Timid or tenacious?
Caribbean leaders attending the recently concluded 40th meeting of CDB governors were treated to an unexpected chiding from noted University of the West Indies professor Dr Rose-Marie Antoine.
She criticised the region’s slew of hastily signed bilateral tax information exchange agreements as yet another illustration of our capitulation to the dictates of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Given the reported response of the Belizean prime minister, who preferred to characterise the behaviour as “pragmatic” and in-keeping with the “real world”, can these apparently inconsistent views on the same exercise of state sovereignty be reconciled?
Does the professor lay bare the acute paucity of collective thought and spirit in this area so vital to the region’s survival such that individual governments were left to fend for themselves in the face of organised coercion by the “onshore” OECD jurisdictions – now acting in consort with the G20?
Or is the behaviour an expected response to the lack of institutional support from any of the region’s development agencies, including the CDB, in the design and execution of appropriate joint (or several) action by regional offshore centres to the continuing danger that defines the recently enunciated remedies by the G20 to the global financial crisis?
Could more have been asked of a region wrestling with the fallout from the worst financial crisis in a generation; increased competition from new intra and extra regional entrants to the lucrative offshore market and the lingering consequences of the 1998 OECD Harmful Tax Competition Report? What of the pressure from their resident international business clientele for immediate action given the increasing risk to their own viability from threatened counter-measures for failure to act?
Under the circumstances, was the regional response timid or tenacious?
Before one can responsibly proffer an answer it is perhaps useful to make the point that unlike any other region which is involved in “offshore business” the Caribbean lacks any one institutional partner that can provide the intellectual, theoretical and practical solutions to the assaults on its credibility as a legitimate global financial intermediary. This, despite the fact that for Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts & Nevis and St Lucia receipts from the offshore sector are second only to tourism.
While the region has identified political “champions” for tourism, services, agriculture, climate change, defence and security, none can yet be identified for the offshore sector. Instead, national leaders are left to act in their own defence which can readily be dismissed as classic self-interest even where the articulation is intellectually sound and supported by the obvious.
Within academia, besides ad hoc research projects designed to calculate the sector’s contribution to traditional economic indices like GDP, FDI and employment no regional educational body has yet made a significant commitment in resources (capital or human) to developing and defending the region’s interest in this industry.
The regional labour movement – internationally acclaimed for their defence of workers’ rights and responsibilities – seems as yet untroubled by the threats to the job security of their comrades that have found employment in the sector – whether directly or indirectly. Does the fact that such employment falls outside the movement’s usual stomping ground that leaves these workers without access to their scholarly thought and stout defence?
Maybe we have allowed our own view of “collective security” to be held hostage by the limited priorities of our Western benefactors whose assistance seems limitless in the areas of drug interdiction, gun trafficking, maritime security, anti-terrorism and the like.
Perhaps, we should look to the “who” that is involved in international business and not the source of the investment that flows into and through the region. Equally we should perhaps pay more concerned with the economic growth that these investments (properly applied and regulated) promote. If we did, we might find the energy and resolve to consistently counter some of the false and negative stereotypes that attend any “First World” discussion of the region’s involvement in this lucrative sector.
Moreover, because the Caribbean basin is viewed internationally as a single geo-political space, irresponsible, short-sighted actions by one state have been shown to have repercussions for the entire region. As such our practice of “collective security” even in the competitive area of “offshore” should extend to positive peer pressure, without unduly fettering state initiative in attracting investment, thereby encouraging action which is mindful that our sustainable existence is inextricably interlinked. Just as we are concerned to be pragmatic in taking action to institutionalise internationally-imposed standards we should exhibit this same level of “matter-of-factness” in protecting our region’s sector from policies that originate within.
The answer to the question posed may lie in the old malaise that afflicts regional thought, where a premium is placed on what is said about us rather than what about ourselves we know to be true.
Surely we can recall our inherent morality and ethics born of a deep and abiding sense of what is right, wrong, just and fair? Surely what it means for our small, open economies surviving and prospering against all statistical odds is still fresh in our collective memory?
Given all the facts and circumstances, it seems reasonable to say that in their response to threatened actions by the G20, Caribbean leaders demonstrated a consistent persistence in their belief in their right to exist as legitimate purveyors of international business and financial services. Albeit with little regional institutional support or direction and a still largely insular community of offshore financial centres lacking the confidence in their own integrity and value as a necessary intermediaries in global trade and commerce.