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Keynote Address by CARICOM Secretary-General at ‘CARICOM at Fifty’ Symposium

CARICOM Secretary-General, Dr. Carla Barnett, delivered the keynote address Friday morning (14 April 2023) at the opening ceremony of a symposium to mark the 50th anniversary of the Caribbean Community being observed this year.

The virtual symposium, titled ‘CARICOM at the Crossroads: Rising to the Challenge of a New Era’, was organised by the CARICOM Secretariat in collaboration with the Institute of International Relations of The University of the West Indies (UWI).

Please read the CARICOM Secretary-General’s address below:

  • Senator the Honourable Dr. Amery Browne, Minister of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago;
  • Dr. Acolla Lewis Cameron, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus;
  • Dr. Annita Montoute, Director of the Institute of International Relations, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine;
  • Specially Invited Guests;
  • Professor of Diplomatic Practice Mr Winston Dookeran;
  • Ladies and Gentlemen.

Please read the CARICOM Secretary-General’s address below:

This year marks significant anniversaries for both the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and The University of the West Indies (UWI). As we celebrate the 50th and 75th Anniversaries, respectively, phrases such as “defining moment”, “critical juncture” and “turning point” come to mind. One such phrase forms a part of the topic that I have been asked to address today “CARICOM at the Crossroads: Rising to the Challenge of a New Era.”

Indeed, as the Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Honourable Dr. Terrance Drew at the Opening Ceremony of the Forty-Fourth Regular Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government in The Bahamas last February, stated:

“Our Caribbean Community today stands at a crossroads, where we must focus our attention on the myriad challenges confronting us as small island developing states, and low-lying coastal communities in an ever-increasingly volatile global environment.”

He noted that the overlapping challenges are cross-cutting in their effect, impacting all sectors of the economy, and forcing us to play catch-up as we advance our development agenda.

From the lost ideal of a political federation, to the re-ignition via a free trade area, to the signing of the Treaty of Chaguaramas which created the Common Market 50 years ago, the Revised Treaty of 2001 pushed the boundary of regional integration even further with the aim of creating a Single Market and Economy.

The Caribbean Community has, as its organizing principle, the need, desire and logic of our Member States combining their resources – human, economic and natural – to find common solutions to development challenges so as to accelerate development, and create a viable and prosperous society. The objective is to build a sustainable Community with an acceptable quality of life, with people at the centre of all our development policies, strategies and initiatives.

CARICOM is a Community of sovereign states which have agreed to act in concert in areas agreed within the Revised Treaty of Chaguramas. Unlike, for example, the European Union, which has a supranational personality where regulations and laws made at the level of the Union have direct national effect, in CARICOM, decisions taken by the Heads, although they may create rights for persons within the CARICOM sphere, also create obligations for Member States to implement the decisions through national laws and policies. This has complicated and lengthened our decision-making and implementation process, but notwithstanding, we have made significant accomplishments.

The four pillars of CARICOM – Economic Integration, Human and Social Development, Foreign Policy Coordination and Security Cooperation – provide a broad scope to develop an integration movement that is the longest lasting of its kind in the developing world.  This is a reality that has resulted in our friends from Africa and the Pacific sending missions to study what we have been doing. CARICOM has been a model for other similar integration movements.

And what have we been doing? In the past 50 years, we have functioned as a collaborative mechanism which has established a number of specialised Regional Institutions, including in the areas of Education, Health, Agriculture, Disaster Management, Climate Change, and Crime and Security, which all work to enhance the benefits of our integration.

We need to remind ourselves from time to time that, as a Region, we were successful in the establishment of the Caribbean Development Bank, the Caribbean Court of Justice, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, the Caribbean Examination Council, the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV/AIDS, and the Caribbean Public Health Agency, among others.

The objective of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) is to progressively and ultimately create a single, seamless economic space within our Community that provides a larger scale economic, trading and business environment. It is our platform for economic growth and development within our Region, as well our foundation for international competitiveness and effective insertion in the global economy.

We already have a Community Agricultural Policy and a Double Taxation Agreement, and are in the process of creating a Community Industrial Policy among the Member States. We have harmonised standards, sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures, and a competition policy. We have in place a CARICOM Multilateral Air Services Agreement.

The Revised Treaty created a rules-based Community. The Treaty, the binding decisions of the Conference of Heads of Government and the Ministerial Councils, and the rulings of the CCJ, together constitute an emerging body of Community law.

A security architecture has been put in place, including a CARICOM Arrest Warrant Treaty, an Agreement on the Recovery and Sharing of Assets derived from criminal activity and a Counter Terrorism Strategy.

We have leveraged our votes in the international arena along with sustained advocacy to become a respected voice in global affairs, most recently in climate change and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).

Our slogan for this anniversary celebration is most apt, “50 Years Strong: A Solid Foundation to Build On”.

Let us be clear. There is more that could have been done to take us further along the road. The lag in the implementation of an efficient transportation system has adversely affected intra-regional trade and the ease of travel for people throughout the Community. The non-tariff barriers that impeded the flow of trade have created unnecessary friction. Actions by officials at points of entry threaten to become a deterrent to CARICOM citizens wishing to visit or seek employment in another Member State, as is their right under the Revised Treaty. The joy of the Single Domestic Space when our Region hosted Cricket World Cup in 2007 is now a distant memory!

None of those challenges is insurmountable, as intractable as they may seem. And the goal is to surmount them as we move on to the next 50 years and beyond.

The regional and global environment has changed considerably since the signing of the original Treaty of Chaguaramas in 1973, and even since the Revised Treaty of 2001. However, the fundamental objectives and principles of regional integration remain more valid than ever. It is these objectives and principles that are underpinning the efforts of our Community as we rise to the challenges of this new era.

Adapting the CARICOM integration framework to address the changing national, regional and global imperatives requires flexibility of action, receptivity to change, and clarity of purpose and vision.

Recent initiatives indicate that there is awareness of the need to design and/or redesign regional initiatives as prevailing circumstances change. One of the most consequential of those initiatives upends a traditional practice. 

Heads of Government agreed, at their March 2022 Meeting, to adopt a Protocol on Enhanced Cooperation which allows a sub-group of Member States that are ready to implement a decision, to do so, with other countries following when they are able. This replaces the former process which required all Member States to agree to move forward before any could. This is a significant change and a significant marker on the path of reforms in the way the Community conducts its affairs.

Further, at their July 2022 Meeting, Heads of Government acknowledged that two meetings a year were insufficient for them to drive the integration process at the requisite pace to meet the demands of today’s dynamic world. This was apparent from the increasing number of ad hoc Special Meetings that were being convened.  Heads have agreed now to supplement the two in-person sessions that are normally held in February and July with four virtual meetings, which will be convened on a schedule agreed well ahead of time.

Nothing in those arrangements precludes Heads of Government from meeting in emergency sessions on crises which may arise. This structured calendar will allow for shorter more focussed agendas, leading to more in-depth discussions and closer monitoring of implementation.

This re-organisation requires that the Ministerial Councils arrange their meetings and agendas to facilitate input into the consideration of the Heads of Government, both to provide the information necessary for decision-making and to ensure that action is taken on the decisions by the Heads of Government.

The Community Council, the second highest Organ of the Community, will play a pivotal role – central to information flows and monitoring of implementation- between the Heads of Government and the other Ministerial Councils.

In keeping with this thrust to organise the Community to meet today’s demands, the Inter-Governmental Task Force (IGTF) on Treaty Revision will be re-established, in due course, to review and update the Revised Treaty, commensurate with the requirements of the new order and to incorporate any other decisions that have been taken since 2001, that have the effect of changing the Treaty.

The decisions taken so far, and the strengthening of governance arrangements, which is a work in progress, indicate that the Heads of Government are seized of the moment and are organising to overcome the challenges we confront. 

In this new dispensation, we will be seeking to establish regional expert groups from time to time, to provide structured technical advice to the Community in the development of policy, as well as in implementation efforts. The involvement of our universities, research bodies, experts resident in the Region and in the diaspora broadens the idea base and invites a range of perspectives that could only benefit the final outcome.  As the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, the late ANR Robinson said at Grand Anse in 1989, “Let all ideas contend”.

Streamlining the governance arrangements and harnessing our intellectual capacity will provide guidance for the actions necessary to propel us forward as we continue to address the social and economic fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastating effects of climate change, and the impact of the on-going war in Ukraine.

As a Community, we have determined to take action to ensure our food and nutrition security and energy security, engage in the battle for innovative funding mechanisms, and enhance our Information and Communications Technology infrastructure.

The lessons learnt from the pandemic and re-enforced by the Ukraine conflict accelerated our food and nutrition security agenda which had agreed, in 2018, a regional target to reduce our food import bill by 25% by the year 2025.

We are therefore in the process of implementing an agri-food systems strategy to reduce reliance on extra-regional imports of food, enhance production and trade of regional agricultural products, and provide greater access to a supply of nutritious foods.  The effort is being led by the President of Guyana, H.E. Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali who has responsibility for agriculture in the CARICOM Quasi-Cabinet. Agri-food investment will not only enhance food and nutrition security, but also serve as an engine for broader economic growth, prosperity and stability of the Region on a sustainable basis.

The goal is to increase productivity, spur regional trade and investment in the agricultural sector, encourage the involvement of women and youth, while adopting smart agriculture technologies to increase sustainable production in response to risks associated with climate change. These measures have already begun with an increase in the production of key products and the implementation of relevant policies, including for food safety and health.

Equally important, we are seeking to address, as a matter of priority, the provision of reliable transportation. This is the piece of the integration puzzle that has eluded us for many years, but without which the 25 by 2025 ideal becomes extremely difficult to achieve.

It has been long understood that one of the fundamental drivers of integration is efficient low-cost transportation of both people and goods. This will require substantial investment and our Community has been working on several fronts to achieve that goal, whether through public-private partnerships or international cooperation mechanisms.

For us in the Caribbean, climate change is not some esoteric academic theory. We experience the increased ferocity of the hurricanes, the rising sea levels that are already threatening our islands and coastlines, and drought and salination of fresh water sources. This impact of climate change is visible in agriculture production and productivity loss, increased cost of replacing housing, public infrastructure such as roads, bridges and buildings, and increasing building standards to withstand the ravages of nature.

Between 2008 and 2017, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, loss to the Caribbean and Americas region accounted for 53% of reported global economic losses, with the heaviest cost relative to the size of economies falling on the Caribbean.

We, by ourselves, can do nothing about the course of nature, but we are taking action to adapt to the new normal and mitigate its consequences.

The Bridgetown Initiative, initiated by the Prime Minister of Barbados, the Honourable Mia Amor Mottley, seeks to galvanise political leadership and will behind an ambitious, but feasible, set of policy reforms to address multiple crises, including the climate crisis.

One of the proposals is to establish a new multilateral instrument for climate finance, through a new allocation of $650 billion Special Drawing Rights (SDR) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) allocations to feed the new multilateral instrument.

The Initiative is a three-step plan to mobilise short-term liquidity for crisis response and long-term funding for sustainable development, and has drawn international support.

This comes in the wake of CARICOM’s critical role in the Paris Agreement and in the agreement last November at COP27 to establish a Loss and Damage Fund to help address extreme climate impacts in climate vulnerable countries. The Community has two representatives on the committee to operationalise the Fund.

Building a robust renewable energy sector is at the forefront of our efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, and to enhance our energy security. CARICOM’s Energy Policy, including the Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy, envisions 47 percent electricity generation from renewables by 2027. We are moving to exploit our considerable array of renewable energy sources with the assistance of the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CCREEE) and our international development partners.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Participants, one positive side effect of the enforced isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is the acceleration towards a digital economy, prompted by remote working and schooling, and other activities, including cultural events utilising Information Technology (IT) platforms.  However some gaps in access, including an internal digital divide, were exposed, highlighting the urgent need for more investment in technological infrastructure.

CARICOM Governments are at very different stages in their journey of digital transformation, with the majority still in the early development stages. 

A Regional Digital Development Strategy, which includes the creation of a Single Information, Communications and Technologies (ICT) space to encompass the entire Community is being rolled out.  The objective of the Single ICT Space is to establish modern regional regulatory and open telecommunications infrastructures, with networks using converged technologies to provide affordable and universal access.

This would positively effect such issues as roaming rates, enable a single area code, as well as address copyright, spectrum, broadband matters, affordability, access and security, including data privacy and protection.

Last year saw the signing of the Declaration of St George’s which is the first phase of the CARICOM Roaming Rate Reduction Project, a key component of the Single ICT Space. This Project, in collaboration with the two major telecommunications providers in the Region, moves to reduce intra-CARICOM roaming charges and facilitate the provision of seamless mobile services, including voice, SMS text and data across the boundaries of the Community for the benefit of their CARICOM customers.

This new telecommunications environment requires a regional regulatory framework, and negotiations in that regard are on-going.

Regardless of the tools developed and the technology that emerges, it is the ability of our human resources, not only to master the operation, but also to use it to create value that will benefit our Region. This is the entrée for our young people to channel their greater facility with the technology, their creativity and innovative skills.

In that regard, the CARICOM Human Resource Development (HRD) 2030 Strategy and Action Plan targets the use of technology within the learning environment, as one of the skills required to function effectively in this new era.

More than 60 percent of the population of the Caribbean Community are under 30 years of age. Earlier generations laid a solid foundation. It is now the turn of another generation, not only to secure and improve on those gains, but to use the creativity, ingenuity and dynamism that are the signature characteristics of Caribbean people to reimagine the next 50 years of CARICOM, and square the circle of integration.

In my inaugural address when accepting the post of Secretary-General, I stated that “As we build on the work of those who came before, space has to be created for new thinking, not only to solve the problems of the present but to outline new paths for the future of our integration process.”

Much has been achieved in the past 50 years.  A lot of it is taken for granted today. Some of the Regional achievements I mentioned earlier are not even directly associated with the integration movement. The stories of regional success must be continuously shared across our Community to serve as a constant reminder of what we can achieve with unity of purpose, as we rise to the challenge of the new era.

I thank you.

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