Overcoming smallness - Key to improving the lot of the Caribbean people
Sunday January 04 2009
As the countries of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) enter a new year, their greatest challenge is overcoming smallness.
This observation applies as much to Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago with their respective populations of 2.8 million and 1.04 million, as it does to St. Kitts/Nevis and Antigua and Barbuda with populations of 50,000 and 80,000.
“Smallness” is not just a matter of physical size, it is also psychological. There are countries in the world whose physical size is much smaller than many Caribbean countries, yet they are more prosperous economically.
The obvious examples are Singapore and Malta; the latter now a member of the European Union (EU).
Some Caricom countries such as Guyana and Belize are also physically large – it is often forgotten that Guyana, with 214,970 square kilometres (83,000 square miles) is larger than England whose size is 130,410 square kilometres (about 49,000 square miles).
The psychological impact of smallness shows itself in two ways in most Caribbean Community countries.
The first, and most debilitating, is the fear of each other – a fear manifested in diverse ways, but most particularly in the movement of people amongst themselves, but, there is also a fear of investment by nationals of one Caricom country in the economy of another.
So, throughout several countries there is a secretive discourse within their societies about being “swamped” by an inflow of both people and investment.
Paradoxically, large swaths of prime property are being purchased in almost every Caribbean country by European and North American nationals who are also investing in the commanding heights of the economy such as financial services, oil, gold mining, gas, bauxite, and forestry.
And, there is nary a word of protest or a ripple of concern about this alienation of property into non-Caribbean hands.
I fully recognise the absolute need for foreign investment in the Caribbean on fair and equitable terms with all the rights and obligations that should be firmly linked to such investment.
The point I make here is that while non-Caricom investment should be encouraged and promoted, Caricom investment should be accorded similar, if not better treatment.
Indeed, I go further to say that the Caribbean Community is moving far too slowly to complete the arrangements for a single market and economy and that the underlying reason for this inordinate delay is the irrational fear that each has – at the level of governments, some businesses and sections of the population – that they will be overrun by other Caricom governments, businesses and people.
On the investment side, there is the unspoken fear that investors from Trinidad & Tobago and, to a lesser extent Jamaica, will exercise undue influence on the economies of smaller countries.
While this fear either delays or stops investment from these Caricom partners, Eastern Caribbean governments are cutting each other’s throats to lure non-Caricom investors – nowhere more telling than in the cruise ship industry.
I suspect in the coming months this fierce rivalry will extend to the airline industry as governments compete to offer airlines subsidies to favour their island over another in order to sustain their national tourist industry.
In the course of all this, both the individual countries and the entire region lose their autonomy and make themselves poorer.
The second fear manifested by smallness relates to Caricom countries’ perception of themselves in relation to larger countries, particularly those in Europe and North America.
There appears to be an inbuilt notion that Caribbean countries can not stand up to these countries because they are too small and any daring that they display would be met by swift victimisation.
The most glaring example of this is the capitulation to the EU by the Caribbean countries over the controversial Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which was signed last year. Confronted with a gun at their heads and the demand that they either sign the full EPA or see high tariffs placed on their crucial exports, every single Caribbean country caved in.
They did not consider for a moment joining together to stand up to the EU. The prevailing refrain was that they each had no choice.
Indeed, some of them did have no choice – the ones without choice were those that, over the years of the evolution of Caricom, failed to integrate their industries and production into pan-Caribbean entities and, instead, maintained marginal local enterprises highly dependent on the EU market. They created the conditions under which the EU could threaten them and they had no choice but to succumb.
One would have thought that out of that bitter experience would have come the recognition and the resolve not to so expose themselves again and instead to integrate their enterprises and their resources in such a way that they could turn elsewhere if threatened by an external country or group of countries. Instead, it has been business as usual, and it has been business as usual because of fear number one – the fear of each other.
If Caribbean countries can overcome the fear of each other and combine their resources – human, natural, and physical – they need not so readily capitulate to those countries more economically powerful than they are individually.
The region is well endowed: oil, gas, bauxite, gold, diamonds, forestry, abundant agriculture, tourism and international financial services.
Additionally, it has a fairly well-educated population and a sound intellectual pool having produced four nobel prizewinners, secretaries-general of the Commonwealth, the African-Caribbean-Pacific Group, and the Association of Caribbean States, deputy secretaries-general of the UN, UNCTAD and UNDP.
The conjoining of these resources will give the Caricom area the confidence to face the world fearlessly and the capacity to negotiate better than they do, but first the region must overcome the irrational fear of itself that is an unfounded product of smallness.
The first step is to complete the (single market and economy) and establish efficient machinery for its governance as a priority of action for the Caribbean people.Sir Ronald Sanders is a former Caribbean diplomat, now a corporate executive who publishes widely on small states in the international community. You may write to Sir Ronald Sanders at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above opinions are not necessarily those of the publisher, newspaper, its advertisers or employees.