Opinion February 19, 2016 | 9:29 am

Recognising the value of Caribbean civil society

At the last count, something like 619 regional tradeagreements had been notified to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

It is a number that is set to grow as the global economicbalance of power changes, political blocs proliferate, and all countries cometo accept that a single agreement of the kind envisaged in the Doha Round is nolonger achievable.

In this, the Caribbean, having failed to deepen itsregional economic integration process and to make itself a more attractivetrade partner, is being left behind.

In contrast to other regions there appears to be no new Caribbeanthinking on trade policy, and no desire to involve industries and socialpartners in developing new common approaches that might spur regional economicgrowth. Instead, some countries speak darkly about bilateral initiatives withLatin or other partners, or wait to see how a possible Cuba-EU traderelationship might alter the regional balance vis-a-vis the Dominican Republic.

The implication is that regional trade policy is stagnatingwhile the rest of the world is moving on.

In an indication of the type of new international thinking informingsuch matters, a recent briefing paper from the India-based developmentorganization, CUTS International, addresses the importance of involving fully, representativesof non-state entities in order to develop and deliver the best trade and socialoutcomes.

The paper demonstrates why stakeholder consultations with avariety of informed actors from businesses, civil society, labor organizations,academia, and others including those who can provide a voice for the mostvulnerable, matter. It describes the various mechanisms and processes thatcountries such as Korea, Japan, the US and others have introduced to ensurethat stakeholders’ interests have helped create or balance the broaderobjectives of trade negotiators.

It suggests that in this way, new benefits and ideas arebeing brought to governments and negotiating bodies. These include increasedtransparency, the provision of information not normally previously available,political buy-in for any agreement, protection for the most at risk, and theempowerment of groups who can make use of what is agreed.

The CUTS paper demonstrates why some of the most powerfuleconomies in the world see value in ensuring that civil society is close to thecenter of trade negotiations and can become genuine partners in future economicgrowth.

In the Caribbean the centrality of non-state groups to thetrade negotiating process or any other deliberations is far from being the case.This is despite plans to establish a more formal structure for civil society inCARICOM and the existence of a mechanism to involve civil society in theEU-Cariforum Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).

Last week in Barbados members of the Caribbean side of the EU-CariforumEPA consultative committee met in preparation for a March meeting with theirEuropean counterparts. This is the joint body that brings together 25 civilsociety organizations from CARIFORUM and 15 from the EU side including employers’organizations, trade unions, academia, NGOs and other social organizations todiscuss and make practical recommendations to officials and ministers relatedto the implementation of Europe’s trade and development agreement with theregion.

The group has according to Mikael Barfod, the EU Ambassadorto Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, a fundamental role as it gives a voice tocivil society ensuring what they think is conveyed to Ministers and officials ina ‘loud and clear’ manner so that their views are fully reflected in decisionmaking.

Speaking at the opening of the meeting, he noted that itwas CARICOM’s stated intention in its 5 Year Strategy Plan 2015-2019 toestablish permanent arrangements for consultation with the regionalrepresentatives of private sector and civil society, but suggested that in thisrespect, and more generally in respect of the Dominican Republic, more neededto be done.

That said, a number of those from Caribbean civil society participatingin the meeting express doubts about whether a formal institutional mechanismwith CARICOM or Cariforum will result in governments or the public sectorgenuinely considering the views of civil society or helping such groups develop.For example, private sector representative express concern about the orderlysharing of information by CARICOM with all stakeholders, and its failure toadvance initiatives immune from local politics or ‘questionable activities’ insome countries.

This is a pity as if elevated and reinforced the Caribbeanpart of the EPA consultative committee is potentially far more important thanbeing just a function of a trade agreement, as it is the only formal regionalmechanism that attempts to bring all of civil society together.

Unlike any other groupings or institutions, it involvesthose who touch the real world, including as it does an array of organizationsincluding increasingly vocal and influential environmental groups;representatives of small and medium sized enterprises; the leaders of theregion’s principal economic sectors; NGOs involved the delivery of social programs;and representatives from the Dominican Republic and the French DOM.

Having much first-hand experience of working with therepresentative bodies of significant regional industries and NGOs it is clearthat much greater weight needs to be given to their development and thinkingthrough a structured engagement with governments and regional institutions.

The problem is that for the most part such organizationsare weak in terms of funding and capacity.

This is because in the case of the private sector in theAnglophone Caribbean, membership levels are low and voluntary, and in theabsence of a threat the cost of maintaining a standing organization is seen asdiscretionary. This is in contrast tothe Francophone Caribbean where involvement is a statutory requirement and associationsare well-funded, well-staffed, and speak with authority.

Sustainability for environmental groups, some smallertrades unions and NGOs is also problematic. As an alternative to local fundingthey have established working ties with like-minded external groups, but liketheir private sector counterparts depend to an extraordinary extent on the organizational,political, commercial, and fund raising skills of their full time leadership.

Despite the public sector’s sometimes visceral distrust ofthe private sector and of campaigning groups like the environmentalists, theCaribbean cannot hope to make significant economic progress unless the capacityof civil society is strengthened within the region, and a new more inclusivemodel is adopted by governments that allows alternative voices and new thinkingto emerge.

While such thoughts clearly worry some in government and thepolitical parties as they are seen as eroding the status quo and the old orderthat has all but prevailed since independence, the role of and interface withcivil society is an issue that the region as a whole needs to address now if itis to ensure sustainable growth and future stability.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council andcan be contacted at

[email protected]

Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

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