The Northern Caribbean Conference on Economic Cooperation, organised by Jamaica National Building Society and held at the Ritz-Carlton on 17 December, assembled over 160 public officials and private sector delegates to explore areas for collaboration in the region.
The region consisting of Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico attracts between 60 and 70 per cent of all tourism to the Caribbean and its geographic proximity to the United States should serve as a major asset. Yet, the value of the geographic location is only one of several assets that have been largely underutilised, noted Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding at the first staging of the conference Northern Caribbean economic cooperation.
He believes that too often Caribbean states have the inclination to insulate and protect themselves from each other.
“Part of our problem in the Caribbean is that we have spent too much time struggling to compete with each other instead of pooling our energies and determining how we together can compete with the rest of the world,” Mr. Golding said.
“We seem to be grabbing at each others’ supermarket shelves rather than trying to get our products on the supermarket shelves of the UK and the US and Canada.” While that is easily said, he conceded, there are significant challenges in penetrating those markets. Collaboration can make a difference, he suggested, for example in joint ventures between companies across the region to attain sufficient size to succeed in third country markets.
Whether the conference will manage to become a “game changer”, as suggested by Joe Clark, the former prime minister of Canada who chaired the event, will depend on whether the potential areas for cooperation that were highlighted by the speakers and panels are followed up and pursued in the future.
Instead of delivering a “wish list”, the conference will have to provide a roadmap of things to do by the private sector and government, with government being “the enabler” and the private sector “ready to step up to the plate” in the areas identified by the discussions at the NCCEC, Golding said.
This stands in contrast to the politically driven CARICOM and Golding was quick to dispel the notion that a Northern Caribbean initiative could divert from CARICOM’s “imperative of Caribbean integration”. Professor Brian Meeks from the University of the West Indies summarised the objective of the conference as a strengthening of the region as a whole and not to fragmentise it.
The gradual opening of Cuba, as the largest country in the Northern Caribbean, will offer both challenges and opportunities and both Golding and Cayman Premier McKeeva Bush agreed that, “Cuba is not to be feared, Cuba is to be embraced.”
One significant issue that has to be overcome in order to achieve Caribbean collaboration or even integration is migration within the region. Examining the migration challenges that exist in the Caribbean, Professor Elizabeth Thomas-Hope observed that although very often the perception of migration is wrong, it still manages to influence public policy.
Looking at emigration she outlined how the exodus of people was frequently seen as a “safety valve” before it is later realised that it is actually a “brain drain”. “Migration is overwhelmingly a selection of the fittest,” she said.
Thomas-Hope concluded that “it is always easier to accept other countries’ goods than other countries’ people”.
She noted that the top immigration countries in 2010 the Cayman Islands and the US Virgin Islands were positive examples for how beneficial immigration can be. In turn, those countries that relied most heavily on remittances sent by emigrants were also the weakest in terms of GDP.
Haitian migration was identified as a major challenge to the Northern Caribbean, by Thomas-Hope, but she reminded delegates to be mindful of human rights, which needed to be addressed bilaterally and multilaterally in the region.
In the field of education Premier Bush suggested regional internship programmes and a “semester abroad option” for Bachelor students, teacher exchange programmes and the inauguration of a “Science Council” in the Cayman Islands, planned for the first half of 2011, which is going to deliver “research assistance” by commissioning research locally, regionally and internationally.
One area that illustrates the ineffectiveness of nations in tackling certain issues individually is that of climate change, which requires collaboration and common policies to fight the sea level rise which will otherwise be inevitable and result in the loss of land and considerable costs for the islands nations in the Caribbean, said Professor Anthony Chen from the University of the West Indies. He also demanded that Caribbean nations start cutting their own emissions with the adoption of renewable energies.
This was echoed by Kenneth McClintock, lieutenant governor and secretary of state for Puerto Rico, who also focused on high energy costs in some Caribbean states as a major impediment to competitiveness and economic growth. McClintock proposed to interconnect individual electricity grid with submarine cables across Caribbean countries to create a Caribbean electricity market large enough to reduce energy costs. A similar approach is pursued by Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and explored by Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Jamaica’s Minister for Tourism Edmund Bartlett highlighted the challenges and opportunities in the tourism market, noting the potential for common destination marketing. This could be used to target long-haul tourists in particular, who would be much more willing to divide a three week holiday among different Caribbean destinations, marketed as a package.
He identified the emerging markets of the BRIC countries as a massive opportunity for Caribbean, but a strategy to bring long-haul tourism from Brazil, Russia, India and China will still need to be developed.
Sub-regional collaboration in tourism could serve as a common front against initiatives, such as the UK’s increase in air passenger duties, that are detrimental to tourism here, said Premier Bush. It also enables the tourism destinations to strengthen their bargaining position with regard to cruise lines and help negotiations with airlines, said Bartlett.
The establishment of minimum standards could serve as the beginning of a cooperation as a sub-region in the field of security, suggested Curtis Ward, CEO of Curtis Ward Associates, before a harmonisation of laws can be tackled.
However, he also noted that the Caribbean Basin Security initiative, as mentioned by Jamaican Minister of National Security Dwight Nelson, albeit being “a great idea” and making a lot of sense, is under-resourced financially. Although the Caribbean has been recognised as the US’ “third border” not enough money has been made available, he said.
“Clearly given the resources of the Caribbean region outside assistance is needed,” Ward stated with regard to international initiatives in fighting money laundering, terrorism financing and organised crime.
Although the conference had successfully assembled public, private and academic participants, Professor Meeks said, the “big disappointment” of the event “is the absence of significant members of the sub-region”. Going forward, the input of delegates from Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic and the Bahamas will need to be sought.
Having summarised numerous ideas for cooperation presented at the conference, the identification of achievable objectives for the next meeting, which should have representation from all the sub-region’s countries, will be needed to take things forward, Meeks concluded.