Sat | Jan 23, 2021

Editorial | CARICOM private-sector groups must engage citizens

Published:Monday | November 30, 2020 | 12:11 AM

Two recently launched initiatives – including last week’s inauguration of a CARICOM Manufacturers’ Association (CMA) – aimed promoting the interest of the Caribbean’s private sector, will hopefully not go the way of too many regional institutions that after an early flutter quickly fall into decrepitude, and slowly to atrophy. They exist to accomplish little, or nothing.

On the evidence thus far, we have greater hope for the CMA. Its start included an attempt at engaging the Caribbean public. Of the CARICOM Private Sector Organisation (CPSO), though, we are not too certain. After more than two years of gestation, it was formed in July 2019 and is now 16 months old. At their virtual summit in October, CARICOM’s (Caribbean Community) leaders agreed to make the CPSO an associate institution of the community. Effectively, it has a place at the table. Which we can only assume is good. But perhaps for the big private-sector honchos, few in the region know anything about the CPSO. It has not, in any substantial way, articulated its mission or relevance to the citizens of CARICOM. Or, it has not done so effectively.

The danger of misadventure, if it persists, is the replication by the CPSO, of CARICOM’s old bad habits, which the community’s current secretary general, Irwin LaRocque, pledged to correct. That is, the community is often aloof from its publics, thus denying them a sense of ownership. That is not the perception the CPSO should want to create of itself. Instead, it should want a partnership with citizens, if it wishes to take heft into the councils of CARICOM.

It is worthwhile, in the circumstances, to recall an observation nearly three years ago by the former Jamaican prime minister, Bruce Golding, when the CPSO was in formulation, with Caribbean Business Council as its working title, and Jamaican businessman P.B. Scott as a key proponent.

Lamenting CARICOM’s slow pace of moving towards a genuine single market and economy, Mr Golding argued that part of the problem was a “fragmentation of interests”. National governments often responded to what they perceived to be in their own, or characterised as the public’s, interest with policies that were not in the best interest of the private sector. In the absence of a united private-sector voice in the region, “governments get a free ride”.

IMPROVE COHESION

The CPSO, in that respect, would improve cohesion in policy positions from the private sector. But notwithstanding the sector’s critical role in regional economies, given its increasing importance in job creation, growth and development, it faces a trust deficit, and sometimes questions of legitimacy. Which, of course, is exploitable by governments. That is why the CPSO needs also to talk with Caribbean citizens, and not only through, or to, governments, lest it leaves the perception of deals being self-interestedly cut among elites.

It is against this backdrop that the CMA’s approach at its launch, attempting to be open to, and embracing of, Caribbean citizens is welcome. First, we are clear about its mission and mandate. It hopes to become the leading voice representing the interests of manufacturers in CARICOM. Its advocacy will include, it says, research-driven policy papers and analyses in areas critical to the sector. There will also be collaborations between its six initial member organisations – Barbados, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago – in market promotion and penetration efforts, regionally and globally. This is important given that manufacturing accounts for only about nine per cent of CARICOM’s GDP and that intra-regional trade for years hovered at around 10 per cent of the community’s global trade.

Clearly, everyone is not starting on the same playing field in regional manufacturing. Up to four years ago, Trinidad and Tobago accounted for around 60 per cent of manufacturing in CARICOM, a dominance underpinned by low-cost energy from its domestic gas reserves. Jamaica’s share was approximately 17 per cent. Trinidad and Tobago was often accused of the “deindustrialisation” of its CARICOM partners, an accusation that usually did not account for inappropriate, growth-sapping policies, over long periods, in economies such as Jamaica’s.

Yet, these are among hard issues – whether the Treaty of Chaguaramas has been fairly applied, in the interest of all CARICOM members – the CMA will also have to address as it pursues its mission. But as Richard Pandohie, the president of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association pointed out, there are also great possibilities in cooperation. Potentially, the sum of conglomeration in CARICOM is larger than the product of its individual parts.

“We kept missing the big opportunities in the past because we operate in silos,” Mr Pandohie told this newspaper. “Hopefully, this opportunity will be grasped so we can uplift the economic power of each island state through trade.” We would add, to the CMA and CPSO, grasping the opportunities must include a partnership with CARICOM’s citizens.