‘My vision of the future is rooted firmly in the past.’
That comment was made by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies 2009, at the launch of an initiative to digitize documents at UWI.
Among its 289,000 population, Barbados has an estimated 190,000 adults, approximately 66 per cent. I want us to look at a staple of local commerce; insurance companies. Barbados has 17 listed insurance companies. In reviewing the list, I note that four are established insurance brokers, so I refined the list to 13 companies. Let us also assume that one in every two citizens has insurance. It’s a big stretch, but let’s do it anyway – 1:2 ratio. Thus, we have 85,000 persons with insurance of any kind. Let us then assume that across the spread of insurance instruments the spend is an average of $4,000 per person per year. That means the local industry would turn over some $340 million annually. If we then spread that evenly across 13 firms that amounts to 6,538.4 clients per firm with $26.153 million in revenue per annum.
Now imagine if these companies were able to play in a market of 43 million people. Apply the same assumptions – 66 per cent of the market are adults; 50 per cent of those adults buy some form of insurance; the aggregate is $4,000 BDS per annum. We have a market worth $57.26 billion. Even if any of these firms were able to capture one per cent of this market, the revenue is $572 million versus 100 per cent of the Barbados market at $340 million. This market I refer to of 43 million people is the natural expansion of CARICOM/CARIFORUM to include Cuba, Puerto Rico and the French Caribbean territories. 26 countries with 43 million inhabitants spread across 235 square kilometres in a USD $305 billion commercial market.
This simple exercise on scale and risk was the ethos of the British Colonial office’s gentle nudge to British West Indies colonies to form a confederation in the 1940s. The idea had been discussed in the Colonial Office since the later part of the nineteenth century, but it was given new life when Trinidad and Jamaica started to take it seriously at a regional conference held at Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1947. The British were interested in administrative efficiency and centralization. As part of its decision to push modified self-government, the British authorities encouraged the experiment in confederation.
The University of the West Indies, starting with the second campus of the Kingston based University College of the West Indies being opened in St Augustine, is a construct of the Federation that has endured and is potent and irrefutable evidence that we are stronger and more valuable as a collective than the sum of all parts combined. Thus, the reason I recalled the comment from Sir Hilary, who saw at the time great potential for the Caribbean as a federation, despite describing its first aborted attempt aptly in his second edition of the History of Barbados as the ‘feeble federation’. The fundamental point to be addressed is how do we correct the mistakes made in the past as a precursor to our future.
During its brief existence (1958–1962), a number of fundamental issues were debated with a view to strengthening the Federation. These included direct taxation by the Federal Government, central planning for development and the establishment of a regional Customs Union. In addition, the Federation sought to establish federal institutions and supporting structures. It created a federal civil service; established the West Indies Shipping Service (in 1962) to operate two multipurpose ships – the Federal Maple and the Federal Palm – donated to it by the Government of Canada. It had embarked also on negotiations to acquire the subsidiary of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), namely British West Indies Airways (BWIA).
These new regional organizations joined others already in existence, such as the Caribbean Union of Teachers, established in 1935; the Associated Chambers of Commerce, organized in 1917; and the Caribbean Labour Congress, inaugurated in 1945. The Advisory Services of the Federation included Agriculture, Civil Aviation, Education, Fisheries, Forestry, Livestock, Maritime Services, Marketing, Medicine, Postal Services, and Telecommunications.
There was nothing special about the West Indies in the minds of the Colonial Office. A post-war Britain that was no longer making a fortune on the backs of slave labour across its empire was seeking methodologies to consolidate its legislative process and be free of the burden these colonies now represented by establishing each region or country as independent states. To cite examples, the Federation of Greater Malaysia and the Federation of Nigeria were established around the same time.
Federalism is a difficult form of government whose success requires the sacrifice of some autonomy by the constituent units. The difficulties are increased where the units of the federation are markedly dispersed and unequal in their physical setting, wealth and natural resources, population, and cultural evolution. The West Indies Federation suffered from an imbalance of all these factors.
However, so too is the European Union which was born out of an experimental concept that started in 1951 to create a European trade area. The European Coal and Steel Community had six founding members: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome established a common market. It eliminated customs duties in 1968. It put in place standard policies, particularly in trade and agriculture. In 1973, the ECSC added Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. It created its first parliament in 1979.
Today, it is a unified trade and monetary body of 28-member countries. It eliminates all border controls between members and this allows the free flow of goods and people, except for random spot checks for crime and drugs. The EU transmits state-of-the-art technologies to its members. The areas that benefit are environmental protection, research and development, and energy. Any product manufactured in one country can be sold to any other member without tariffs or duties. Taxes are all standardized. Practitioners of most services, such as law, medicine, tourism, banking, and insurance, can operate in all member countries. As a result, the cost of airfares, the internet, and phone calls have fallen dramatically.
The difference is the European Union was not abandoned in a “ten minus one equal naught” sweep of the hand, but it was evolved and continues to evolve to ensure it doggedly pursued the purpose of being relevant in the emerging global economy and ensuring that its constituents were the primary beneficiaries of its own internal consumerism.
The Judicial Branch of the West Indies Federation was represented by the Federal Supreme Court consisting of a Chief Justice and three (later five) other Justices. The Federal Supreme Court, established in 1957, itself was the successor to the West Indian Court of Appeal (established in 1919) and had exclusive original jurisdiction and an appellate jurisdiction over the same territories (Barbados, British Guiana, the Leeward Islands (including the British Virgin Islands), Trinidad & Tobago and the Windward Islands) in addition to Jamaica and its dependencies.
Today, we are still struggling to give the Caribbean Court of Justice any currency, with Barbados, Belize and Guyana being the only countries to amend their laws to have it as their final appellate court despite all the territories in CARICOM approving its establishment. More 10-1=0.
I posit that the kind of support the aborted Federation enjoyed from the international community is still there, but available as a collective not as individual states. The Caribbean has created a minefield of associations and talk shops that do little to move the commerce of the region forward, which is always the building block of any union. We have to focus on what we have in common and leave the emotional issues of free movement of people, judiciary and a common currency for after we have built commercial scale.
The longer we take the approach that we are better off alone, the longer our commercial entities will continue to fight each other to create monopolies and duopolies to dominate local trade in their attempts to survive, but miss the opportunity of looking at the entire region. The longer we will take no interest in R&D and solving common problems ourselves, the longer we will take to develop and diversify our economies and empower our people but continue supporting external contractors. The longer we hold on to total sovereignty and are not brave enough to be regional pioneers, the longer we will cling to local governments for dear fiscal life and, like Barbados and almost every other nation state in the Caribbean, those governments will continue to buckle under the weight of that burden.
The way forward is to see the world as it really is and understand our place in it, and to stop dreaming of what we can be alone and instead be everything that we the islands of the Caribbean can be together. Legislation does not drive the process, commerce does.
George Connolly is CEO of Business Technology Solutions Firm and a former candidate of the Democratic Labour Party.