(THE writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College, University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own)
The prospects of economic growth and social development for the English-speaking Caribbean region in 2016 are not bright. While there may be improvements in a few countries, they will each continue to be plagued with all of the difficulties that are inherent in their smallness, their remoteness and their vulnerabilities – both to natural disasters and to the twists and turns of the economic capacity of the nations with which they trade in goods and services, and from some of which they receive investment and aid.
It remains true that all of the countries of the region – even Trinidad and Tobago, the best-off of all – are too individually weak in economic and military terms and in global politics to command serious international attention. The only time the countries of the region matter is when a bigger country, rivalling another bigger country, depends upon the Caribbean’s collective support to win. In other words, it is only when the English-speaking Caribbean countries act collectively in the rivalry of others that they are taken into account. But, even such collective action has dissipated. It is difficult to find many resolutions in the UN agencies in which the English-speaking Caribbean countries have voted in unison.
Recently, in the international community, it is only in the battle against the industrialised nations to try to curb the effects of climate change and to secure funds for adaptation and mitigation that the Caribbean has acted together – fortunately as part of a larger group of small islands states and other vulnerable nations. While the joint efforts of all these small countries produced no legally-binding agreement and resulted only in limited funds and an aspiration to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels, the fight is worthy of praise provided that it is appreciated that no battle has been won and that much more remains to be done and to be done collectively. To believe and promote otherwise is to lull the people of the region into a false sense of security at a time when vigilant action and widespread agitation is imperative.
The region’s problems and failures – and the dangers it faces – are much the same as they always were: poor terms of trade, graduation from eligibility for concessional financing, poverty, narcotic trafficking, economic downturns, deficits, unemployment and crime. None of these is new. It is their coming together with the new threats of climate change, terrorism and migrant trafficking that make 2016 a fearful year for individual economies.
A sampling of the facts from the World Bank and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reveals the following: debt in the Caribbean countries has generally trended upward over the past half-decade and now averages about 80% of GDP, with Jamaica having the largest public debt at 131% of GDP and Barbados the second highest at 111%; the average fiscal balance deteriorated, estimated at -3.0% of GDP for 2015, with the primary balance put at 0.3% of GDP. Eight of the 13 countries in the region improved or saw little change during 2015, with the fiscal balance worsening in five, among them Barbados, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago; Conditions on the financial markets are expected to toughen with reduced global liquidity and a gradual rise in the cost of raising funds on the international markets.
Particularly worrying for some Caribbean countries is that, in addition to these persistent problems must now be added economic decline in China and Venezuela which, in the last decade, have helped to stabilise their economies through the provision of concessional financing for infrastructural development and oil supplies.
The general external environment does not help. Seventy years after the formation of the United Nations when the world pledged “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”, the reality is that individual countries of the Caribbean – and more especially the English-speaking countries – remain on the margins of international concern. There is much talk of the special needs of small states, but not much special help responsive to those needs.
This year will be the 50th anniversary of Independence of Guyana (May) and Barbados (November) and there will be great rejoicing of nationalism and expressions of pride in achievement. Indeed, there has been some of that and there is cause for celebration of strides in education particularly and in the creation of a new middle class. But every country could have been better off individually and collectively. The pressing and – in some cases – overwhelming issues that no country can effectively tackle could have been better met through Caribbean integration that was the strategic plan for avoiding the worst that has befallen them. But, integration has not taken place and almost no Caribbean person has any belief that it will.
However, that strategic plan of Caribbean integration was not flawed. The flaw was in the failure to meet its commitments and so fulfil its promises. The best prospect of success for Caribbean countries to improve the lives of their people and to mean something in the world remains in their integration. To be clear, integration does not mean subjugation; it does not require surrender of national pride. What it means is a pooling of strengths in the international community to bargain more effectively; establishing the joint machinery to combat terrorism and drug trafficking; enlarging our markets for investment by linking them into one; widening the scope and scale for employment and human growth by removing the barriers that impede them but were never there when the countries of the region were part of someone else’s empire
Will the English-speaking Caribbean nations continue year after year in insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety deceived by delusions of sovereignty and power that retard their real potential for betterment? The region’s New Year Resolution should be to make integration of the Caribbean a reality – to let the strength of solidarity of one people conquer the weakness of separateness. It can never be too late to do what is right.
Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com