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Integrate, compete or perish

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At a recent Forum held by the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) at the Guildhall in the City of London, the huge competition that the Caribbean faces in attracting much needed investment was starkly revealed.

The Forum had set up a session on the Caribbean alongside one on India. India won the day hands down. The crowd assembled to overflowing proportions to hear what opportunities India presented.{{more}} The Caribbean had to be content with a few people, none of them investors, who had an academic interest in the region.

Apart from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Trinidad and Tobago Dr Surujrattan Rambachan, no Caribbean Minister turned up for the Caribbean session. Grenada and Jamaica were represented by their High Commissioners in London.

There was also no literature available on investment in any Caribbean country, and while Trinidad and Tobago, led by its Prime Minister, Kamla Persaud-Bissessar, was present in full force at a dinner, hosted by the City of London Corporation at which useful contacts would have been established, many Caribbean representatives were no-shows.

Trinidad and Tobago had a separate session of its own where both Rambachan and the Trade Minister, Stephen Cadiz, as well as a number of energy sector officials were present. The Trinidad and Tobago representatives put up a good performance at a well-attended meeting. Cadiz, a businessman turned politician, was especially impressive with a down-to-earth, no nonsense style that focused on cutting out bureaucratic delays and getting on with serious business.

Barbados Foreign Minister Maxine McClean was at the Forum. Unfortunately, she was a spectator at the Caribbean session, since she was slated to speak the following day as part of a panel on enhancing Commonwealth trade for global growth. As usual, she gave a thoughtful and polished performance despite the uncertainties that surround both the health of her Prime Minister, David Thompson, and the composition of the government and its policies in the future.

The World Economic Forum in its Global Competitiveness Report has placed all Caribbean countries, except Barbados, at the lower end of the scale for global competitiveness in business. Barbados was in the top 50, all other Caribbean countries started at 95 out of 113 rated countries.

This means that there has to be fundamental and radical change in the region in the way that Caribbean countries approach the business environment. A range of issues were identified by the World Economic Council. Some of them, such as crime and security, require immediate attention including the establishment of joint regional machinery for managing and curbing it.

There are other issues that should also be addressed swiftly and could be resolved more quickly than the crime and security issue. These include: lower company taxes, greater efficiencies and reduced port and customs charges, much more rapid assessment and approval of investment proposals and issuing of requisite permits by government departments, improved access to capital for expansion and marketing, and strong and vibrant government machinery for promoting investment.

Energy costs, telecommunications infrastructure and road transportation are lingering problems in many Caribbean countries. They all require a radical approach to build out networks through partnerships between the public and private sector.

The point is that Caribbean countries have to move away from chanting the slogan that they are “open for business” and really open for business.

Each of them also has to realize that they are far more attractive for business if they are all a Single Market with unfettered movement of capital, goods and services, and yes, people too.

The entire Caribbean is far too small, and the countries of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) particularly so, to compete at any level with larger countries whose natural and financial resources are greater, and whose bigger populations give them a greater pool of skilled and trained people to call on.

And, it is not as if there are not investment and trade opportunities despite the recession in some economies. Poor economic performance is by no means uniform; the worst hit are a few developed countries such the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – countries that preached to the rest of the world about fiscal prudence and regulation and imposed standards on others while they were themselves paying these matters lip service.

Other countries are forging ahead – China, India and Brazil among them, but not these alone. Singapore, Malaysia and the Maldives are growing and so too are some African states that have truly opened up for business – the most stunning of these is Rwanda, although its human and civil rights performance still requires considerable improvement.

One of the telling facts that came out of the Commonwealth Business Council Forum on Economic Partnerships is that Commonwealth countries are now doing $4 trillion worth of trade per annum. That is serious money, but it is not evenly spread throughout the Commonwealth. Much of it is still between the developed Commonwealth countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the fast emerging Commonwealth economies such as India, Pakistan, Singapore, South African and Nigeria. The Caribbean enjoys only a miniscule part of that action.

But, the Commonwealth does provide the Caribbean with a great opportunity. By 2020, the Commonwealth will have a market with one billion middle class consumers and 40% of the global workforce.

Caribbean countries are well placed to grab a share of the spending of this vast number of people, for the majority of them share with other Commonwealth countries a common language, common law, common traditions, and similar business systems.

To share in this bounty Caribbean countries must reform and revamp their laws, regulations, and costs to make themselves competitive. They also have to get out into the global market place and sell themselves; staying at home and not taking every opportunity to promote themselves will not do it.

Trinidad and Tobago showed the way at the Commonwealth Business Council’s Forum in London.

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