NASSAU, Bahamas (World Bank) — The Caribbean needs to improve skills training, revitalize investments and increase connectivity (both physical and virtual), if it’s to kick start growth. That was the message from Caribbean Growth Forum participants — a mix of local business people, civil society and ministers from across the region.
Subscribing to the adage that a problem shared is a problem halved, they have been compiling challenges to find practical, sustainable and shared solutions to common obstacles. Because while the Caribbean Sea separates the islands, it also unites them as a region.
Connecting the region
Improving global and inter-island connectivity will therefore be key to any process for boosting growth in the Caribbean. To give a sense of the challenge, for one member of the delegation from St Vincent and the Grenadines, it took 3 days to fly to the forum in Nassau, Bahamas. A direct flight would have taken less than three hours.
But such delays are not just an inconvenience for the traveller. Inefficient customs, a lack of coordination and bottlenecks in the port processes, are currently costing the Caribbean dear.
“If it gets delayed here, then there is a cascading effect on other ports. These ships race at sea and they hate to wait at an inefficient port where they do not know when they are going to sail out next. That cargo has got to go to somebody else,” explained Master Mariner Ashok Pandey.
Consequently many countries see improving air and sea connectivity within the Caribbean as a top priority — particularly if the region is to take maximum advantage of the Panama Canal expansion.
But this too has its challenges, not least because many of the countries are also multi-island nations. As a result, any infrastructure projects will need to be duplicated across the archipelago.
No country knows this better than The Bahamas. Encompassing 180,000 square miles of ocean, and over 30 inhabited islands, delegates shared their experiences of privately finance works which has been key to recent infrastructure projects. One such example was the modernization of the port and airport in Bimini, financed by the same company who planned to build a casino on the island.
Consequently, the following challenge presented itself to those present in Nassau: With little room for public investment for infrastructure projects, how can the Caribbean, as a region, best present itself as an attractive prospect for private investment?
Future is digital
Connectivity, however, is not just physical. It is also virtual, as recent projects such as Digital Jam 2.0 and KingstOOn have demonstrated. And for the Caribbean, 21st century technology has a tremendous potential to create new jobs within the region. Still, even here, there are significant hurdles to be overcome.
“The world has changed fundamentally and irrevocably as a result of this rapid evolution of information and communications technologies. And this is of concern to us because we’re not seeing sufficient innovation, which is necessary to leverage the potential of ICTs,” said Bernadette Lewis, secretary general for the Caribbean Telecommunications Union.
Despite the potential of ICT, both with regards job creation as well as an enabling force and public service provider, delegates cited a region-wide lack of awareness and digital education. Consequently discussions turned to a need for a national and regional ICT strategy, to raise awareness and tackle other problems such as affordability, broadband penetration and the need for better regulation of the digital sphere.
Focus on youth
High levels of youth unemployment are a stark feature across the Caribbean. As a result, how best to improve the skills, competitiveness and opportunities for young people across the Caribbean was a key point of discussion..
For hotel manager Ruth Stevens, however, a “paucity of skills” in recent high-school graduates in her native St Vincent and the Grenadines is holding them back from competing at the highest level.
“One of the challenges we are facing is the disconnect between the curriculum and the jobs. When we have students that come out of the colleges, and we hire them to perform certain tasks, we realize that we will have to give them some form of support in terms of skills and job readiness,” Stevens said.
But while many of the action plans presented by the 12 countries present in Nassau will require a medium- and long-term commitment, the Caribbean’s youth were underrepresented at the forum, as highlighted by Addys Then, CEO of Alianza ONG and youth representative for the Dominican Republic.
“Many of the proposals which have come out of this forum […] should definitely include the youth as active participants.” she explained. “So they can express both their needs and also their strengths and contribute to the development that we are all looking for.”
Over the past decade, the Caribbean has been hit hard by the global economic climate due to its reliance on revenue from traditional markets such as the UK, USA and Europe. However, the tide may now be turning.
The past year has seen countries pool their challenges and problems separately. Now the time has come to share challenges and experiences in order to learn from each other. Only by presenting a united front can the Caribbean search for common solutions and a brighter, more prosperous future.
The Caribbean Growth Forum (CGF) is a joint initiative by the Compete Caribbean Program, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Caribbean Development Bank. It is supported by the Canadian International Development Agency, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, CARICOM Secretariat, and the University of the West Indies