How can Caribbean CIPs survive increased global and regional competition and scrutiny?

Alicia Nicholls

Citizenship by investment programmes (CIPs) operated by five Caribbean small island developing States have been receiving increased international competition and scrutiny, with some arguing that a veritable “race to the bottom” has begun. Indeed, these programmes face increased competition not just inter se, but globally as more countries worldwide are turning to citizenship or residency programmes for attracting much needed investment.

The CIP-operating countries in the Caribbean are currently St. Kitts & Nevis (the world’s longest running), Dominica, Grenada, Antigua & Barbuda and most recently, St. Lucia. As all five of these countries are part of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), investors who obtain citizenship under one of these countries’ CIPs are also entitled to the freedom of movement privileges under the CSME, which has caused legitimate national security concern in some non-CIP operating CARICOM countries.

  1. Eliminate price as a factor

Although Caribbean CIPs are already the most affordable in the world, there are irrefutable signs of increased price competition among Caribbean CIPs.  In January of this year, St. Lucia amended its regulations to, inter alia, reduce the minimum qualifying investment to US$ 100,000 to the National Economic Fund. In the wake of the passage of Hurricane Irma, St. Kitts & Nevis added a lower cost option (US$150,000 plus applicable fees) in the form of the temporary hurricane relief investment option (until March 2018), whereby the invested funds would be earmarked for assisting hurricane-affected areas. This latter change was sharply criticised. Even more recently, Antigua & Barbuda cut the investment threshold for the National Development Fund by 50%.

Any semblance of price competition among Caribbean CIPs is problematic for several reasons.  Although the majority of persons seeking alternative citizenship do so for the ease of business and travel a good quality passport brings, lowering the minimum investment threshold makes Caribbean CIPs more accessible to those persons who may seek alternative citizenship for nefarious purposes. Even if the due diligence processes remain unchanged, a perceived price war could cause third States to either reimpose visa restrictions or apply more scrutiny to passport holders of those States  (or of other Caribbean States!), which diminishes the value and attractiveness of those CIP-countries’ passports. It lessens the perceived value of the citizenship offered by those countries which may actually be a turn-off to some High Net Worth Individuals who may be more attracted to exclusivity.

What this speaks to is the need for CIP-operating Caribbean countries to eliminate price as a factor of competition by harmonising their minimum investment threshold, a point I made in a paper I delivered on this topic earlier this year.

2. Increase due diligence cooperation

Cooperation among CIP-operating Caribbean countries should also extend to cooperation on issues of due diligence to ensure that an applicant who fails one country’s due diligence requirements is not accepted under another’s. Based on my research, it appears that there is some due diligence cooperation already occurring, but more can be done. Additional options could be to harmonise due diligence requirements and to formulate a harmonised list of excluded countries instead of national lists as currently obtains in some CIP-operating Caribbean countries.  This would also address some of the national security concerns of non-CIP operating Caribbean countries, and third States.

3. Improve transparency

Lack of transparency remains a major problem plaguing the perception of Caribbean CIPs. Antigua & Barbuda’s legislation makes it mandatory for a 6-month report to be published and this information is found online. However, generally speaking, there is little information made available about Caribbean CIPs’ operation, except for the economic data found in the IMF’s Article IV consultation reports. With few exceptions, officials are often very reluctant to share data on these programmes’ operation, whether out of fear of competition or negative publicity.

Failure to share information only adds to the shroud of secrecy plaguing the programmes and it also makes it difficult to analyse the socio-economic impacts of these programmes.

It would be useful if CIP-operating Member States would use the framework for information sharing as mentioned in the Strategic Plan for the Caribbean Community Plan 2015-2019 to share data on the operation of their programmes for transparency purposes, including their approval and disapproval rates.

4. Compete on quality

Competition among Caribbean CIPs should be on quality of service and product without compromising standards. Caribbean countries already have inherent natural advantages which are pull factors for HWNIs, such as their natural beauty, pleasant climates, stable democratic societies and quality of life. But these alone are not enough. What the latest World Bank Doing Business Report 2018 shows is that there are several indicators on which Caribbean countries, including CIP-operating countries, can improve their attractiveness as investment destinations by improving the ease of doing business. Jamaica, which does not offer a CIP, is a good example of a Caribbean country which has been making sound reforms in the quest for  ‘best in class’ status as an investment destination.

5. Good governance

Good governance is key to the long-term sustainability of Caribbean CIPs. This includes ensuring that due diligence standards are robust, as well as that transparency and efficiency remain paramount to the programmes’ administration. It also entails keeping the programmes free of political interference.

6. Residency Criterion?

Currently, all five Caribbean CIPs are direct citizenship programmes which means that there is no requirement on the investor to reside in the jurisdiction for a fixed period of time before citizenship is granted. The lack of a residence requirement is one of the unique selling points of Caribbean programmes, but it is also one of the reasons why some third States are increasingly critical of these programmes.

The addition of  a short residency requirement, similar to Malta’s 12-month requirement, could be a possible option for Caribbean CIPs as it would remove some of the transactional nature to the process.

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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