Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited excerpt from a speech delivery by Julie J Chung — principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs — at the Trinidad and Tobago American Chamber of Commerce Annual General Meeting on June 10, 2020.
I want to thank you for the kind invitation to address your annual meeting. I would have preferred to be with you all in person, but the realities of COVID-19 made that impossible. I look forward to a time when I can visit.
I met AMCHAM’s Chief Executive Officer Nirad Tewarie back in February at the Atlanta meeting of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America and the Caribbean. That was the genesis of this invitation for me to speak with you today.
I would like to focus on our Growth in the Americas initiative and how it can work for Trinidad and Tobago.
Growth in the Americas is part of the US Government’s positive economic agenda for the hemisphere. It seeks to apply the coordinated expertise of the entire US Government to catalyse private sector investment in energy and infrastructure.
Growth in the Americas started in 2018 with a focus on increasing private investment in energy infrastructure, but now, in its expanded form, it encompasses all types of infrastructure, including airports, ports, roads, and telecom networks, among others.
The urgent need to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and spur post-COVID economic recovery make the impulse behind Growth in the Americas all the more relevant. Restoring jobs and growth require creating the enabling conditions to attract private sector investment. That is after all where the most innovation, growth, and job opportunities come from.
You don’t need me to tell you the best way to attract private sector investment. But I would boil it down to three things: transparency, stability, and predictability.
Transparency means bidding, tendering, contracting, and related procurement processes that are open for the public to see. We support governments regionwide passing and implementing procurement legislation to improve transparency.
Predictability means standing by the agreements made by your predecessors and having faith that your successors will honour yours. It also means consulting with business leaders like AMCHAM before passing legislation and regulations that will impact businesses.
“You don’t need me to tell you the best way to attract private sector investment. But I would boil it down to three things: transparency, stability, and predictability. “— Julie J Chung, principal deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Stability doesn’t just mean economic stability, but bureaucratic stability too. For example, the rules should be the same for everyone to obtain necessary permits, and the process should take the same amount of time for everyone.
Governments in the region are aware of the public hunger for quality public infrastructure and services procured in a transparent, efficient, and timely way, and are taking steps to meet these demands.
For example, I would note the efforts by the Eastern Caribbean states to work with an American company in Ohio to deploy software tools to buy medical supplies for COVID response in a quick but transparent way that tracks expenditures and provides market leverage and logistical coordination. That procurement software serves immediate needs but will also help future hurricane response and ordinary government purchases.
But much more needs to be done to attract skittish investors to Trinidad and Tobago, and to the Caribbean. How often have we seen issues in the region such as: projects that do not survive a change in administration; opaque tendering processes; arbitrary taxation, and excessive Customs delays?
Growth in the Americas seeks to respond to these issues by drawing on the expertise of a broad arc of our agencies.
In Panama, for example, the United States Treasury Department experts helped a public utility modernise its accounting, resulting in a two-notch improvement in its bond rating that will save Panama at least US$40 million in debt service costs and attract higher-quality investment.
It is important to point out that the Growth in the Americas initiative encompasses all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Sharing best practices through technical exchanges is one of our best tools under the initiative for high-income countries such as T&T. Specific topics have included government procurement, water management, and spectrum auctions.
I think many of you are aware that the new International Development Finance Corporation, or DFC for short, which took over from the old OPIC, cannot provide project financing in high-income countries. That DFC limit comes from Congress.
But the US Export-Import Bank is available for loan guarantees and other project financing support.
I would encourage AmCham T&T members to reach out to Matt Ciesielski, the economic officer at our embassy, who also sits on your board of directors, to discuss specific obstacles to investment to start the conversation on what Growth in the Americas-related activities might make the most sense in your country.
I would also note that Growth in the Americas works alongside a number of other initiatives we have developed to deepen our engagement with your region. The US-Caribbean 2020 strategy, for example, covers a broader arc of issues — security, health, energy, education, prosperity, and diplomacy. And, of course, there are longer-standing programmes that remain vital such as the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, ten years running now with over US$600 million in assistance toward reducing crime and trafficking in the Caribbean.
As I am sure you know, T&T is the biggest beneficiary of the separate Caribbean Basin Initiative’s trade preferences; more than US$5 billion of your products have entered the United States duty-free since 2013 under this programme.