Many things are unique in the Caribbean; not the development challenges that are common to the world, especially the cluster of countries which share the middle-income and high human development categories. Specificities with regard to the categories or continental States of the Americas pertain mostly to the SIDS reality and the Caribbean economic and socio-political context.
The Caribbean shares with the region and the global context a stagnating and mediocre growth, anchored in low productivity in all sectors except tourism, which brings with it a sort of seasonal volatility. Caribbean Governments have a particularly restricted fiscal space, owing to the combination of low revenue (never above 30 per cent of GDP) and a debt that is painful to manage, often above 100 per cent of GDP – almost a macroeconomic picture of the ‘80s. The debt is particularly painful to manage because the welfare societies have grown accustomed to a sensibly good public education system, reasonable public healthcare and decent social security systems. Some Caribbean societies have pension coverage of old folks above 70 per cent, few below 50 per cent, which are mid-size European range figures.
The decline in the returns from education is explained by the dissociation between the educational supply (the training offer) and the demands of the labour market (the requirements of the employers). The gender gap figures in the Caribbean are above the average of the Americas. The Caribbean makes a fair contribution to Latin America and the Caribbean being the most violent region in the world. Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, The Bahamas, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and others show negative figures, with better trends lately in the two OECS States. Societies are politically polarised – electoral events showcase acrimonious relationships between winners and losers, incumbents and hopefuls, ruling and opposition parties. Elections, however, deliver legitimate results.
Together with these similarities, seven peculiarities are striking. The Caribbean is at the frontline of climate damage and loss but doesn’t have the means to be at the helm of climate action. International Climate Finance has bypassed the Caribbean and ignores its needs. Governance is reasonably effective and trusted, corruption is uneven – from cesspools that will remain unnamed to success stories like Barbados or the considerable progress of Jamaica. The parliamentary system is, by and large, representative and freedoms are well established. Justice is generally served – albeit with delays. Crime on the rise coexists paradoxically with the rule of law.
The Caribbean is experiencing firsthand the shocks of the Venezuelan crisis, for which it has been a voice for dialogue. It has managed in the past waves of Haitian emigration. The poorest in many Caribbean countries are poor migrants from other islands, especially Haiti, but also Dominica and the Dominican Republic. The lack of data on poverty makes analysis difficult and obsolete. Less progress and religious conservative opposition to tolerance in lifestyles and preferences generate additional risks in the Caribbean.
Very costly energy dependency has been aggravated by the disappearance of PetroCaribe and the crisis of Pedevesa refineries. There is yet little development of renewables. The small scale of markets, old-time tariffs and lack of progress in Caribbean economic integration restrict competition and increase the prices of most goods and services. Much of the profit generated on the islands is repatriated or exported, not taxed and not reinvested.
Against this backdrop, key strands of work for the development community include assisting Caribbean Governments to become Blue Economy Strategists so that they can boldly plan for economic diversification, encompassing Blue tourism, biotech, waste and water management, the sustainable exploitation of oceanic resources, conducive to a job-rich growth pathway. We need to help Caribbean countries mobilise Climate Finance – on a scale not seen to date. The Caribbean has the capacity to address its vital climate threats by building resilience and building back better – the international community can assist regional bodies like CDEMA who are leading the way with the Governments of the Region. The Caribbean has finally the opportunity to become a champion of effective governance, better tolerance and gender equality.
Magdy Martinez-Soliman is the resident representative for the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Sub-regional Office for Barbados and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).