Global Trade and Socio-economic tides pushing Caribbean countries to the back of the shoal: Integrate or be left behind

Alicia Nicholls

A few days ago I had the pleasure of being on the Regional Integration panel at the 17th Annual SALISES Conference held this year in Barbados where I presented a paper co-authored with founder and president of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Young Professionals Network (ACP YPN), Miss Yentyl Williams. The consensus all the panelists had reached in our papers was that as small fish in a very large pond, Caribbean countries are facing a growing swell of global trade and other socio-economic tides which are deepening our marginalisation in the global economy.

We argued that the region desperately needed to deepen and widen its integration process or face being further relegated to the back of the global shoal. Of course, what we were saying was not novel and indeed, has been one of the oldest and most compelling justifications for the regional integration project.

The Good

Caribbean countries have generally attained high levels of socio-economic and political development and high per capita incomes, which have put us “ahead of the pack” of other small island developing states (SIDS). An unfortunate side effect has been the graduation of several “high income” Caribbean countries like Barbados, the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago from accessing most concessional loans and grants, with a shift in aid focus towards Least Developed Countries (LDCs). We also have long traditions of stable democratic rule underpinned by respect for the rule of law which has been a source of comfort for investors seeking to do business in the region.

The Bad

Despite these very noteworthy accomplishments, Caribbean countries confront many challenges endemic to SIDS, including vulnerability to natural disasters and to international economic and financial shocks, open economies with a high dependence on imports and on a narrow base of exports and trade partners, a paucity of natural resources, unsustainably high levels of debt, low growth rates, wide fiscal and current account deficits, declining competitiveness, growing informal economies and unpredictable foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows.

The potential shift in trade rule making from the multilateral level (Doha is practically dead post-Nairobi), to the regional and plurilateral levels means Caribbean countries will be subject to rule-taking on important trade issues such as services, competition policy, investment and government procurement, without having a seat at the negotiating table. Mega regional trade agreements like the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) which is currently under negotiation and plurilaterals under negotiation like the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), also have the potential to further erode the narrow margins of preference Caribbean countries’ exports enjoy in the US and EU markets respectively. Regional exports to these countries are not only below potential but remain heavily concentrated in commodities, namely, minerals and fuels and agricultural products,  and some textiles.

Although low oil prices have benefited oil-importing countries of the region by lowering their fuel import bills, the region’s largest oil exporting economy, Trinidad & Tobago, has gone into recession.

One bright spot is that Caribbean tourism appears to be on the rebound in the aftermath of the impact of the global recession. The latest Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) State of the Industry Report indicates that in 2015, international arrivals to the Caribbean region grew 7%, outpacing global tourism growth of 4% in the same period. Tourist arrivals from within the Caribbean increased by 11.4%. Nonetheless, shocks like 9/11 and the global recession and possibly the current Zika outbreak, highlight the very sensitive nature of the industry, which has implications for countries like Barbados, the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean where tourism is a major foreign exchange earner and employer.

The loss of correspondent banking relationships due to the de-risking practices of banks in metropolitan countries has the potential to undermine the region’s trade, investment and remittance flows, a lifeline for many communities within Caribbean countries. The view of the region as being a “risky” place to do business cannot be divorced from Caribbean countries’ constant need to fight their inclusion on arbitrary blacklists, with the EU being one of many latest examples. On the social front, there is rising unemployment and underemployment, which are particularly acute among young persons, as well as rising crime and security concerns.

All of these challenges, many both national and regional in texture and scope, are injurious to regional development, including our progress towards achieving the 17 United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs). These challenges necessitate harmonised national and regional responses. However, progress on the regional project remains lacklustre.

Functional cooperation has been the pillar in which CARICOM has been most successful. There has also been some success on the foreign policy coordination front as exemplified by the Region’s cohesive position at the Paris Negotiations which led to the Paris Agreement. However, economic integration has been where the challenge lies. The implementation deficit, though spoken of ad infinitum, remains problematic given the long delays in domestic implementation of regional decisions and missed deadlines. The “E” of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) is still in the realm of dreams as opposed to reality.

CARICOM countries export the majority of their trade extra-regionally (mainly to the US, EU and Canada). Intra-regional trade remains low and under-exploited and dominated by CARICOM MDCs, particularly petroleum exports from Trinidad & Tobago.

Without doubt, the lack of political will deserves a significant share of the blame for the current malaise. The fact that most CARICOM states have still not signed on to the appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice is just but one example. At the same time, the slow process of integration in CARICOM can be juxtaposed to the deep level of integration among member states of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, which have their own Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, currency union, central bank and recently have granted Martinique, a French Caribbean Outermost Region, associate membership.

Besides the lack of political will, other factors remain hindrances to regional integration as well, including human and financial capacity constraints at the national and regional levels, limited monitoring and evaluation of member states’ implementation of reforms and the inability of CARICOM to force compliance with regional imperatives due to its intergovernmental structure. Not to be overlooked are the fears, suspicions and nationalist sentiments we Caribbean people still harbour towards each other, as well as the very “inward looking” as opposed to “regional looking” approach by  many regional leaders.

The options

As the saying goes, Caribbean states are tiny fish in a very large pond but a shoal of fish is better than one if the region is to avoid being swept away by global tides and relegated to the back of the global shoal. Boosting intra-regional trade among Caribbean countries and trade with third states are priorities. For this, improving trade facilitation and ease of doing business in the region are a must.

Caribbean countries have an average rank of ease of doing business of 104 out of 189 economies, according to the latest World Bank Doing Business Survey 2016. Though in ease of trading across borders, Caribbean countries had a average regional rank of 95 (higher than Latin America (108) and East Asia Pacific Islands (112), a lot more work needs to be done. Just compare our average to the comparable SIDS, Mauritius which topped Africa with a rank of 32 in 2016. The highest ranking Commonwealth Caribbean country was Jamaica (68).

Doing business between Caribbean countries can be a frustrating exercise due to differing customs regulations and other regulatory standards, existing non-tariff barriers to trade (e.g: sanitary & phyto-sanitary standards and technical barriers to trade), foreign exchange controls, the high cost of regional transport and lack of access to timely information on documentary and other requirements. While the region has very liberal investment regimes, investors seeking to do business in multiple Caribbean countries have to navigate a complex web of different border and behind the border regulations. This increases the cost of doing business.

A single economic and investment space as envisioned by the CSME, aided by fiscal, investment policy and regulatory harmonisation, would make intra-regional trade easier and also make the region a more attractive destination to extra-regional investors. To this effect, it is imperative that Caribbean countries follow through with the current reforms and the vision of the CARICOM Strategic Plan 2015-2019. Additionally, so far just a handful of Caribbean countries have ratified the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, which while a global agreement, the reforms undertaken would also benefit intra-regional trade.

What the  global financial and economic crisis has reinforced is the need for Caribbean countries to diversify their export profiles and trade partners. The latter is happening to some extent as both China and Venezuela have become major investors and development partners in the region, adding to the traditional partners of the US, EU and Canada. However, China’s economy has slowed as it transitions from export-led to more consumption-led growth. Venezuela faces significant socio-economic turmoils which call into question the sustainability of the Petrocaribe arrangement, under which most Caribbean countries receive oil from Venezuela on highly concessional terms. Some OECS countries are exploring deepening diplomatic and possibly economic relations with Middle Eastern countries. Antigua & Barbuda recently announced it was establishing an embassy in Iraq and lifted its ban on Iraqi nationals seeking to apply for its Citizenship by Investment programme.

Like all trading economies Caribbean states have both offensive and defensive interests. There is the need to convert market access under existing trade agreements such as the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement and preferential arrangements like the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) and CARIBCAN into market presence. CARICOM should also explore the expansion of existing partial scope agreements the region has with the Dominican Republic (its CARIFORUM partner), Costa Rica, Cuba and  Colombia, as well as the possibility of concluding trade arrangements with other South and Central American countries.

Additionally, there is the need to move into higher value products than just traditional commodities like cocoa, sugar and rice and also accelerate the development of possible growth sectors like the cultural industries, transshipment, ICTs and renewable energy (for domestic consumption and possible export). To this effect, the region needs to make optimum use of aid for trade initiatives.

CARICOM countries must continue to speak with “one voice”, particularly on global trade, economic and social issues which have implications for the development of our economies and our peoples. This includes continued advocacy for the interests of small vulnerable economies (SVEs) in WTO negotiating groups and continuing to support the multilateral system to ensure its primacy, and not FTAs and plurilaterals, as the forum for trade rule making so that the Region has a say in the rules to which it is subjected.

OECS countries have long seen the utility of maintaining joint representation in diplomatic capitals, such as the OECS Joint Mission in Brussels. It is time CARICOM consider the same.

Any regional strategy requires continuity and continuity mandates engaging the future of the region – our young people. The region has to harness and unleash the energies of its young people, many of whom feel alienated from the regional integration process and from their societies in general. While the CARICOM Youth Ambassadors is a great step, I have always argued that CARICOM needs a Young Professionals Programme similar to the young professionals programmes of other organisations, where the region’s young people, many of whom have increasing difficulty finding jobs commensurate with their skills, can be systematically recruited into various regional institutions and inject new ideas and enthusiasm. As SIDS, our human resource has always been our greatest resource. It is time we exploit it to the fullest.

In sum, the growing challenges facing the region means it cannot be business as usual. The time for talking is over. It is time for action. Countries with economies and populations larger than ours have seen the importance of deepening their integration. As small fish in a large pond, Caribbean countries need to do the same or face being left at the back of the global shoal.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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