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Owen Arthur: ‘Toward a More Perfect Union’

Education 05 Aug, 2020 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

The passing of Owen Arthur at merely seventy years of age came as a surprise to many especially as he was just recently in Guyana observing and commenting on the election as part of the CARICOM observer mission and was also heavily involved in projects related to Barbados, the UWI, and the region. The former youngest Prime Minister of Barbados served for fourteen years in that capacity.

As one would expect, tributes have poured in from far and wide hailing him as “one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century Caribbean”, “quintessential regionalist and a leader in development economics … humanist with a deep commitment to social justice” - to quote Sir Hilary Beckles, Chancellor, UWI.

Sir George Alleyne, Chancellor Emeritus (The UWI), among other points, noted Arthur’s “forthrightness and lack of can’t” and that Barbadian’s “can reflect with pride what he did at home but also his standing in global and regional affairs.” Sir Alleyne noted that Arthur argued persistently that the common vulnerability and volatility of small states such as Barbados merited particular attention. He argued for special treatment of such states in the face of the “pervasive influence worldwide of the legitimizing ideology of liberalization”.

This column focuses on but one of the central contributions of this titan of the Caribbean project - regional integration.

Despite the cultural divisions and political fragmentation, the diversity that characterizes the Caribbean region, there is unity in the common historical experiences that are shared by all the societies that make the Caribbean a “socio-cultural area”. Students of Caribbean societies, such as Sidney Mintz, Stuart Hall and Maureen Warner-Lewis, note the Afro-creole culture deriving from the extent to which some six million Africans who arrived here, created a new cultural space in which African components of religion, language, and music, among others, were adapted along with elements of Amerindian, European, and Asian cultures into a new culture that was created in the Caribbean. In the historical process of creolization, it was largely the Africans and their descendants who adapted and combined cultural elements from various origins to create what is most widely shared and distinctively Caribbean in religion, music, and cuisine. Certainly, African cultural elements are widespread in the Caribbean and they are extensively shared by people who are not of African descent.

As Nigel Bolland in his noted text, The Birth of Caribbean Civilization points out, there has been an increase in the number and variety or regional organizations that link the fragmented parts of the Caribbean such as the Caribbean Studies Association, the Caribbean Council of Churches, the Association of Caribbean states, and so on.

The most important pan-African organization is CARICOM, a group of fifteen countries consisting of the former British colonies in addition to Haiti and Suriname.

Owen Arthur gave the keynote address at UCCI’s 2012 5050 Academic Conference. He laid out what he regarded as the logic of integration, what was keeping the region back from achieving the full benefits of integration beyond functional cooperation, and the steps that needed to be taken immediately to rectify this situation.


The Logic of integration

Arthur in his 2012 Academic Conference presentation at UCCI said,“It would be unrealistic for us to expect to be favoured by a level playing field in the new global economy. Rather, even in areas where we have competitive advantages, such as the operation of our international financial centres, we can and should expect constant turbulence, as developed countries seek to control and monopolize the most lucrative areas of activity in the global economy. This merely heightens the need for us to build new cooperative mechanisms by which to collectively defend our interests.

But as we grapple with the challenge of building competitive economies there is a set of challenges which is already on the horizon, which will grow in intensity and which will significantly alter the pre-existing concepts of regional integration and the forms it takes. These constitute ‘existential threats.”

Arthur explained that “The difficulties facing the region are no longer simply about competing effectively in a globalizing economy. Rather they are ‘existential threats’ which bring into question the fundamental viability of the Caribbean society itself. Climate change, transnational crime, the decline of regional industries, food security, governance challenges, international diplomacy, and so on, are problems which can only be addressed by coordinated regional responses. Moreover, these problems are becoming increasingly acute in the immediate present; failure to act, immediately, decisively, and coherently at the regional level could quite conceivably herald the effective decline of Caribbean society as a ‘perfect storm’ of problems gather on the horizon.”

He insisted that the region has paid and will continue to pay a savage price for insular nationalism. “In almost every instance, the cost of governance and the provision of services to meet the needs of societies are spiraling dangerously out of the reach of most governments. The provision of common services, and the application of programmes of functional cooperation wherever practicable, are therefore likely to be part of the solution to the fiscal problem which has taken root all across the region.”


What must be done to create ‘a more perfect union in our time’

It was his belief that every facet of the integration movement needed to be strengthened to move to a “more perfect union”. He argued for the breakdown of insularity through a “genuine Caribbean media” – a cost-efficient regional communication arrangement at all levels that exposed Caribbean citizens to developments in the Caribbean, not only in the global society. This, he thought, would also work to reduce and eliminate xenophobic and other tendencies while assisting in the development of a common identity.


Finding common ground on important matters and expansion of functional cooperation mechanisms

He called for the finding of common ground on important matters as the basis from which to build and expand. He also thought that the agreement and implementation of a broader and dynamic programme of functional co-operation will lead to a wider and more balanced distribution of the gains from integration and would help to ensure that CARICOM does not evolve as a permanent coalition of unequals.


Implement CSME

Arthur was a main architect in the creation of the CSME which should have been in place by 2015. He believed that its implementation would “have a transformational effect on the regional society and is worthy of being pursued. But, with the best will in the world, immediate gains from it will be small and unevenly distributed”.

For Arthur, the “creation of the Single Market is only of strategic significance in so far as its instruments for liberalization can help to create a platform for the stimulation of new activities, enterprises, and forms of production integration that can especially be made possible by the free flow of capital, the unrestricted enjoyment of rights of establishment, and the creation of a regional labour market”. He was convinced that “Implementing the regimes contemplated as part of the Single Economy should take Caribbean economies to a higher plateau of performance and development”. He did not believe that the harmonization or co-ordination regimes which are sorely needed in the Caribbean, “involve any compromise of sovereignty, and would greatly facilitate the ease, and reduce the cost of doing business in the region”.


Regional regimes and pooled sovereignty

Arthur understood that “the creation of a Single Economy would entail putting in place regional regimes, such as a Regional Financial Services Agreement and a Regional Investment Code”. He explained that the creation of “supranational institutional arrangements (such as a regional commission) and to vest them with real executive authority must be made to happen for the Caribbean to work successfully”. The Community must become a Community of pooled sovereignty, he envisioned.

For Arthur, a permanent agenda of regional integration must be the constant “building of strategic new alliances to deal with such existential threats and support the implementation of the Global Development Agenda for Small States, work with likeminded countries to get a fair deal in the WTO, strategic alliances to support the growth and development of the Caribbean as a major centre for the performance of financial services, and the formation of strategic alliances with Foundations and Institutions, both Public and Private, to promote the most rapid diffusion and application of new Information Technology as the developmental tool which is likely to make the decisive difference”.


Goal of full labour mobility

Finally, the former Prime Minister insisted that “successful integration in the Caribbean requires that the region goes as fast as possible and as far as practicable to give effect to the provisions of Article 45 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramus – the goal of full labour mobility. Nothing has more threatened to derail the regional integration movement than conflict and controversy over the extent and effect of such limited labour mobility as has taken place”.

He explained that ‘the main movers in CARICOM in the past decade have been non-CARICOM nationals, who have benefitted disproportionately from the employment opportunities which our region has generated. Let us pause for a moment to reflect on what would now be the region’s circumstances if even only half of those opportunities had been extended to Caribbean nationals.

“In the final analysis, to move towards a more perfect union, we must give effect to the reality that full labour mobility is our best option for promoting and attaining regional development. It will enable us to contemplate the building of competitive enterprise by assuring them access to the full range of skills available to the region. It will enable us to address at source potential problems relating to the fair distribution of the gains from integration.

“It should make the development of education, health care facilities and affordable housing growth areas for most Caribbean societies. But above all, it will bring a uniquely Caribbean flavor to the development of the integration movement by resting the success on the movement on the availability and use of the most abundant and versatile resource available to the region – our people”.


All in the same boat

Arthur would remind us that we are all together ‘in the same boat, sailing on the same uncertain sea, citizenship and race unimportant, feeble little labels compared to the message that my spirit brings to me: that of the position and predicament which history has imposed upon us. It is no accident that the sea which separates your lands makes no difference to the rhythm of your body.” This quote he took from the now famous 1722 Friar Tuck’s Rhythm of History.

His passing should move the leaders of CARICOM countries to make much more of the integration movement than is currently the case.

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