At last, faith in regionalism reignited 

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

The “Agri-Investment Forum”, held in Guyana from 19 to 21 May, was arguably the most successful engagement by CARICOM leaders in the last 15 years.

The Forum was held amidst an enlarging global calamity that combines high prices for oil with shortages and record-high prices for food and agricultural inputs such as fertilizers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s six breadbasket regions, has pushed the world’s food system, already damaged by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, into global crisis.

In the weeks, leading up to the Forum, evidence of the predicament engulfing the Caribbean, had begun to focus the attention of governments. High prices of food products are threatening poorer and vulnerable communities at a time when the economies of the majority of CARICOM countries are struggling to recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the eve of the Forum, a joint survey by the CARICOM Secretariat and World Food Programme estimated that severe food insecurity in the Caribbean had increased by 72 percent, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. And the World Bank reported that the price of fertilizers has increased by as much as 178 percent between March 2021 and March 2022.

The cost of transporting goods, including agricultural products and inputs, has increased astronomically over the past year. The logistics industry is currently experiencing the highest constant peak in increased cost as shipping is disrupted. International transport prices look set to rise even more by 8 to 12 percent in the coming months.

No one is escaping the effects.

All of this undoubtedly sends a shiver down the spines of governments. Many of them simply do not have the financial resources to support poor and vulnerable communities anymore. They depleted those resources through the pandemic when many economies shut down and unemployment soared.

CARICOM governments and the private sector, particularly those companies that make profits on the importation of goods from outside the region, and who have acted to stifle competition from the products of CARICOM countries, bear more than a little responsibility for the region’s current food insecurity.

For much of the last 15 years, CARICOM governments had “paused” efforts to establish a Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). Among the important things that suffered was a 2005 agreement to operationalize a “Framework for the repositioning of Caribbean agriculture” which came to be known as the “Jagdeo Initiative” after Bharat Jagdeo, then president of Guyana, who spearheaded it.

When the “Jagdeo Initiative” was agreed, but not implemented, in 2005, CARICOM’s food import bill was US$1.8 billion. At the end of 2021, the bill was more than US$5 billion. As Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, said at the formal opening of the Forum, “Our region failed to implement the 2005 “Jagdeo Initiative”, and, over the last 17 years, we have suffered for our inaction”.

The problem now is not only the high cost of imported food, but also that certain foodstuff, vital to Caribbean people, are in short supply. Very soon, food reserves in many developed countries will be severely diminished. This will undoubtedly lead to developed countries restricting exports to protect their own populations, resulting in more food shortages and higher prices in CARICOM countries.

At the Forum, Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister, Keith Rowley, recalled that when vaccines were needed by every nation to save lives and control COVID-19, a few rich nations bought and hoarded more than 70 percent of the vaccine production. He warned: “Nobody is going to give us food when it is in short supply. We have to act now so that next time we would be in a better position.”

This crisis cries out for urgent attention that goes beyond words to practical measures. Therefore, it set the stage for the CARICOM leaders at the Forum in Guyana to take action that would upset the status quo and forge a pathway to meaningful integration of CARICOM’s resources.

There were two further ingredients that led to the Forum’s action. The first was that a plan existed to tackle food insecurity. That plan was introduced at the March 2022 CARICOM heads of government meeting by Guyana’s president Irfaan Ali. In the last two months with food shortages increasing and prices rising, the plan and its implementation assumed great relevance and urgency. The leaders at the Forum seized the moment and agreed on priority areas.

In the Outcome Statement, the leaders committed to tackling food insecurity, removing tariffs on CARICOM goods, and establishing regional transportation to get regionally produced food to every country in the region.

On food insecurity, president Ali will organize an existing Ministerial Task Force to produce an implementation schedule for the plan he presented to his colleagues last March. The preparation of the plan will involve all the stakeholders in agricultural production. Regarding tariffs and non-tariff barriers that are imposed on CARICOM products, a Special Committee, headed by Barbados’ prime minister Mia Mottley, will immediately prepare proposals, with time-bound deadlines, for eliminating such trade barriers. Should this happen, the “pause” on creating a Single Market might, at last, be released.

The Outcome Statement said that the leaders recognized that the lack of adequate regional transportation by sea and air is an obstacle to the transportation of food within the region, and they are determined that it should be overcome within the shortest possible time. Again, the energetic and persuasive, Mottley, has been charged with completing a proposal for establishing adequate and sustainable regional transportation by July. The help of the international donor community and multilateral development agencies will be sought to support this effort, with the Caribbean Development Bank playing a role in mobilizing international resources.

There was another reason for the Forum’s motivation and success – the passion of Guyana’s president Irfaan Ali. Not only did he have a food plan ready, but he was also fervent in his determination to deliver it. His enthusiasm infected his colleagues and influenced the Forum’s result to produce actionable proposals with firm deadlines for implementation.

For those who were around in the late 1960s and 1970s when CARIFTA was created and CARICOM emerged, the atmosphere and results of the Guyana Forum rekindled a new faith in regionalism – and the hope that fidelity to it will prevail.

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