always been CARICOM’s weak governance structure which per the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas concentrates policy-making authority in the hands of the Conference of Heads of Government made up of the heads of government of the fifteen member countries. On the contrary, the Secretariat, set up as the body’s principal administrative organ and headed by the Secretary-General, has become overburdened with too many tasks, while having virtually no executive power. Moreover, the lack of a supranational structure means that there is a long interlude between when decisions are taken by the Heads of Government and their implementation, if they are ever implemented, at the national level. For this reason, many of the decisions taken by the Heads of Government remain for far too long at the paper and ink stage. It is this ‘implementation deficit’ which has been continually blamed for the slow process of integration and had been called the ‘Achilles heel of CARICOM’ by the West Indian Commission “Time for Action” Report published some two decades ago.

The real underlying problem of course is the lack of political will on the part of our leaders to “cede” any national autonomy to a regional body. This is despite the recommendation made in countless CARICOM-commissioned studies that what CARICOM needs is a stronger regional governance framework which would facilitate and expedite the policy implementation process. The jealous guarding of national autonomy on the part of our governments is also evidenced by some countries’ lukewarm support for key regional institutions. As yet only three countries (Barbados, Guyana and Belize) have signed on to the Caribbean Court of Justice’s appellate jurisdiction, although the recently elected Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Hon Portia Simpson-Miller has indicated her country’s willingness to join. However, the other countries in the region remain hesitant about switching to a Caribbean-based court, while they paradoxically cling fiercely to a vestige of colonialism, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The current economic and financial crisis has also increasingly caused our leaders to direct their attention inward towards national concerns, leaving many of the region’s key institutions of functional cooperation to become little more than ‘talk shops’ due to less and less funding from regional governments.

The truth is that we as a region need CARICOM now more than ever.  Besides our increasing geopolitical irrelevance and our economic marginalisation owing to our small size and loss of trade preferences, the international community is no longer as sympathetic to the economic and political vulnerabilities of non-LDC small states. CARICOM is our shield to an increasingly hostile international climate for small states.  Divided, our individual voices are little more than squeaks on the international stage. But together, our combined voice is less weak. Among other things, CARICOM gives us increased bargaining power in both multilateral and bilateral fora and negotiations and a wider market for regional goods, services and capital. Moreover, through functional cooperation, pooling our limited resources and our collective genius, we can and have achieved objectives which we would have been ill-equipped or completely unable to achieve as individual countries.

Is this latest report the wake-up call we need as a region? After all, the cynical among us would note that there have been endless studies, reports and other publications before sounding the alarm over the standstill in regional integration and bemoaning the lack of commitment of our governments. Despite this history of ‘a lot of conversation and little action’, I, perhaps naively, choose to be optimistic that this time we, the citzens of our region, will not be treated to more of the same old promises by our leaders.

The CARICOM Secretariat report was circulated to the Heads of Government before the 23rd Inter-Sessional Meeting on March 8-9, of the Heads of Government in Suriname. According to the communiqué released at the end of the meeting, the Heads of Government considered in-depth the report’s recommendations. Under the area of CARICOM-reform,  they agreed that the Secretary General would begin the process of restructuring the currently overburdened Secretariat with the help of a change facilitator. They also agreed that the Bureau of the Conference would work with an internal group from the Secretariat to facilitate improving regional governance and implementation. Although many of us expected to see more urgent action, it should be recognised that the current financial and economic situation of many of our countries does limit how much resources can be earmarked by our cash-strapped countries to comprehensive CARICOM-reform at this time. However, these two proposed reforms represent a step hopefully in the right direction and it is hoped that at their next meeting our leaders would, following consultations with civil society, have a more concrete plan of action for reform.

What we need is a little less conversation and more action by our leaders. From a structural point of view, the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas needs amending to provide a governance structure which would permit CARICOM to function effectively and efficiently and do the tasks for which it was established. It should also provide for and mandate greater participation by the wider society in the regional governance process. Further, it is my hope that among the areas for action would be increased regional funding and political support for regional institutions of functional cooperation. In this vein, all CARICOM countries should accept the CCJ as their final court of appeal and not just because it is a regional court. The CCJ has produced very enlightened jurisprudence so far in both its original and appellate jurisdictions and demonstrates that we as a people should have faith in the wisdom, capability and impartiality of our  judges. With regard to the CARICOM Single Market & Economy (CSME) which Caribbean leaders inexplicably placed on ‘pause’ at their retreat in Guyana last year, a greater commitment is needed by regional governments to remove unduly restrictive barriers to trade between our countries and foster a more vibrant regional market where people, goods, services and capital flow more easily. Part of this would require more concrete steps to deal with the prohibitively high cost of regional transportation.  However, all the hard work cannot be left to our leaders. If there is one thing that I have come to appreciate as a student in the beautifully diverse Faculty of Law at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies, is that we as a people in the region have to put our false nationalism and stereotypes of each other aside, and recognize that as diverse as we are, we are still one Caribbean people.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw

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