Opinion September 16, 2016 | 2:27 pm

The Changing face of the Caribbean – part 2

How should we regard the Caribbean’s future?Should it be with pessimism as some commentators suggest, or with optimism? Theanswer seems to lie in how one measures the likely effect of change.

Looked at objectively, it is probablethat over the next decade the regional economy may benefit significantly from oiland gas discoveries in countries once seen as being at the margins of theregion; that deep water ports and the enlarged Panama Canal will enable thedevelopment of manufacturing and assembly hubs; that tourism’s rapid pace of developmentwill continue; and that well-regulated offshore financial services centres inthe region will carry on developing.

To these possibilities might be added thecreation of a blue economy, taking advantage of the Caribbean’s vast oceanspaces; the repositioning of agriculture to address the region’s burgeoning foodimport bill; and the opportunity presented by the growing numbers of talentedindividuals across the Caribbean able to drive the growth of a high-tech andcreative services economy.

What this future landscape does not yetreveal is in what way all of the people of the region might benefit in the longerterm. Nor specifically does it speak to how governments, beyond rhetoric,intend to use such developments to trigger the new investments in socialinfrastructure that will be needed to power the region into the latter part ofthe twenty-first century.

Most new economic developments in theregion are now led by foreign investment. While they invariably bring benefitin the form of employment, it is unclear in most cases how much new revenuethey generate for governments, how this is to be spent, and whether it will beused in a manner that benefits all citizens through, for example, communal investmentsthat ultimately increase living standards and social mobility.

Unfortunately, Caribbean realitycontinues to hold back such possibilities in many countries. That is to say, throughthe absence of leadership and vison, the weakness and moribund nature of manyinstitutions, the bureaucracy, growing levels of corruption, the isolating ofthe private sector and civil society by government, and in places, an oldergeneration that still exercises control by suppressing new ideas and freshthinking.

For these reasons, the regional economicmatrix that is now emerging argues for a new type of debate on how best tomanage and draw social benefit from foreign investment.

This is not to suggest a reversion tothe ideologically led approach taken by both the Caribbean left and right inthe past, but for civil society in particular to consider how the revenues thatmight reasonably be expected to flow from new ventures, might best be used.

In recent years, the region’senvironmentalists have understood very well the need to ask searching questionsin advance about foreign investment and the common good. It is an approach thatnow needs to be more widely adopted so that governments and opposition partiesare pressed on the detail of how they intend translating newfound income intosocial programmes, and in particular into education, health care and housing.

At the end of last month ExxonMobil’sCountry Manager in Guyana, Jeff Simons, made clear when speaking to local media,that Exxon take the view that it will be government’s responsibility to createemployment by making using of the revenue it earns from the company’s majoroffshore oil find. “The greatest benefit is the revenue stream provided to thecountry. If job creation is critical, then take some of that money and put itinto areas where job creation could be exponential relative to what we aretalking about here,” Mr Simons said.

Put another way, what needs to flow fromthe revenues that accrue from foreign investment, if the region is to take realadvantage of them, is a much clearer explanation of how they will be applied tohelping develop a regional population fit for the way the world and theCaribbean will be fifty years from now.

This particularly the case when it comesto the region’s education system.

For many years now, the Caribbean hasbeen able to cultivate a generally positive image of high literacy levels andacademic achievement. It has used this to promote itself as a location forforeign investment and as an indicator of its identity and culture.

However, if one looks more closely atwhat is happening on the ground in many states, it becomes clear that away fromelite schools, the region’s secondary education system is failing to turn outstudents with the type of qualifications or skills that will enable theCaribbean to succeed in the highly competitive services or technology-basedindustries that its future rests upon.

As Caribbean educators point out, educationin the Caribbean may also no longer be fit for purpose as it has largely beenbased on adapting a colonial inheritance. What is needed, they suggest, is anew educational philosophy appropriate to the contemporary Caribbean, thatinvolves a Caribbean-led assessment of the region’s key competencies, a focuson the economic areas where the region might hope in future to see economicdevelopment and have global competitive advantage, and an approach more closelyrelated to the digital world.

Encouraging foreign investment is arational response to the region’s high level of indebtedness, and thelimitations of the Caribbean’s size and ability to generate capital. It acceptsthat the time has passed for looking back, accepts globalisation, and acknowledgesthat there are practical limits to notions of sovereignty.

However, in agreeing to become afacilitator for others and economic globalisation, and as the face of theCaribbean begins to change, much more thought deserves to be given to how therevenues arising out of foreign investment are to be used in the longer term onpolicies that ensure that no one is left behind.

David Jessop is aconsultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org

Previous columns befound at www.caribbean-council.org

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