Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders have renewed their commitment to advancing regional cooperation following the 43rd regular meeting of the conference of heads of government of the region.
The meeting, held in Suriname from July 3 to 5 highlighted the lack of progress on several initiatives which were proposed but was never fully actioned nor implemented.
As global circumstances force regional leaders to depend more on neighbours who are geographically closer to their borders, the matter of strengthening regional integration on key areas such as economics, trade, health, energy and agriculture took centre stage.
At the start of the meeting the heads of government expressed disappointment at the slow pace of implementation of the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) and took immediate steps to move the process forward.
They noted, in particular, the area of movement of workers. In that regard they agreed to definitions of and qualifications for household domestics, agricultural workers and private security officers, which are agreed categories for free movement.
To that end, the regional leaders mandated the secretariat to convene meetings of the registrars of companies and the ministers with responsibility for companies before the end of July 2022. This is in order to elaborate the steps to enable member states to implement the principle of mutual recognition of any company incorporated in another Caricom member state and report to the conference in September.
Prime Minister of The Bahamas Philip Davis expressed confidence that although responsibility for making the individual countries stronger and more resilient to the impact of external events lay within each government, the history of the region made it clear that "we can have a greater impact if we also join forces and stand together."
But Caricom Secretary General Dr Carla Barnett believes it will take significant willpower from all the parties involved to make regional cooperation work this time around.
She said, "addressing solutions for our region requires collective intellect and will to act together. This task is not beyond us, as we have proven time and again. Let us, therefore, once more make a difference in the lives of our people."
This sentiment was also echoed by chairman of the conference and President of Suriname Chandrikapersad Santokhi, "we require leadership and willingness, to go for broad cooperation. To go for a creative approach. To go for innovation in our approach, for new strategies. To go, for private sector involvement. To go, for the participation of the youth," the chairman stated.
He proposed the establishment of a Caricom Private Equity Fund, to support Caricom enterprises and the facilitation of partners, to set up private equity and debt funds, in the region, to bolster employment and growth.
At the same time, secretary general of the United Nations António Guterres championed the cause of concessional financing for the region. He noted that Caricom member states were victims of the myth that middle-income countries did not need concessional financial support — a need that completely disregarded vulnerability to external shocks.
In the same vein, the prime minister of The Bahamas said it was striking that so many of the community's most urgent struggles derived in great part from external causes. "Too many times, our countries have acquiesced to the pressures of larger, more developed states. Their approach of divide and conquer has hurt us all."
In that regard, St Lucia's prime minister stated, "The demands on our public health system, which we shouldered to keep our people safe and the provision of social protection and support measures for vulnerable citizens, have left governments of the region with very little fiscal space to move ahead to grow their respective economies," he added.
Nevertheless, the regional leaders admitted that some amount of progress has been made, with the Prime Minister of Belize John Briceño noting "the IMF's new Resilience and Sustainability Trust — not without its imperfections— is a direct response to our advocacy. The finalisation of the multidimensional vulnerability index is within sight," he said.
In the meantime, there has been online solutions designed to increase efficiency in the delivery of services to the region. These include the Labour Market Information System (LMIS), Online Companies Registry System (OCRS), the Community Public Procurement Notice Board (CPPNB), the Caricom Rapid Alert System for Exchange of Information on Dangerous (non-food) Goods (CARREX), and the Caricom Interactive Marketplace and Suspension Procedure (CIMSuPro).
They also acknowledged that the impact of COVID-19 has demonstrated that, as countries advance towards recovery and resilience, a whole-of-government and society approach was needed which carefully balanced public health measures and economic recovery programmes.
The Caricom leaders urged the multilateral financial institutions to recognise the urgent need for assistance as it is critical for member states to strengthen social safety nets in a context in which fiscal space has been decimated by the support rendered to citizens in spite of the economic decline caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
They noted that as the health sector moved towards recovery after COVID-19, it was an opportunity to restructure health-care services and public health programmes using the lessons learnt during the pandemic to respond to re-emerging and new diseases which may cause pandemics.
The Caricom agri-food systems agenda
A major part of the discussions focused on areas of cooperation on food security in the Caribbean. The leaders spoke about advancing the Caricom Agri-Food Systems Agenda to achieve the 25 by 2025 Vision — the reduction of the food import bill by 25 per cent by 2025.
They noted that a majority of member states have developed and submitted their national targets, which will contribute to the attainment of the 25 by 2025 targets to the Ministerial Task Force on Food Production and Food Security (MTF).
The MTF, through the secretariat, has developed a reporting and monitoring tool through which member states are requested to report monthly.
The Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) has also been mandated to conclude, by the end of July 2022, various initiatives and programmes, aimed at the removal of non-tariff barriers to intra-regional trade.
The Caricom Private Sector Organization Inc (CPSO) has been requested to accelerate implementation for its various agricultural investment projects. The MTF, working in collaboration with the CPSO, has identified 19 potential investment opportunities for displacing extra-regional agri-food imports into Caricom member states.
On the transportation side, heads of government considered the region's need for a significantly enhanced transportation system that can bolster food security and deepen regional integration.
Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley advanced discussions on establishing a traditional ferry and fast ferry service for passengers and cargo for the region and noted that a formal proposal is being awaited. Meanwhile, the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) proposed a road map study on the factors needed for successfully establishing a fast ferry service for the transportation of agricultural produce to start in August 2022. They agreed to establish a working group to provide oversight of the project.
In terms of energy security, the heads of government considered and approved a paper on economic development and energy transition and climate change as its overarching strategy in advancing energy security.
They agreed to increase focus and investment in energy security by utilising and harnessing hydrocarbon resources in the region towards reducing dependency on external resources and supplying the growing global needs arising out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The leaders also agreed to pursue energy diversification and security through making use of significant assets in the region with immediate existing capacity in LNG and fertiliser for agriculture.
The leaders also agreed, in the context of the bilateral relationship with the United States, to urge for the removal of the sanctions on Venezuela to allow for countries in the region to benefit from the PetroCaribe initiative and for progress on the exploitation of cross-border natural gas fields between Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela.
Caricom industrial policy
Heads of government recognising the need for urgency in the development of an industrial policy strategy for the community added Suriname, as lead head for industrial policy, to the core membership of the Prime Ministerial Sub-Committee on the CSME.
They agreed to establish a ministerial task force (MTF) on industrial policy chaired by Suriname, with a supporting technical working group to focus on the development and implementation of the policy.