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The Upcoming CARICOM Heads Of Govt. Summit

By David Jessop
CaribWorldNews, LONDON, England, Tues. June 30, 2009: In a few days time, Caribbean heads of government will meet in Georgetown, Guyana. There they will try to address an ever-increasing list of unresolved issues.

This will be an important moment as many in the region and beyond will be watching to see whether the participants can reconcile their ever more public differences and demonstrate they have the will to move on.

These twice annual summits have become less than edifying. Despite the pomp and protocol that seeks to dignify such events, these occasions seem incapable of achieving a consensus on little more than the nature of the problems the region faces.

The areas of divergence are legion.  They range from the failure to progress Caricom`s relationship with the Dominican Republic, through something close to warfare over the freedom of movement and migration, to the continuing absence of region-wide financial regulation. It encompasses the failure of Governments to meet Caribbean Single Market and Economy deadlines, the continuing absence of any regional response to the year old global economic crisis, disagreement on how to implement or move forwards trade negotiations, and inaction on support for a tourism industry in crisis. 

So much so that it is not unreasonable to question the value of these meetings with their over-long agendas where items of significance are sometimes never reached, that find their outcome in communiqués so opaque as to insult the intelligence.

Disturbingly, the absence of any sense of long-term cohesion emerging from these meetings suggests that a moment will come soon when public trust in the integration process erodes and the new inter and extra-relationships that many governments are now establishing will marginalise Caricom.  

It is therefore scarcely surprising if Caribbean people at all levels have begun to wonder about the value of these expensive exercises and whether a fit for purpose twenty-first century Caricom can be created.

Recently Douglas Orane, the Chairman of Grace Kennedy, one of the region`s most successful regional and transnational companies, suggested there might be lessons for Caricom in the way the private sector think about management and efficiency.

Addressing a the Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce annual dinner, Mr Orane expressed a `sense of deep disquiet` that forces were causing the vision of an integrated region to be replaced by national solutions involving  players outside the region and an  `every country for itself` approach.

His response characteristically was both thoughtful and direct. The Caribbean`s decision making machinery within CARICOM was, he said, outdated and rooted in the thinking of the mid 20th century.   

`If it is to survive as a regional body with any authority and legitimacy, the CARICOM region …. needs to go through a process of self transformation`, he argued. `We need to ask ourselves what is it that we need to change in our CARICOM systems and culture to become more nimble and creative in its decision making and actions.` As an example he cited the `outmoded belief` that lengthy meetings and speeches are actually an output of work.  Meetings and speeches, he said, are only vehicles for achieving outcome. He pointed out that even before the global economic crisis Grace Kennedy had moved to teleconferencing as a standard method of communicating across geographical boundaries. `What we need are virtual meetings so that our political leaders can get together within hours and come to a decision`.

Mr Orane also suggested other practical changes. There was the need to develop better information to assess situations. CARICOM, he said, does not have the resources to gather and analyse data …. `so, many of our decisions are made based on anecdotal evidence`.  He noted that the Caribbean Single market and Economy was largely immobilized by having missed most of its deadlines for implementation and was now being overtaken by events. There was a need too to move beyond traditional xenophobia if governments were to create economic development and an improving the standard of living for all Caribbean people.

But perhaps most importantly of all, Mr Orane`s focus was on execution. `The answer is to be honest about those things that are simply not going to get done in the short term, and concentrate our efforts on those things that are not only do-able but urgent`, he said.

So what can be done? Are Caricom and its Heads of Government willing to abandon outdated or unworkable ideas, accept that there are new forces in play and that there may be alternative ways to approach the business of integration? Will they be able to demonstrate next week a continuing relevance by recognising that there is a need to concentrate only on what can be delivered in a limited period and in a manner that holds bodies or individuals to account for the delivery of agreed decisions within a fixed time frame?

Some will say that this is to ignore the nature of the relationship between the Secretariat and sovereign governments and to set aside Caricom`s need for consensus if it is to act. Government and the public sector, they would suggest, do not have the liberty to take decisions in the same way as the private sector.

Others will not be so sure. The best companies and integration processes in the world exhibit remarkable levels of accountability, are socially responsible, able to adapt and can implement often difficult decisions within the time frame of the problems they face. If they did not they would not survive.

It is becoming ever clearer that the economic crisis the region now finds itself in will no longer allow Heads to paper over the chasms that now separate their differences. If as a consequence nations are not prepared to accept the regional integration process can only work through the ceding of some aspects of sovereignty, they will forever find reasons to make the Caribbean Single Market and Economy unworkable in practice and regionalism unviable.

If this, Caricom`s thirtieth summit, fails to result in decisions that are implemented, it will be hard to avoid the sad conclusion that the age of pan-Caribbean regional integration is passing.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org.