Who Will Mobilize Caribbean Public Opinion?

PM Portia Simpson Miller in Brooklyn on April 25, 2012. (Sharon Bennett image)
By David Jessop

News Americas, LONDON, England, Weds. Oct. 3, 2012: One year ago, Europe made clear that it intended changing the basis on which it provides development assistance to the region.

Then, two Communications policy papers, proposed that the EU should concentrate its future support on the least developed countries and a limited number of priority areas. It should graduate out of assistance high income and upper middle income countries such as those in the Caribbean.

No one in the region spoke.

Eventually it was the ACP Secretary General, Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas, who made public the matter in the Caribbean when he told Caricom Heads and the media that the European Commission’s ‘Agenda for Change’ was advancing its new approach towards aid for the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states, (the ACP), and others.

Governments and the media expressed surprise and concern.

In this void the policy progressed through the European Commission, was developed into a draft regulation to be taken by the EU Council of Ministers and in the last week, has had a formal opinion expressed by a key committee of the European Parliament.

Finally, in the last few days, but in a global context, the matter has been given the weight that it deserves.

In what is probably the first high level Caribbean public comment on the principles involved, Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, in her address to the UN General Assembly, called on the international community not to push middle income countries to the margins of the development agenda. Speaking to other world leaders she reminded them that a significant proportion of the world’s poorest citizens live in Middle Income Countries, a diverse group which includes states, such as those in the Caribbean.

Unfortunately this is probably too late to have any effect on the changes that will take place in European policy after 2013, which will change too the relationship between the Caribbean and the region’s former colonizing powers.

Although the European Parliament’s Development Committee has called for aspects of the policy to be amended, it is unclear how much of what they suggest will be adopted when the issue comes to the EU Council of Ministers in December for a final decision, let alone whether it will result in any change at all in relation to the Caribbean.

Voting earlier this month on amendments to the European Commission’s draft legislation on the Development Cooperation, the committee made clear that while the focus should be on the poorest countries, GDP alone should not reflect the true level of poverty in a country. They therefore recommended the use of a broader range of indices to ascertain eligibility for EU assistance; transition periods for ending aid programs; the European Parliament having a say in influencing decisions on the allocation and distribution of aid; Parliamentarians having the right to veto the Commission’s strategic planning decisions; and for aid to combat climate change to be held separately.

It is unlikely, however, that this will make much difference as far as the Caribbean is concerned as with the exception of Haiti there is only limited sympathy for the region in Brussels, in part because no Caribbean Government in recent years other than the Dominican Republic has consistently cultivated the support of those who shape policy in the key institutions or spent much time getting to know Europe.

As a consequence after 2013 Europe’s traditional approach to support though multi-annual national and regional programs will cease. So too will budgetary support, the mechanism that provides financial resources directly to governments to administer.

Why no one had spoken out in the Caribbean’s interest on either the principles involved or the detail when this first became apparent is a mystery. Despite the EU’s known history of changing its policies at will to the detriment of the region on everything from sugar to trade agreements, no leading politician in the region has made this an issue, has spoken publicly, given an interview, rallied local opinion, or spoken to key European interlocutors in the European Parliament, EU member states, the media or NGOs. It suggests that Caribbean governments, foreign ministries and the region have lost track of how public opinion is formed and swayed and the need to use it to their political advantage to build coalitions in Europe and elsewhere

Although two EU nations, a few individuals within the European Commission and the European Parliament have tried to have aspects of EC thinking amended to better fit the Caribbean’s needs there was no regional supporting voice or public political position when it was needed most in the early months of this year.

The region’s case has largely gone by default and the key decisions on the new policy’s shape, with some modifications, have now all been taken.

As a consequence, the new European approach to Caribbean development, Haiti apart, will in future largely only apply to the region rather than individual countries, will target improving the business environment, regional integration, climate change and security, and the money that will be made available will come through grants and loans at a regional level possibly through regional intermediaries other than Cariforum and Caricom.

What will also happen is that the new development policy will be led by Europe’s approach to foreign policy and that in the Caribbean and other parts of the world such as Africa, Europe will explore how best to co-ordinate with nations like China, Brazil and India that have become important regional aid donors and investment partners in their own right.

As matters now stand, neither the Caribbean public nor the private sector seems ready for this. Most of the public sector seems locked into a model that anticipates continuing grants and budgetary support, while much of the private sector has failed to look either at the region or beyond as a market opportunity.

All of which suggests that the region is being outpaced by new thinking and seems unable or unwilling to react, garner support or mobilize public opinion in the time scales in which the rest of the world is operating.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at [email protected] Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org