By Debbie Ransome
“We’re not a think tank, we’re a do tank”.
This comment, by several participants after an October conference
of the Caribbean 2030 leaders’ group, summed up two days of deliberations in the spirit of its mission statement, “new thinking for a new generation”.
This was the third meeting of the group with a new injection of participants, including myself, as the network honed in on key issues on which it would seek to make a difference.
Your first question might be, “Why Caribbean 2030?”
When the group first met in early 2015, the idea was to bring together the next generation of Caribbean leaders to coalesce around a vision for the region – that is, a vision of what the Caribbean should look like by the year 2030.
Now, with its third meeting
, drawing on a wider pool of expertise, the group has evolved into the Caribbean 2030 Leaders’ Network.
What have you done for me lately?
It is not always the case that members of the network are the actual “doers”. According to an FCO document on the Caribbean 2030 group’s work, it also aims to identify potential paths forward for politicians, policymakers and others on specific areas.
To get a sense of what the Caribbean 2030 group is capable of, it makes sense to look at what it has already achieved since its first meetings in 2015.
Chatham House rules at such meetings mean that the specific countries and projects cannot be outlined, but you get a sense of what’s being done:
- A focused area of work on sustainable development is creating a green economics document on the Caribbean, which will make its action plan not just a series of aspirations, but a national and regional income earner
- The group has achieved changes to electronic transfer legislation through advocacy of one Caribbean government, allowing that country to improve its stake in the “improving doing business” index
- A lobby group on open data has started working with Caribbean governments on how to make data more open to the public, using existing and potential resources, and working on plans to engage the public on the reasons why open data makes sense to their daily lives (think: I work better in my society when I have all the facts to hand)
- One Caribbean territory now has new financial software which allows for electronic payroll management for public servants and an online HR management structure
- The Caribbean 2030 network no longer waits to meet only at summit-like sessions every six months, but works daily through a social media forum, which shares best practice work and achievements for adaptation and use across the Caribbean region.
The areas of work that the network covers require a wide range of expertise. For that reason, the group includes specialists in global finance, global institutional support, climate change, politics, IT and the media. In other words, the group members all have day jobs and take part in this group to make the Caribbean a better place.
The co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), Dr Damien King, calls the network “a group of leaders and doers”. He says it seeks to “deliver outcomes” and “engineer change in the Caribbean”.
Dr King told Caribbean Intelligence© that, in “a disintegrating world, it’s ever more important for the Caribbean to find those areas functionally and culturally and economically, where it can act as a united force to bring the strength of that collective to dealing with the segmental forces in the world”.
He is passionate about the fact that the group is motivated by the maxim “never underestimate what a group of committed people can accomplish”.
So why does the Caribbean need a group of “doers” when it has elected politicians, global institutions and friendly powers to turn to?
For many at the October 2016 deliberations, that’s just the point. Domestic woes mean that once-paternal friendly powers have other issues to deal with. Take Brexit and the challenges faced by the US during, before and after its presidential election.
Dr King says of the “Doomsday scenario” – that is, a future in which the US and the UK become more and more inward-looking – that it is all the more important for the Caribbean “to take responsibility for its future”.
As for governments being expected to see to everything during a five-year Westminster-style term in office when longer-term solutions are needed, the group seeks to enrol both government and opposition politicians from individual states to sign up to policy paths that go beyond the timeframe of being in office.
Dr King said in the post-meeting press release: “We may need to conceive of a vision for the Caribbean beyond what the existing institutional structures are designed for.”
Beyond five-year terms
Even the financial role of the state comes under scrutiny from this group – not to criticise those who are currently in office in the Caribbean, but to look at future ways of sharing the provision of resources to the public between the state and the regional private sector.
In other words, in 2030, does every Caribbean government need to be responsible for emptying the bins?
St Vincent & the Grenadines’ economic planning and information minister, Camillo Gonsalves, takes a strong line on how the regional private sector can start to fill the shoes of the state in smaller territories.
He should know. His father, Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St Vincent & the Grenadines since 2001, has sought for some time to provide for the expectations of Vincentians while working within the resources of a small-island Caribbean state.
“The government has been an entrepreneurial force...and a force for good,” Camillo Gonsalves told Caribbean Intelligence©.
He’s aware of the criticisms that smaller island governments face when competing with the private sector to provide services, but he says there’s a reason for this and can also outline a solution for the longer term.
He points out that consumer expectations in the Caribbean are shaped by North America and that these have to be met in the short term.
Caribbean Intelligence© asked him whether these state shoes can be filled by the private sector. His answer was “yes and no”.
Mr Gonsalves said that smaller markets such as St Vincent had not allowed for a nimble and highly competitive private sector.
“The government has to play a role, at least initially in kick-starting and providing some services,” he said.
“The government doesn’t want to get involved in every aspect of society and would much rather divest these things to private sector entities.
“But there is a bit of a myth, certainly in the Caribbean context, of this big lumbering government that wants to take everything unto itself at the expense of this diverse nimble private sector.
“It’s not that clear-cut very often.”
He gives an example from his own island: St Vincent & the Grenadines is a country with a population of 110,000 people. According to Camillo Gonsalves, there had been two families running the supermarket industry and they had ended up “implicitly or explicitly” with certain prices.
He said that government had to invest in a supermarket, not to compete, but to drive down prices, then it found a buyer for the supermarket “and now there’s competition”.
“Yes, the government wants to be small and the government wants to be nimble, but the government also wants to ensure that citizens have modern competitive services that are efficient and at a decent price,” Mr Gonsalves told Caribbean Intelligence©.
As a result, Caribbean governments still have to inject themselves into some situations.
In true Caribbean 2030 network fashion, however, he is not complaining, but offering solutions.
He outlines a Caribbean where island states look beyond their shores for regional private sector development while also working with their native private sectors to grow and take on more of the role that the state bears today.
He enthused about providing what he called a proper enabling and listening environment for the private sector and also for the private sector to “get with the times”.
The 44-year-old minister points to a time, years ago, when being the private sector meant importing from overseas, marking it up and reselling it.
“That’s not the private sector any more,” Mr Gonsalves said.
“The private sector has to be risk-taking, has to be active, it has to be entrepreneurial... find new markets, create new markets... that’s a cultural shift that’s happening in some Caribbean countries faster than its happening in others.”
From Mr Gonsalves’ perspective, the state has some facilitation to do, but the private sector also has some modernising ahead.
This give-and-take of ideas underlies what is providing the energy of the Caribbean 2030 group. Debates can be heated but not acrimonious.
They are focused and critical, but not point-scoring.
Everybody in the October sessions and on the social media network had a similar goal – to make the Caribbean a stronger force by 2030.
The group has started to set its sights on climate change: not in a woolly way, by making grand statements, but in a focused proposed document on green economics. It’s brought on board a new group of experts to help this work; some are Caribbean, some are global climate change experts.
These are added to the other stated priority areas of IT infrastructure and open data; trade within and beyond the Caribbean; and finance, credit and business growth.
Dr King summed up the work ahead after the last round of meetings. He told Caribbean Intelligence© that the Caribbean can today no longer depend on larger powers “to treat us kindly and help us navigate our way in the world”.
The Caribbean, he stated, has to “decide on what is the past, what it wants, its methods... and make it happen for itself”.
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