Without doubt, if one considers the significant loss of life, human suffering and economic hardship inflicted by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) since December 2019, the negatives far outweigh the positives. But as the saying goes, when ‘life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. For those unfamiliar with this phrase, it is an entreaty to make some good out of a less than ideal situation, no matter how bad it is. In this article, I argue that deeper south-south cooperation, and in particular closer Africa-Caribbean cooperation, appears to be one potential COVID-19 ‘legacy good’.
First, let me state from the outset that bilateral and regional initiatives towards deepening Africa-Caribbean ties predate COVID-19. For instance, the African Union (AU) has for some time now recognized the African diaspora (including that in the Caribbean) as its sixth region. In 2019, the leaders of two African countries, Ghana and Kenya, respectively, made separate high-level visits to the region. Jamaica has its Africa-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica. An AU-CARICOM forum was planned for July 2020 but had to be unfortunately postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. CARICOM also announced the creation of a joint embassy to be housed in Nairobi, Kenya. Moreover, African and Caribbean countries participate and cooperate in various multilateral and other fora, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United Nations (UN), Organisation of Africa, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), the Commonwealth of Nations, as examples.
However, it could be argued that the exigencies of the COVID-19 crisis have intensified the need for deeper Africa-Caribbean collaboration on areas of mutual interest in multilateral fora and at the regional and bilateral levels. As many western countries turned inward to focus on bringing the crisis under control in their countries, Caribbean countries were forced to turn to newer non-traditional partners for assistance in accessing vaccines. For instance, to use another South-South example, India’s generous donation of vaccines to Barbados and Dominica were critical to the start of Barbados’ vaccine programme which to date has vaccinated over 70,000 Barbadians, or nearly a third of the population. As such, it is heartbreaking to watch what is happening in India at the moment as it undergoes a deadly second-wave. I continue to keep our Indian brothers and sisters in my prayers.
Turning back to Africa, CARICOM was also granted access to the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, a procurement system for medical supplies. Jamaica became the first CARICOM Member State to receive vaccine supplies under that mechanism. In a COVID-19 environment, improved vaccine access for developing countries has been a unifying theme for Africa and Caribbean countries’ multilateral cooperation, including at the sub-regional level. Both regions have condemned vaccine nationalism, particularly the hoarding of vaccines and imposition of export controls on needed medical supplies by some developed countries.
Another laudable recent development in Africa-Caribbean cooperation is the formation of the Africa-CARICOM Group (AfCAR), a geopolitical grouping of sixty-eight African and Caribbean countries in the UN in March this year. Their first act was to issue a joint statement in the UN General Assembly in commemoration of the ‘International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and Transatlantic Slave Trade’.
There are many other areas in which Africa-Caribbean cooperation already exist, such as climate change, debt relief, financing for development and repatriations for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, for example. There has been some high-level cooperation involving Caribbean, African and Pacific countries on raising awareness on the de-risking issue, manifested most acutely by the withdrawal or restriction by large Western banks of correspondent banking services to banks in developing countries. African and Caribbean countries are among the most affected by this practice which has implications for trade, investment attraction and financial inclusion. The upcoming UNCTAD XV Quadriennial Conference due to be hosted virtually and chaired by Barbados in October this year presents another opportunity for our regions to collaborate on placing these and other issues on the global trade and development agenda.
Additionally, as tourism-dependent Caribbean economies hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic seek to step up diversification efforts, African countries are among those targeted for greater economic engagement. Barbados has announced the creation of embassies in Ghana and Kenya (part of the CARICOM joint effort), while Jamaica will establish diplomatic relations with Liberia and Togo. Both Barbados and Jamaica have indicated the deployment of enhanced economic diplomacy as part of their Post-COVID-19 recovery strategies. There are also promising areas for further regional and bilateral collaboration, such as agri-business and sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, the cultural industries, education and digital payments systems.
Naturally, for this momentum of closer Africa-Caribbean ties to be sustained, it must transcend the political level and trickle down to greater business-to-business and people-to-people engagement. Banking relationships would also need to improve to faciliate greater trade between the two regions. Current political discussions on improving air and sea connectivity would help to bolster the still meagre tourism, trade and investment ties between the two regions. Africa-Caribbean goods trade volumes remain small, with CARICOM countries enjoying a trade surplus with the continent on a whole.
At the bilateral level, December 2020 saw an inaugural direct flight between Montego Bay (Jamaica) and Lagos (Nigeria), in hopes of commencing a regularly scheduled and most overdue direct link between the African continent and the English-speaking Caribbean. The potential for strong Africa-Caribbean tourism exists as an increasing number of Afro-Caribbean persons are interested in tracing their genealogy, discovering their African roots and learning about the ‘Motherland’. Encouragingly, the region’s top tertiary institution, The University of the West Indies (UWI) has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the University of Ghana. This raises the possibility of enhanced student and faculty exchanges, other educational collaboration and meaningful academic research between our two regions.
As I conclude, I concur with the sage words of Dr. Len Ishmael who noted in her 2019 study ‘Under-invested: The Caribbean-African Relationship‘:
“The future of Caribbean-African relations is one ripe with potential and promise, but it requires
the investments of time, attention and political will to transform the relationship into one fit for
purpose and suitable for these modern times.”
It would also be remiss of me if in concluding I fail to lament the dearth of scholarship on Africa-Caribbean relations. As such, Afronomics Law will be hosting a scholarly Blog Symposium examining the “Prospects for deepening Africa-Caribbean Economic Relations”. The deadline for submission of blog contributions is May 14. Learn more about the symposium and how to submit a blog piece 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. All views herein expressed are her personal views and should not be attributed to any institution with which she may from time to time be affiliated. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.