Micro, small and medium-sized businesses are the lifeblood of the Caribbean and regional governments ought to recognize this and grant favored status to these enterprises while throwing out the conventional rule books on trade.
This is the suggestion of former Jamaica prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller when she delivered this week what must have been music to the ears of members of the Barbados Small Business Association, and told them that it is time regional governments see through the myth of international fair trade.
“There was never, nor will there ever be, a level playing field,” she declared Tuesday at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination while delivering the Eighth Leo Leacock Memorial Lecture.
A 2015 SBA-commissioned study found that small entrepreneurs who dot this island together account for an estimated 96 per cent of formal firms; 61 per cent of private sector jobs; and 48 per cent of total jobs.
Long before those Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies findings, the SBA has been hankering for these business operators to get a better deal as they tend to be squeezed out, or overlooked for the big companies in awards of trade contracts.
Speaking to an audience that included Commerce Minister Donville Inniss, Simpson-Miller pointed to the favoured treatment that enabled the business of small Caribbean countries to grow and sustain nations, and how removal of special considerations had left the region in more challenging economic situations.
“It was preferential treatment which allowed sugar and bananas to be two dominant export industries in the Caribbean for centuries. The removal of these special treatments, under the guise of free trade and levelling the economic playing field, contributed to the collapse of these industries all over the Caribbean.”
She pointed out that for 25 years, “Caribbean economies joined in this ‘level playing field’ argument, almost as if to dismiss the reality that the world is not level; neither does it comprise equal players”.
Contending that the marginalized businesses will never advance without preferential consideration, she said, “Caribbean governments should therefore not shy away from providing special and differential treatment to sectors deemed important for the growth and development of societies.
“Clearly, the regional micro, small and medium enterprises sector is deserving of such consideration”.
The former Jamaican leader touched on a matter dear to the heart of the SBA when she said, “a good starting point could be that special consideration is given to MSMEs in the area of the procurement of goods and services for the public sector”.
SBA has been pressing Government, as the largest buyer of goods and services, to honour its promise of over nine years to give small business some 40 per cent of its procurement trading pie.
Another speaker at Tuesday’s function which fell in the middle of Small Business Week was Sagicor Vice-President for Risk Management, Orwyn Sandiford, who advised, “creating a new paradigm for SMEs is not a choice but an absolute requirement for their existence”.
Stressing the importance of these enterprises, he said, “locally they account for almost 47 per cent of national development, acting as a key factor in the areas of employment generation, production, contribution to exports and equitable distribution of income”.
But he observed, “despite the significant impact that SMEs are making, there are still a number of constraints hampering the growth of the sector with limited access to capital, limited market share and little control over the market and price.
“This makes it critical that the SBA continue to lobby policy-makers to create a new legislative framework conducive to the sector’s success.”
The Association’s CEO, Lynette Holder, lauded the Ministry of Small Business for recently producing a “Small Business Development Policy that we had been advocating that was needed within our society”.
Noting that the policy deals with programmes that enable growth in the sector, she said, “we therefore call on our ministry to work with all stakeholders to ensure that we administer this programme and that we implement the provisions of this policy”.
Also delivering remarks was First Citizens Bank CEO Carole Elleuthere-JnMarie who said, “SMEs are an important growth engine and vital fuel for our small economy with limited room for mega organisations.
“Our SMEs provide a sound foundation for developing new ideas, creating opportunities, inspiring growth and success.”