Industries in developed countries normally mature until they are internationally competitive. When they are ready to expand beyond their national borders, they ask their Governments to negotiate trade agreements to legally exploit the less developed markets of other nations.
Barbados was consistently given the same strategic economic advice from the Inter-American Development Bank and others since at least 1989 (30 years ago). It was for the Government to improve the management of public services, and to facilitate the international competitiveness of the private sector.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a trade agreement between the USA, Canada and Mexico. In 2001, it was being expanded to include Central and South America and the Caribbean. This expanded agreement was called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
In March 2002, the Ministry of Economic Development invited private sector leaders who were already internationally competitive to participate in a Strategic Planning Working Group. We were to help prepare Barbados’ service industries to successfully compete in an FTAA market. It is critically important to understand that trade agreements are negotiated to give a country’s industries a competitive trade advantage.
My assigned responsibility was to develop an action plan to prepare the professional services sector to be internationally competitive. I chaired a committee comprising leaders of 25 professional associations in Barbados. These included: accountants, lawyers, financial advisors, doctors, podiatrists, therapists, dentists, nurses, veterinarians, pharmacists, engineers, architects, surveyors, estate agents, valuers, planners, journalists, musicians, composers and publishers, shippers, human resource practitioners, and office professionals.
The Committee tried to offer services in the USA, Canada and Mexico, to identify the barriers that our professionals would likely face. Since each state of the US and each province of Canada had different regulations, we tried to offer our services in the US states of New York and California, and in the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Vancouver.
We collectively donated approximately $0.5M of our time and prepared a comprehensive report. That report contained detailed strategies and actions that individuals and associations should pursue to allow Barbadian businesses to become internationally competitive. It also included the critical actions that the Government needed to complete to facilitate economic growth in the services sector.
The plan worked exactly as designed for those who chose to implement it. I led from the front by becoming the first person to qualify as a Chartered Structural Engineer in 15 years in Barbados. I then trained others to successfully achieve the same international qualification.
Our firm became the first service company in the Caribbean to attain the ISO 9001 quality management standard and won the BIDC’s Exceptional Quality award. I subsequently worked on projects worth over $500,000,000 over the next five years and earned foreign currency in ten Caribbean countries.
The plan has been continuously improved to the point where it is difficult to lose even if one tried. For several years, over 80 per cent of my earnings were in foreign currency. It was principally due to that plan that I was the 2014 winner of the National Innovation Competition, and president of Walbrent College.
Later in 2002, the FTAA negotiations started to break down, due mainly to the US’ unwillingness to stop subsiding their agricultural industry. The election of several anti-US leaders in Central and South America would later make negotiations challenging.
With the FTAA off the ‘front burner’, the Government prioritised the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), which is a trade agreement between developing markets in the Caribbean. However, for whatever reason, neither the BLP nor DLP administrations would implement the critical actions to facilitate the economic growth of the sector.
In September 2002, European businesses wanted to exploit developing Caribbean markets. Caribbean countries were encouraged to participate in the Economic Partnership Agreement. Knowing our politicians, the Europeans dangled ‘Aid for Trade’ hookworms to guarantee our participation.
Unfortunately for us, their eyes opened wide – too wide to see the concealed hooks. With indebted economies, they could not resist the worms, and they locked our unprepared children into the End Game. It is, in my opinion, the worst trade agreement since our fore parents were sold for trinkets over one century ago. To be continued next week.
Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer and President of Solutions Barbados. He can be reached at [email protected]