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Connecting & Collaborating: Establishing new business relationships in the C’bean

Editorial note: The following is an address by Prime Minister of Grenada Dr Keith Mitchell at the Virtual Caribbean Business Forum on the 17 February 2021, exploring the theme ‘Connecting & Collaborating: Establishing New Business Relationships’.

I begin this morning by commending the organisers for partnering with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States in arranging this timely, topical and important dialogue.

The flag of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (File photo)

The paradox of the current global situation is that while the pandemic has made physical distancing the norm, technology enables us to be closer together, and to do so without the high costs normally associated with a face-to-face event like this.

I am therefore pleased to participate in this dialogue that focusses on connecting and collaborating to establish new business relationships. My hope is that the exchange of views in this forum will lay the basis for real mutually beneficial solutions and will engender a sense of urgency in their implementation and the will to action!

A case for regional integration and trade

Many of our Caribbean nations have a long-standing history of interdependent relations, particularly Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada. There has been a constant interchange of people, goods and services between Trinidad and Tobago and the Eastern Caribbean. Trade in agricultural products from Grenada and St Vincent and the Grenadines, in particular, to Trinidad has enabled many to provide for their families. From the other end of the trade equation, Trinidadian businesses have established an active presence in the Eastern Caribbean in the services sector, in the retail business, and increasingly in financial and insurance services.

Trinidad and Tobago has been a major trading partner to Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States member countries. (Photo: World Nomads courtesy iStock/jaysunlp)

Trinidad and Tobago has also leveraged its energy advantage in the manufacturing sector, emerging as a major producer on the regional front with the Caribbean as a primary market for its beverages, processed food and other commodities. In fact, Trinidad and Tobago has long been recognised as a key supplier of goods and services to the rest of the region, consistently enjoying a hugely advantageous trade position in relation to the OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean State) countries.

Trade is vitally important to our survival. And regional integration as an enabler of reciprocity in relations and the aggregation of opportunity in niche Caricom and hemispheric spaces are essential for our sustainability. This is nothing new and it was on the bedrock of this understanding that the founding fathers of the West Indies Federation and its intellectual author, Sir W Arthur Lewis, shaped this historical project.

The warning from Dr Eric Williams that “one from ten leaves naught”, when the fissures of the Federation were widening, was intended to be a wake-up call that the removal of one would lead to the ruin of all. Friends, although the times are different and our challenges are exponentially greater today, these words resonate for us, the smaller states of the Caribbean — the OECS. This is why we are resolute in our ambition to accelerate our own integration to better play our part in the wider regional effort.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, by whatever statistic you measured it, intra-regional trade was too skewed to suggest that we were on a trajectory toward regional economic resilience. We have struggled as a region to maintain whatever niche or favourable extra-regional export opportunities to which we have access. Intra-regional trade, however, has not been optimised. We seem to prefer patronising other people’s business in the global village instead of strengthening and consolidating the wealth of our islands, through stronger business ties among each other and interacting with the global village from a position of consolidated strength. Why do we see nothing wrong with importing food and goods from all around the globe, but express objection and erect barriers to buying from our own? Sisters and brothers, something is fundamentally wrong with that approach.

Dr Keith Mitchell believes that Caricom and, by extension, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States have not taken full advantage of intra-regional trade.
(Photo: Houston Chronicle)

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to adopt and adapt to the changes that we have been too timid to embrace. And the irony of this is that had we been more proactive and strategic, the impact of this pandemic would have been significantly less on our health systems and our fragile economies.

The devastating impact of the pandemic on business and economy in the Caribbean and its near-fatal hit on the OECS in particular, has been well enough ventilated. It is important, therefore, to identify the key lessons of that still-unfolding experience and its pointers to the way forward.

The opportunities of the new normal

  1. The reconfiguration of our trading relationships — With the shrinking of international trade, the virtual pause on global transportation, now is the time to accelerate our efforts to address some critical institutional and infrastructural impediments to the integration and strengthening of our economies.
  2. As a Caribbean family, economic integration must be built on some foundational principles: reciprocity of relations and actionenduring inclusive partnerships:
  • Reciprocity of relations and action must come from the business mindset in both the private sector and the State, that partnerships and progress cannot be sustained in a one-sided manner. Economic integration in this historical era cannot be constructed on the extractive and exploitative models of the past in which the development of one party resulted in the underdevelopment of the other. That is why the understanding of ourselves and our region as more than market —as family — is so critical. Our African relatives have a saying “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far; go together”. We would do well to be guided by the wisdom of this maxim in the shaping of our regional integration agenda.
Caricom is not just a common market or trading block, but a family of nations with a shared history. (File photo)
  • We already have the building blocks that can secure this foundation. On the judicial front, we have a functioning Caribbean Court of Justice as the judicial guarantor of fairness in the conduct of states and in the protection of the rights of citizens (no better illustration of which can be found in the ruling of the Shanique Myrie case). Further, in the OECS we have the Commercial Division of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, which expedites all commercial disputes with an Arbitration Center in the British Virgin Islands that has specialised in high-profile disputes. The rule of law is a pillar that upholds business confidence, transparency and fairness.
  • The other dimension that needs to be urgently consolidated is the entire eco-system of policies, regulations and protocols that are the rail tracks on which the engine of trade and business run. We are taking far too long at the wider Caricom level to lay those tracks securely down so that business has a smooth road to travel. As the impact of the pandemic bites deeper into our economy, getting this right is essential. Because the entire world is in deep recession, the restart button can be more easily pressed within our region. As a Caribbean family, let us engage and trade with each other to create a secure buffer against the international headwinds that will inevitably hit us with hurricane force.
  • To help consolidate this business and trade bubble, the mode of transportation is essential to enable the free movement of people, goods, services, capital, and ideas. And we are not talking simply about air or sea transportation but importantly also of FinTech, the channel for the easy exchange and flow of capital and broadband, which itself defines the carrying capacity for the digital flows of services, capital and ideas/innovation. Many are not aware that our Eastern Caribbean Central Bank was the first central bank in the world to launch a digital currency version of its issued currency — the DXCD. We expect that this will be a tremendous boost to the ease of doing business, to widening financial inclusion, and to stimulating trade. This will require collaboration and connections between our respective central banks to create the channels of currency exchange to facilitate this.

Opportunities abound

These challenges carry the seeds of great opportunity and we are particularly pleased with this chance to exchange views and brainstorm on concrete measures and initiatives that we can undertake together to help us all be more resilient, less dependent on externalities and shape a new model of collective prosperity.

In addition to opportunities in air and marine transportation, Dr Keith Mitchell said the region should consider transportation of capital through fintechs.

Friends, let us identify the many windows that the pandemic has opened for us to do things differently, to do things better, using the foundations that already exist to build the architecture of the ‘New Normal’. We know that in the spaces created by the global economic pause we can and must rapidly create a more dynamic, self-reliant Caribbean marketplace. Trinidadian companies already enjoy a place of prominence and are playing a vital role in this: Massy, Blue Waters, Republic Bank are some of the innovators who are already collaborating with local producers and businesses, successfully creating new partnerships.

We know that in the New Normal, the old barriers that existed between State, private sector and community; between employer and employee; between community and nation must be redefined to more collaborative modes of engagement. These modes must involve a whole of society approach.

Caribbean investors expanding to take advantage of the opportunities must do so with a developmental and not an extractive mindset. The ultimate contribution of investment to development is when it has the vision to see the sustainable growth prospects and invests in them while still reaping the benefits of the return on initial investment. This is the concept of partnership that we need to cultivate and incentivise.

One opportunity Dr Keith Mitchell believes the OECS subregion should take advantage of is its central bank digital currency Dcash. (Photo: ECCB)

The OECS Authority is keen to see an explosion of trade between the OECS and the wider region, starting with Trinidad & Tobago. We would like to encourage new partnerships especially between our respective private sectors and for these partnerships to help cultivate a spirit of entrepreneurship in the OECS. In every sector there are unprecedented opportunities. I end by painting for your imagination, a picture of the possible that is constructed from the necessary.

Your new ferry expanding service beyond Trinidad and Tobago to possibly Grenada and St Vincent & the Grenadines and becoming part of a ferry network of Caribbean owned ferries – linking with the French ferries that connect St Lucia with Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe and which in turn link to many ferries of the northern OECS states (BVI, Antigua/Barbuda and Montserrat). Associations of Agricultural Producers of Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia and Dominica in structured partnership with buyers in Trinidad & Tobago. Trinidadian domiciled banks like Republic Bank, leveraging their footprint in the OECS to facilitate this trading, taking non-traditional approaches to financing MSMEs and innovation startups. Active exchanges among our youth in these opportunities so that they begin to shape a future that is seamless in its collaboration and limitless in its aspirations.

My friends, I look forward to the outcomes of this forum and I am prepared to be an advocate of these possibilities.