By Pamela Coke-HamiltonPamela Coke Hamilton

My good friend and colleague David Jessop, wrote in his recent column titled ‘Wanted: An aggressive regional private sector voice’, on an issue which has been at the forefront of recent deliberations within CARICOM and which both the Secretary General of CARICOM, Ambassador Irwin Larocque as well as the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, the Hon Kamla Persad Bissessar have indicated are critical to driving the regional integration process.  The issue of a strong, credible, vocal private sector voice at the regional level.

While it is conceded that there currently exists a lacuna in the regional space, of such a private sector entity, I believe that it is a colossal leap to suggest that the “silence” is “an indicator that regional economic integration and a single direction of economic travel may no longer be achievable.” I would like to suggest rather that the silence has not been as complete as assumed and that the regional leaders, both within the public and private sectors, are moving expeditiously towards ensuring that the structural gaps affecting effective private sector advocacy at the regional level are addressed and corrective action implemented.  Additionally while regionally the private sector has not been very active as a cohesive unit, I dare say that in addition to Martinique and Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic mentioned in the referenced article, the Jamaican and Trinidad and Tobago private sector groups through the PSOJ and TTMA among others, at a national level are quite active and influential, driving policies that are then raised, through their Ministers at COTED and the other organs of CARICOM/CARIFORUM.

Moreover, the idea of Barbados’ former Prime Minister Owen Arthur, of a vibrant Caribbean Business Council (CBC) is in fact very much alive and has re-emerged with much greater force within the last six months with  a mandate to Caribbean Export Development Agency, emanating from the last COTED to undertake an analysis of the current situation, initiate wide ranging consultations on the factors that affected implementation of the CBC, and submit a proposal and recommendations to the COTED on the way forward.

In March 2013, at its inaugural Caribbean Exporter’s Colloquium, Caribbean Export also convened the first meeting of an informal regional Private Sector Advisory Group (PSAG) specifically to seek direct engagement with and guidance from major private sector players in the region on the issues affecting private sector development and export competitiveness for the region.  The group consists of representatives from countries spanning from the Dominican Republic in the north to Guyana in the south and has both large and small firms ranging from the Grace Kennedys, Angosturas and Banks Holdings to the Barons Foods and the BrainStreet Group.  Admittedly for many of the representatives, particularly the younger generation (I’m not sure persons my age are deserving of such a soubriquet, but that’s for another article) it was the first opportunity to actually engage with their regional counterparts outside a competitive boardroom/company setting and to bring their minds together to address the larger regional issues.

Since that time, this group has participated in several consultations and members have made themselves available continuously to provide input and guidance on the re-emergence of a vibrant regional private sector voice.  Some, such as Jeffrey Hall of Jamaica Producers, will also be taking part in the upcoming ACP validation workshop for Private Sector development in Brussels in the next few weeks.  This re-engagement has underscored the view that there is commitment and passion on the part of the regional private sector, individually and collectively, to impact the Caribbean landscape for change.  What is needed is the institutional structure to ensure coherent, sustainable engagement and rebuilding of trust.

In that vein, pursuant to the mandate of the Ministers of COTED, Caribbean Export, through the Regional Private Sector Development Program (RPSDP) of the 10th EDF, funded by the European Union undertook to drive the process through the establishment of a consultancy with the following agreed terms of reference, approved by the CARICOM Secretariat.

Excerpts as follows:

The importance of the private sector’s role in regional development has long since been recognized and a regional private sector advocacy organisation is critical to effective dialogue with the public sector.

The question we are now faced with, given the challenges of the CBC, among other similar entities, is how do we move forward and what is the body to be entrusted with this role.

This consultancy seeks to examine the state of Private/Public Sector dialogue in the CARIFORUM region with a view to drafting a roadmap for the best way forward. This will include a careful examination of the CBC, to determine whether it can be re-engineered to overcome the challenges being faced and become an effective body for regional private sector advocacy and engaging the public sector in dialogue.”

The expert selected to undertake these critical consultations and assessment and create a roadmap for  a revitalized private sector lobby, was the esteemed James Moss Solomon, himself a former President of CAIC, a founding member of the CBC and of course a stalwart of the regional private sector space.  I can categorically state, without fear of contradiction, that there is probably no other person better placed to undertake the honest uncompromising assessment that is required, initiate the dialogue across the region, restore trust and provide the required roadmap needed for the reestablishment of an energetic, engaged body capable of meeting the demands for private sector advocacy at all levels.  There is no doubt that he fully understands the history, the reasons for the demise and the nuances that have led to the current state of play.

Mr Moss Solomon is currently half way through the consultation phase and his initial findings have been revealing and encouraging.  I will not preempt his findings however I am confident that both the will and the commitment exist and that the regional private sector will reassume its space on the regional and international landscape in a more powerful way than existed previously.

Caribbean Export remains committed to supporting this reemergence and to ensuring that the process is a coherent one leading to long term sustainable solutions for private sector advocacy and to working with all parties in a constructive manner to achieve the strengthening of this critical platform for regional development.