Ranking Caribbean Countries’ Competitiveness: WEF Global Competitiveness Index 2016-2017

business-561388_960_720Alicia Nicholls

A few days ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017. Two things immediately struck me as I perused the list of 138 economies which made the GCI 2016. The first was that because of data shortages only 4 Caribbean countries (Barbados, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Trinidad & Tobago in order of rank) were included in this year’s index. The second was that all four of these economies were in the bottom 50 per cent of the survey sample, with the highest ranked (Barbados) at only 72nd place.

The WEF in its Global Competitiveness Report defines competitiveness as “the set of institutions, policies, and factors that determine the level of productivity of an economy which in turn sets the level of prosperity that the country can achieve”.The GCI’s 114 indicators are grouped into 12 pillars which are further grouped into 3 sub-indices.  Collectively they measure an economy’s performance on a variety of concepts which impact on productivity and prosperity. Some of these include basic requirements such as institutions, infrastructure and macroeconomic environment to more sophisticated indicators dealing with business sophistication and innovation.

In the preface to this year’s report, the World Economic Forum team highlighted that “many of the competitiveness challenges we see today stem from the aftermath of the financial crisis”.  Productivity and GDP growth in advanced economies and increasingly emerging economies remain subdued. This equally applies to Caribbean countries whose small open economies enhanced their vulnerability to the effects of global financial and economic crisis of 2008, and face many competitiveness disadvantages inherent in their smallness. However, not all of the region’s competitiveness challenges are structural and many are within our power to address.

Caribbean Countries’ WEF GCI Performance 2016-2017

So how did the region fare on the GCI this time around?  Barbados, whose economic recovery remains fragile, topped the CARIFORUM rankings with a rank of 72. Due to data shortages, the island had not been included in the 2015-2016 index but has dropped several places since its rank of 55 out of 144 economies on the 2014-2015 index.

Barbados commendably tops the Latin America and Caribbean region in infrastructure, labour market efficiency and technology. However, the island’s most problematic factors for doing business are as follows: poor work ethic in national labour force, inefficient government bureaucracy, tax rates, restrictive labour regulations and access to financing. Unlike the other three Caribbean economies included, corruption was not seen as a major problem in Barbados.

Trinidad & Tobago, which is currently in recession, has also lost ground, ranking 94 out of 138 economies in 2016-2017, compared to 89 out 140 in 2015-2016. The top 5 problem areas for Trinidad & Tobago for doing business were poor work ethic in national labour force, corruption, inefficient government bureaucracy, crime and theft and foreign currency regulations. But there is a silver lining. The WEF GCI identifies three stages of development: Stage 1 (Factor-driven), Stage 2 (Efficiency-driven) and Stage 3 (Innovation-driven). Trinidad was the only Caribbean country listed as a stage 3 economy (innovation-driven). Barbados was ranked as transitioning between stages 2 and 3. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic were classified as stage 2.

Some more good news is that Jamaica saw forward movement on the index, moving to 75 out of 138 in 2016-2017 from 86 out of 140 in 2015-2016, as well as the Dominican Republic which ranked 92 out of 138 countries in 2016-2017 compared to 98 out of 140 countries in 2015-2016. The Dominican Republic’s reforms were mentioned in the report.

Importance of Country Competitiveness Indices

The WEF GCI is the most comprehensive benchmark of national competitiveness of economies worldwide. This year’s index comprised 98% of the global economy. It is, therefore, quite disappointing that not only does no Caribbean country currently rank among the top 50, but that so few Caribbean countries are included in the 2016-2017 index compared to previous indices as a result of data shortages.

These rankings are important for several reasons.The GCI is a useful tool for policy makers not only  for benchmarking the economy’s current performance  across over 100 competitiveness indicators against its historical performance, but also against other economies in the same bracket. As such, it provides good empirical evidence for setting policy priorities and interventions as national competitiveness strategies are crafted and refined.

Secondly, and importantly for small economies which depend significantly on foreign direct investment inflows, the WEF GCI is one of several indices, along with the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, which discerning investors consult when considering potential investment locations. For this reason, it is not uncommon for investment promotion agencies to reference their country’s favourable performance on these indices when marketing to prospective investors.

The Way Forward

It is axiomatic for any economy that  competitiveness should not only be long-term but sustainable. What the current WEF GCI makes clear is that economies in the Caribbean region have a lot of room for improvement, particularly in these problem areas: inefficient government bureaucracy, work ethic in the national labor force and corruption. Improving our competitiveness, however, is not a government responsibility alone. It requires continued strategic and enhanced  public-private sector collaboration and partnership.

Governments, the private sector and other stakeholders including trade unions and other civil society actors, therefore, need to closely examine the causes and solutions for these problematic areas. For example, what are the factors which contribute to the perception of “poor work ethic”? What country-level and firm-level productivity enhancing reforms are working and which need revising or implementing? What can we do improve the vexing issue of “inefficient government bureaucracy”? This year’s Global Competitiveness Report focused heavily on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What role can ICTs play in improving our weak areas?

We can also take lessons from those economies which consistently rank as the most competitive economies and those which saw tremendous improvement. The top five economies in this year’s GCI were in order of ranking: Switzerland, Singapore, United States, Netherlands and Germany. What best practices can we learn from these countries? How about those countries like India, which made the biggest leap of any country in this year’s index by climbing 16 places? Or Mauritius, a SIDS, ranks 45th , having climbed two places? Even our own Jamaica and the Dominican Republic which saw improved rankings may hold valuable lessons.

Businesses also need to play their part. It is unacceptable that the region is so poorly represented on the GCI year after year. A few years ago, I was part of the survey team which administered the WEF  Executive Opinion Survey in Barbados, the main instrument used for gathering the data utilised in a whole suite of WEF reports, including the Global Competitiveness Report. While in each instance our team was able to meet our quota, one of the challenges we found was the unwillingness of some business executives either to participate in the survey, or to complete it properly and in a timely manner. This is after repeated attempts to impress upon them the importance of the data collected in the survey for judging Barbados’ competitiveness and to ensuring Barbados was ranked on this important index. If insufficient businesses answer the survey, the country will not be included in the index. To encourage greater private sector participation in the survey in each country, I suggest there be closer collaboration between the country partner institutes and the various private sector bodies in the countries.

The full WEF GCI 2016-2017 Report may be accessed here.

 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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