Are we spinning top in mud?

Is the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), as currently structured, still relevant to the development needs of the region in a rapidly changing world which increasingly is being shaped by the forces of globalization and where countries have moved from inward-looking to outward-looking models of economic development?

If it is not, then what can be done to enhance CARICOM’s chances of success, thereby supporting the dreams and aspirations of people across the region for a better life? These are crucial questions which CARICOM heads of government who will gather at the Hilton Hotel here next week for their annual summit must strive to answer.

When CARICOM was established back in July 1973 with the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas, the world was a fundamentally different place where large countries were generally sympathetic to the plight of small states and supportive of their development. CARICOM was established to serve as a vehicle for economic development and was tied to the inward-looking model of import substitution which was very much in vogue across the region and most other developing countries at the time.

As CARICOM founding father, National Hero of Barbados and former Prime Minister, The Right Excellent Walton Barrow, explained in parliamentary statement in June 1973, “The Community and Common Market are intended to promote the coordinated development of the region and to increase intra-regional trade, thereby reducing dependence on extra-regional sources.”

The advent of globalization has caused countries to a shift from import substitution to free trade.

This fundamental change of environment, which has thrown up major challenges for the region, would have contributed in some measure to the slow pace of progress within CARICOM in recent years. It also helps to explain, to some extent, the public disenchantment with CARICOM, so much so that unlike years gone-by when heads of government summits generated considerable excitement across the region, today they are viewed as just another event.

CARICOM needs, therefore, to seriously rethink its relevance in this new environment. Otherwise, it will simply be spinning top in mud which will bring even more disappointment.

There is hope. While CARICOM has lagged, it is heartening to note that integration at the level of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), comprising eight CARICOM member states, is moving apace. Established in 1981, the OECS has made remarkable progress. Perhaps there are lessons in their formula for CARICOM.

A lot of CARICOM’s problems as an institution also stem from poor communication, a point which Errol Barrow emphasized in his famous last speech to the 1986 CARICOM summit in Georgetown, Guyana, one year before he died.

“The promise of the regional integration movement, even in the area of trade, cannot be realized until we find new ways of communicating to the mass of our people the meaning and purpose of all our regional institutions,” he said.

In this key area, the smaller OECS seems to have got it right. There is no doubt that communication at the regional level in relation to CARICOM has suffered as a result of the demise of the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) which, in its heyday, served as a powerful uniting force in the region through the production and dissemination of information, not only about regional integration, but other important day-to-day issues. CANA comprehensively covered the region and, though it was a global success story in journalism, was sadly taken for granted by persons in the region who could have made a difference.

Interestingly, when CANA collapsed in 2002, the OECS immediately embraced and agreed to support a proposal from state-owned Radio St Lucia for a daily news exchange of top OECS happenings in the form of a 15-minute radio programme to be broadcast on stations in the sub-region. Thus, the widely-listened-to OECS News Link programme was born. It was specifically conceptualized to fill the void created by the end of the popular “Caribbean Today” radio programme, one of CANA’s core products.

The seeming indifference to CARICOM or lack of interest by Caribbean people is a matter which should be of concern to the heads of government. Next week’s summit will come and go but public expectations are low that
it will make any real difference in their lives. We can only hope for the best.

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