Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cari-Crisis... again

By Norman Girvan:

“Crisis” is one of those words that is used so much that it has practically lost its meaning. And if there were a competition among regional organisations on which was most often said to be “in crisis”, my bet would be on CARICOM winning by a wide margin.

In the run-up to the half-yearly meetings of CARICOM leaders, we have become accustomed to a flurry of reports, studies, speeches and media commentaries bemoaning the sorry state of the regional movement and promising renewed attention to the dying patient.

Latest in the procession are two reports in the regional media appearing this week, just a fortnight before the March 8-9 “Intersessional meeting” of CARICOM heads of government in Suriname.

Veteran regional columnist Rickey Singh is quoting at length from a letter said to be sent by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent and the Grenadines to newly installed CARICOM Secretary General, Irwin LaRocque. The letter is said to offer a “blunt assessment” of CARICOM.

According to the Prime Minister, "CARICOM's current mode of marking time at an historical moment of overwhelmingly awesome challenges for our region which compelling demands a more profound integration, is mistaken…"; and further that "Minimalism in integration has its attractions but in our regional context, it can be fatal to our people's well-being.”

One must commend Prime Minister Gonsalves for caring sufficiently about CARICOM to take the trouble to craft this letter, and for his candour. But one is hard put to find anything in the extensive passages quoted that hasn‘t been said before.

Neither is there any hint of what specific actions Mr Gonsalves is proposing in order to salvage the regional enterprise.

I also wonder if the prime minister is aiming his guns at the right target. Seems to me he should be addressing his fellow heads of government directly; and with concrete proposals about how to move out of the present malaise. As everyone knows, the way that CARICOM is structured endows the secretary general with very limited authority to act on his own. More of a “secretary” he, than a “general”.

In any case, the expectations that accompanied Secretary General LaRocque‘s appointment six months or so ago, have all but dissipated. Seems to be business as usual!

Prime Minister Gonsalves concedes that he himself took part in a collective decision in 2011 to put the Single Economy “on pause” -- a decision which, ironically, was taken at a Special Retreat hosted by then President Jagdeo of Guyana, which had precisely the opposite objective.

So what reason do we have to believe that the latest letter, sincere though it may be, will make one iota of difference this time around?

The second news item, coming out of Bridgetown on February 22, tells us that a “Project Management Team” has warned that without a “fundamental change”, CARICOM could expire slowly over the next few years as stakeholders begin to vote with their feet…

Well, well. I wonder which planet these gentlemen inhabit. Don‘t they know that stakeholders have been “voting with their feet” for some time? Whatever happened to the Caribbean Business Council, brainchild of former Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur? How active are the Caribbean Chamber of Commerce, the Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce, the Caribbean Congress of Labour, the Caribbean Policy Development Centre? These organisations have just about given up on the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME).

Don‘t they know that the OECS is prioritising their own union? That three CARICOM countries have joined ALBA, with two more in the queue? That Guyana and Suriname are founding members of the Union of South American States (UNASUR), and looking southwards? That Belize looks as much -- if not more -- to Central America as to the Caribbean? Isn‘t it already “every man for himself”?

I have some other news for the Project Management Team: it’s all been said before.

For instance, here is what the present writer wrote seven years ago:

“The pessimistic scenario is for fragmentation of the Community and eventual abandonment of the CSME as an objective. This could result with loss of momentum in the integration movement due to the difficulties discussed in this paper, the growth of ‘implementation fatigue’ among governments and of ‘implementation cynicism’ in the regional public, waning political support for integration, and increased economic divergence.”

Long before that -- twenty years ago, in fact, there was Time For Action - Report by the Independent West Indian Commission -- -which spoke at length about the “Implementation Deficit” as the Achilles Heel of CARICOM. More recently, one can point to any amount of studies, comments and warnings by regional media commentators, business leaders, academics, statesmen, leaders and former leaders. These have grown in the light of the still incomplete project to complete the CARICOM Single Market -- supposedly inaugurated by the governments in 2006 -- and the frequent missed targets for completing the CARICOM Single Economy, first set for the end of 2008.

So what‘s new? Well, if the “Project Management Team” is supported by external donors, and has some foreign consultants among them, its report may be taken more seriously. A cynical view might be that “Aid-driven integration” and “colonial mentality” could succeed, where all else has failed. Even so, I wonder if the PMT is being correctly reported in their conclusion that “Hopes for arresting the crisis depend on a willingness on the part of Heads of Government to bite the bullet on the elusive issue of ‘fundamental changes’ in the management structure and operational modalities of the Georgetown-based CARICOM Secretariat.”

I have to ask if this isn‘t putting the cart before the horse. The CARICOM Secretariat is a means to an end, not an end in itself. How can decisions be taken on its structure outside of the context of larger decisions about the course that integration should take over the next 5-10 years; the priorities; the road map; the method of governance of the Community and the degree to which regional organs will be legally endowed with the authority to exercise “collective sovereignty”, in order to solve the recurrent problem of “implementation deficit”?

In reality, the “bullet” that needs to be “bitten” is the necessity to share sovereignty in designated areas of regional action, and to put structures of governance in place to give this practical effect. Anyway you look at it, a revision of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas is inescapable. And possibly a revision of several national constitutions as well.

A tall order, perhaps. But to pin hopes on a reformed secretariat outside of this framework looks to me like a recipe for wasted investment, heightened frustration and continued decline.

So people, as the Suriname meeting approaches, dream of the best, but expect more of the same. Don‘t hold your breath. You might be waiting to exhale for a long time.

February 25, 2012