Big-Fish Small-Fish labels are fatally flawed

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Dr Everson Hull is a business economist. He currently serves as Ambassador for St Kitts and Nevis to the OAS. He has served as Adjunct Professor of Economics at Howard University, Head of Money and Banking at the Congressional Research Service and US Presidential Appointee as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Research at the US Department of Labor.

By Everson W. Hull

Writing in the Saturday, September 4, 2021, edition of The Gleaner, the very distinguished and prolific author David Jessop offered a severe indictment of regional leaders in his provocative article titled: “The Caribbean’s Big-Fish Small-Fish Problem”. He suggested that in order to overcome the differences in the weight, size and performance of Anglophone Caribbean nations, CARICOM’s members needed to have greater political will in the pursuit of a viable CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME).

Upon reflection, a plausible case can be made for the pursuit of a viable CSME without invoking the pejorative fish label that has been wrongly applied to these enormously proud sovereign states, which frequently find themselves punching well above their weight class in several spheres of human endeavor.

Things are not always what they seem. A careful review of the data tells quite a different story.  It offers a more reliable basis for assessing which countries rightly hold the claim to being members of the Big-Fish class and which do not.  The published data offers a universally accepted performance scorecard that would be instructive in determining the size of one’s fish.

To illustrate, Singapore is small in size. Its landmass, at 281.3 square miles, is smaller than that of Dominica (289.6 Sq. Mi.), and only slightly larger than that of Saint Lucia (238.2 Sq. Mi.). Despite its relatively small size, Singapore is a BIG-BIG FISH. The World Bank reports a per capita income for Singapore of US $98,526 (PPP) for 2020. By contrast, there are no BIG FISH in the CARICOM region and none in the several vast landscapes of Latin America. With a per capita income of less than US $25,000 per year, few families can afford to pay the first year’s academic tuition for a loved one going off to college in the USA or Canada.

The vast majority of the mislabeled Big-Fish are suffering under the heavyweight of debt loads that stand in the way of their development, leaving them fully incapable of fending off any of the massive obstacles that are strewn in their path. All, but a very small number of the so-called Small-Fish, have been forced to knock on the IMF’s door seeking assistance in fending off the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many among the so-called Big-Fish who are not able to pay their rent on time and not able to provide for the welfare of their families are invariably left with no choice, but to flee. With few income-earning alternatives available for meeting their needs, they effectively head for the exits screaming, “Let me outta here.” Large proportions of our labor force fled in the 1950s and 1960s. Although net migration rates have since fallen sharply, in part because of severe constraints on immigration requirements, many are still fleeing today. The World Bank reports that 93,000 fled from one member state in 2017.

It would be helpful to pause for a momentary interval and take a careful look at those who are fleeing today, from the lands that they love dearly, and those who are not. The World Bank data reveals that the massive exodus is often fully unrelated to the size of one’s fish. The dominant factor that affects our retention rates is nearly always driven by the level of the household’s income.  Hard cash remains among the few liquid assets that are universally recognized by the neighborhood grocer. We are not going very far without access to hard cash or several of its “near-money” derivatives.

Setting aside the defamatory Big-Fish Small-Fish label, it would be helpful to invest some time in trying to disentangle the key determinants of those factors that have a harmful effect on growth and prosperity. These may be contrasted with those policy actions that trigger the massive human capital flight underway in a few so-called Big-Fish member states; leaving each with a sub-par inefficient labor force.

The continuing loss of human capital, often our best and brightest, has a devastating effect on our growth and prosperity that traps the CARICOM and Latin American regions far short of achieving their full productive potential.

The approach to addressing issues of in-efficiency and low rates of productivity is not new. It would be instructive to investigate the approach employed by many organizations and countries which have confronted the problem of lethargic “individual” rates of productivity that are harmful to their growth and prosperity. Mitigating the damaging effects of these causal factors are of paramount importance to thrusting our member states closer to their production possibilities frontier.

On balance, the Big-Fish Small-Fish characterization is fatally flawed. It has the perverse effect of ignoring the key determinants of enhanced “individual” rates of productivity and efficiency that are critically important to the development and full embrace of the Caribbean Single Market Economy. “Individual” matter and matter a great deal. They are the single most important resource that drives the performance of organizations and, in turn, member states.

If the CARICOM region is to escape the problem of insufficient income that has trapped our member states at lethargic income levels that have stunted our growth and prosperity; perhaps the time has come for invoking an Incentive-Based-Compensation Plan that recognizes and rewards the optimal performance of the individual with performance payouts that are commensurate with his or her level of productivity.

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