By Sir Ronald Sanders
With an agenda that includes security during the 2007 Word Cup Cricket series and the impact of international developments on Caribbean development, an important conference between the British Foreign Secretary and Foreign Ministers of Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) countries takes place in Barbados from April 27th to 28th.
It is the fifth such encounter since February 1998 when the UK/Caribbean Forum was launched, and it is the only institutionalised meeting between CARICOM Foreign Ministers and the Foreign Minister of one of the G8 countries – the world’s most powerful nations.
The Forum occurs every two years and it is noteworthy that Britain has no similar Forum with any other developing region of the world. It is unique to the Caribbean.
An entire session of the Forum in Barbados is devoted to security during the World Cup Cricket series in 2007. Several CARICOM countries will be hosting games for the series and the security challenges dwarf any security issues they have encountered in the past.
Because many of their citizens will be visiting CARICOM countries for the series, Britain and other cricket-playing nations that will be participating in the games are as concerned about security as the host CARICOM countries. The US and Canada have also taken a keen interest in security arrangements because many of their citizens – the Diaspora from Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan etc- are also expected to visit the Caribbean for the series.
With terrorism increasing and tourists emerging as soft targets, there is a rightful interest by Britain and other nations not only to ensure that CARICOM countries have a workable security plan, but also to assist in its implementation. No doubt CARICOM countries welcome this interest and support given that a security calamity would have grave repercussions for their economies. The British government is already helping the region with security reform which includes a substantial training programme.
With regard to the international issues that impact Caribbean development, the plight of the countries that have lost their preferential market in the European Union (EU) for bananas and sugar will also be a highlight of the Forum.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair met CARICOM Heads of Government last November in London, it was their candid discussion of the impact of unilateral price cuts by the EU for CARICOM sugar that led Mr Blair to commit the UK to fight in the EU for compensation of 250 million Euros over the period 2007-2013 for the 18 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries that are affected.
Despite the British effort, the EU is said to be contemplating a figure even lower than 190 million Euros which had been promised, and it is still uncertain whether the bulk of the money will be paid up front – something that has bitterly disappointed CARICOM countries.
Several hours have been set aside on the final day of the Forum for an informal retreat of Ministers only. This is a good development for it provides the chance to put aside scripted statements and to talk frankly and openly about the real difficulties CARICOM countries face and how Britain can be helpful.
There are good reasons why Britain should want to be helpful having nothing to do with its past as a colonial power in the Caribbean.
Among the reasons is that Britain still has territories in the Caribbean – Montserrat, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands. Disastrous events of whatever kind in CARICOM will have an unhealthy impact on these territories and therefore on the British tax payer.
Several CARICOM countries remain involuntary gateways to Britain for illegal narcotics and the British government is helping regional governments in their efforts to stem drug trafficking. Britain is well aware that an impoverished Caribbean would strengthen the lure of drug traffickers.
Beyond this, almost a million people of CARICOM origin live and work in Britain. By their very presence in Britain and their continuing interest in their original homelands, they have created a political community between Britain and CARICOM. While it is true that Caribbean peoples in Britain have not galvanised into a major lobby as other groups have done, they nonetheless retain an influence in political and economic life of which the British government is conscious.
This Fifth UK/Caribbean Forum, therefore, offers an opportunity for CARICOM countries to set out, in a frank manner, the challenges they face by the loss of preferential markets for their traditional agricultural exports; the assistance they need in expanding their services sector particularly tourism and financial services; the continuing need for special treatment in the trade terms being negotiated at the World Trade Organisation and with the EU over an Economic Partnership Agreement. Importantly, they also need to set out the strategies they feel could be implemented to overcome their challenges.
At the end of the day, however, CARICOM representatives have to remain aware that the G8 countries – including Britain- have decided that development assistance should be directed at the world’s poorest countries which have the will to implement policies that would improve their circumstances. In this regard, apart from Guyana – an acknowledged Highly Indebted Poor Country – CARICOM states have to demonstrate objective need, or, at least, show that tangible support for their development policies could produce beneficial results.
The Forum will not provide the assistance that CARICOM countries need. For, while Britain is a member of the G8, EU, and the OECD, it cannot deliver the others by itself. Britain’s voice, on behalf of CARICOM countries, would be better heard if it echoed a chorus of high-level Caribbean representation at the political and technical levels that set our practical strategies for economic development and realistic expectations of the international help needed to implement them.
What this Forum offers is the opportunity for CARICOM countries to ensure that Britain understands that they are determined to adjust their economies and can do so if provided the right level of international help. Given the links between Britain and the Caribbean, the British government could be an effective advocate if it is convinced of the resolve of CARICOM governments. It is time for frank talking.
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(The writer is a business executive and former Caribbean diplomat who publishes widely on small states in the global community)