Stronger together:CARICOM and the Commonwealth
Guyana Chronicle
July 3, 2002

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"This week, the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community meets for the 23rd time, in Georgetown, Guyana. I feel it is a particularly important meeting, which could make a real difference to the lives of people living in the Caribbean Community. Many of the issues under discussion are familiar to me because they are the same issues the Commonwealth deals with on a daily basis.

Under the Chairmanship of His Excellency Bharrat Jagdeo, President of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, heads will be looking at three broad areas: the State of the Community, The Community in the International Arena and the Community at Thirty. I will be having a dialogue with CARICOM leaders on issues of common concern and will be following with interest the outcome of their discussions. I will also be interested to see the results of the Civil Society Conference on the theme, Forward Together taking place in Liliendaal, East Coast Demerera, before the Heads meet.

The Commonwealth would not be what it is without the enormous input over the decades from civil society, and I know CARICOM is also enriched by the ideas and programmes of non-government players.

Progress on the implementation of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy is of course high on the agenda, as is Security and Crime, Preparations for International Negotiations and Conferences, and Border Relations. Such serious subjects I am pleased to see will be leavened with preparations for the Cricket World Cup tournaments in 2003 and 2007 (though I must be careful what I say, because what is more serious than cricket?)

The leaders of CARICOM are right of course to be giving very close attention to how member countries can survive and prosper in the highly competitive world economy. Attracting adequate investment into CARICOM is an ongoing challenge given the perceived higher costs and risk of investing in small states. But if the people of the Caribbean are to be convinced of the benefits of globalisation, they will need to see a larger share of its fruits.

Of course it is very hard for small states to keep their spirits up when reverses in their fortunes can occur so quickly, as happened when the terrorist outrages of September 11 resulted in a sudden drop in vital tourism in the Caribbean. If there is an upside to such terrible events, they drive home the benefits of countries pulling together, which they do both in the Commonwealth and CARICOM, to solve shared problems.

I know that CARICOM is working tremendously hard to unify as far as possible its members' laws and ways of doing business. Freeing up the movement of people within CARICOM, for example, is no easy task when the criminal fraternity are so quick to take advantage. Fighting the scourge of drugs is also a great challenge when alternative economic activities are lost in an economic downturn.

Though trade is key to progress in so many fields, CARICOM reaches beyond economics. It is also about that vital social side of the equation: a chance for leaders to talk informally and frankly about weighty issues such as education, youth unemployment and HIV/Aids. All of these are the focus of Commonwealth programmes of assistance in numerous countries both within and beyond CARICOM. What we learn at CARICOM I hope to apply to my dealings with Commonwealth countries outside the Caribbean.

Out of 54 Commonwealth member countries, 12 are Caribbean, so that is one reason why the CARICOM summit is a major event for us.

Another is that at our Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Coolum, Australia, this year, small states issues were one of the highest priorities. For the very first time, the Retreat for heads of government included a session dedicated to small states issues, and discussions are under way to rearrange the Commonwealth Small States Summit originally contemplated for this year. This is all good news for small states in the Caribbean.

Meanwhile Caribbean heads of government and ministers have been playing their part in the Commonwealth's search for solutions: for example at CHOGM; on the Commonwealth Committee on Terrorism; and on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, CMAG, the watchdog body which monitors adherence to democracy, human rights and the rule of law and other values enshrined in the Harare Declaration.

As CARICOM members know only too well, small states are losing traditional incentives, like trade preferences into the EU, and will be further marginalised unless new mechanisms are found to level the playing field. That's what the 'Lowering the Threshold' project seeks to do.

We have now discussed the project with international financial institutions, regional development banks and donor countries, and feedback so far has been positive. With more vocal political support from Caribbean countries, who stand to benefit from the initiative, we should be able to move to implement it soon.

I believe in being vocal about inequities in the world trading system, and whenever the wealthier countries are gathered to make important decisions, whether at the WTO or G8, I make sure the Commonwealth has clearly stated the developing world's perspective. It is also important to immediately flag up the damage done to poorer countries when protectionism rears its head: the recent U.S. Farms Subsidies Bill is cause for alarm among Caribbean sugar producers, for example.

The Commonwealth believes free trade must be a two-way street, and that the deal rich countries offer of "We subsidise, you liberalise" is not a fair one. We will continue to stand up for proper representation of small states at WTO and other powerful fora.

Equally, we do all we can to help build capacity to capitalise on any opportunities that arise from having a bigger say. We already have a Commonwealth Trade Advisor to facilitate this in Geneva, where the WTO meets.

Another Commonwealth initiative to assist with trade is the 'hub and spokes proposal' jointly with La Francophonie, the association of French-speaking countries. We hope this will be funded by the EU so that a trade policy advisor (the 'hub') can be based at CARICOM Headquarters with advisors out in the field in various Caribbean countries (the 'spokes').

I am also here to continue the dialogue on tax competition. As you know, most Caribbean jurisdictions have signed up to the OECD Tax Competition initiative. The Commonwealth has vigorously fought for a level playing field between OECD and non-OECD members.

We have also helped to ensure that countries have sufficient capacity to meet the commitments they sign up to. We continue to have a mandate in this area to facilitate dialogue. We convened a meeting in April in St Lucia, which focussed on assessing technical assistance requirements.

Terrorism is another key issue, the effects of which have been severely felt by this region in falling numbers of visitors. We are implementing the Commonwealth Action Plan on Terrorism endorsed by Heads of Government at CHOGM and CARICOM countries' assistance is very valuable. The Commonwealth is adding value by providing model legislation and implementation kits to see that UN Resolution 1373 is enacted by our membership.

While I am here I will also be updating CARICOM leaders on the progress of our new Expert Group on Development and Democracy, and explaining what the Commonwealth Youth for the Future Initiative has in store for their younger citizens. The Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) is putting fresh emphasis on poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods among young people; and the implementation of programmes on awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS. The latter is paramount in a region where the infection rate is sadly rising fast, with a potentially devastating effect on human resources, both in the public and private sectors.

On a happier note, the Caribbean has a finer track record than many regions of women in politics. The Commonwealth will continue to collaborate with its members here to make it a habit that the gender factor (male and female) is integrated into all government decisions right up to devising the national budget.

Making progress in all these areas can only be secured through collective willpower and compromise. The generous hospitality offered to Caribbean leaders by the Government and people of Guyana provides the perfect conditions in which to increase understanding and cooperation and to improve the prospects of the Caribbean Community.

I believe the good relationship between the Commonwealth and CARICOM will continue to deepen and we must keep looking out for new opportunities to work together.

The Commonwealth is here to help, as Caribbean countries pursue their objective of a single market and greater prosperity for their peoples."