"Make no mistake about it. Our region is in the throes of the greatest crisis since Independence. The spectre of evolving into failed societies is no longer a subject of imagination. How our societies crawl out of this vicious vortex of persistent low growth, crippling debt, huge fiscal deficits and high unemployment is the single most important question facing us at this time."
That is not an assessment of Caricom to be taken lightly. It is an assessment by Kenny Anthony, the prime minister of St Lucia, delivered at a meeting of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry on October 31.
His statement is so important to the present crunch in which Caricom exists, and so crucial to its future path, that one would have expected it to be a matter of discussion at all levels of Caricom. Yet, beyond its brief reportage in some of the regional media, attention to this grave warning died almost immediately after it was spoken.
The reasons for the absence of widespread discussion is probably because the Caribbean public has become accustomed to inaction by regional governments, institutions, and private sector organisations. Few would doubt the importance of what Mr Anthony said and the urgency of addressing it. But all appear unconvinced that anyone will act decisively to change the situation. So, the appraisal alarming and forceful as it is evokes little more than resigned weariness.
This is a worrying condition for the region. For, if the public has lost faith in the willingness of governments and institutions to act swiftly and together to extract them from crisis, the consequences will be even more serious. They will include increased emigration of killed persons, shrinkage of investment by local business people, and a general malaise in the productive sector. In short, it will lead to a worsening of the crisis.
The sad aspect of all this is that every leader in the member states of Caricom, in its institutions and in the private sector, knows very well that deeper integration of Caribbean economies and closer harmonisation of their external relations would be an immediate stimulus to pulling the countries out of what Dr Anthony rightly describes as "this vicious vortex of persistent low growth, crippling debt, huge fiscal deficits and high unemployment".
What each Caricom country needs is not more nationalism, but more regionalism. This is not to say that they should form a federation or political union, although, for the record, let me say it would be the best thing they could do. But they have to stop operating as if, by themselves, they individually have the capacity either to deliver the public goods required by their people or to bargain effectively in the international community.
Again, Dr Anthony crystallised this matter in his remarks when he said: "The issue we face is that our institutions ... have not kept up with the times. This is the reality check that should have hit us, thanks to 2008 and the world financial crisis. And again, if we are to observe and learn from another epicentre of integration, Europe, this process is no simple undertaking, but requires unwavering commitment. What was also clear from 2008 is that we were still spending too much time using our integration machinery dealing with our insularities instead of charting an outward response to the looming global realities."
Well, what are some of those looming global realities with which Caricom countries should be concerned?
Food security: Caricom's food import bill now runs into billions of dollars; the fragility and cost of regional air transportation to support tourism and the absence of region-wide sea transportation to facilitate trade in goods; competition within the region from external nations, such as European exporters who, under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU), will, over time, be landing goods and services and even opening businesses that will compete with local companies, putting some of them out of business and reducing government revenues from tariffs; continuing erosion of preferences that certain key commodities have enjoyed in the EU, US and Canadian markets; reduction in aid because, except for Haiti, Caricom countries are regarded as middle income, and are restricted from concessional funds; the effects of global warming that demand adaptation infrastructure to stop sea-level rise from drowning huge parts of many countries, dislocating human habitats and destroying tourism infrastructure and agricultural production; and the lack of capacity to bargain effectively with larger countries and financial institutions on investment, trade and debt.
The list of issues identified here is by no means exhaustive, and they require bold thinking and courageous decision-making to make each country stronger. Prime Minister Anthony diagnosed the ailments of the region accurately, though he stopped short of prescribing the medicine for curing them. But he hinted at it when he said: "When appropriate, Caricom must have the power and the resources to lead, setting both the objective and the tone of the dialogue, followed by a greater intensity of action."
There are many countries and agencies that are ready to help the countries of the region to progress, but they know that apart from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and perhaps Guyana, because of their natural resources, none of the Caribbean's countries can survive let alone prosper without the economies of scale and the bargaining strength that come from deeper integration.
* Sir Ronald Sanders is a consultant and
former Caribbean diplomat