BEHIND THE HEADLINES: Talk less, do more
Oh how time has flown! More than five years have passed since the European Union (EU), Barbados, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and a dozen other Caribbean nations signed the first genuinely comprehensive North-South agreement in the global economy in 2008: the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
Now as the islands and coastal states scattered across the Caribbean begin a new year facing serious economic challenges that are characterized by anaemic expansion, or in Barbados’ case no growth, a retired senior Barbados diplomat, Errol Humphrey, who helped to negotiate the EPA package of benefits and opportunities designed to stimulate trade, investment and innovation among Caribbean states rubs his crystal ball. His assessment makes for interesting analysis.
“I am optimistic, cautiously so, going forward. But I think we need to up our game in terms of the level of professionalism as we approach our delivery of both goods and services,” was the way he put it to BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY. “There is an increasing recognition of that and it is now for us to move ahead and do that.”
Humphrey, Barbados’ Ambassador to the EU in Brussels for about eight years before retiring from the diplomatic service, sees some positive results in the years since the EPA became a fact of life across the region but he worries about the slow pace of getting things done.
In effect, Barbados and its neighbours could have been much further along if they had talked less but had done more.
“We need to look at things that need to be done and get on with them,” he said. “Arguably, some of the things we are discussing now we had seen before and we should have been working on them already. We should be in a position to react more quickly to economic and financial issues as they arise. Many of the things that are happening now and that are contributing to the difficulties we face in Barbados, for instance, were predictable going back to 2007. It is one thing to identify a problem; it is another to do something about it.”
The former ambassador, now a consultant in Barbados’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, listed gains in exporting more rum and beer to Europe and cited the growing number of cultural artistes who, with little fanfare, have won contracts to perform on the continent. But he was equally quick to lament the slow pace of implementing the key provisions of the EPA across the Caribbean.
“The implementation is slower than we would like,” he said. “A lot of the benefits contained in the EPA depend on the Caribbean taking action, but the region is slow in submitting projects” to the EU.
Stated another way, Barbados and its neighbours “must become more proactive in engaging our international partners,” including Europe, the region’s largest donor of financial and technical assistance.
Specifically, Humphrey, a former Barbados Consul-General in Toronto who once served as the chief executive of the Barbados Industrial Development Corporation, thinks his homeland must:
• Become more competitive in pricing, getting goods and services to market in Europe; and guarantee a consistently high quality of its exports on a timely basis.
• Expand its export trade horizons to include Martinique and Guadeloupe, France’s department in the Caribbean, the EU in the Caribbean.
• Achieve a paradigm shift by reducing its dependence on tourism.
• With the help of the Caribbean Export Agency, conduct more market and product research that would enable it to penetrate more EU markets.
• Establish a food product regime that aims to improve the island’s ability to move goods from the farm to the tables of Europe.
• Take advantage of the trade and development opportunities when it comes to cooperation in the development of cultural products.
• Monitor how its export programmes are working in Europe.
• Explore the feasibility of providing architectural services to the EU.
• Eliminate much of the red tape that is slowing down the production and export of goods and services.
“These are some of the things we need to act on if we are to earn more foreign exchange,” Humphrey asserted. “We can’t continue to rely almost exclusively on tourism and financial services. We need to be able to move faster and on a consistent basis.”
Often described as a pioneering agreement in the international trading system, the EPA was negotiated to “put the Caribbean on the map as an expanding market where traders and investors can find opportunities for growth and security for their investments”, said the EU.
When it was signed, its centrepiece was the creation of an integrated regional market in the Caribbean. Back then the Caricom Single Market and Economy was on the horizon and was considered the linchpin of regional economic development.
But it has since proven to be more elusive than any attempt to take up mercury with a fork. Its implementation has since been reduced to a crawl. What a pity the region’s leaders have pushed it onto the economic back-burner.