In 1955, a private sector mission of the West Indian Incorporated Chambers of Commerce headed by Sir Garnet Gordon kick-started what later became known in 1970 as the Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce (CAIC). Its aim was to be the voice of the private sector in the region, representing private sector interests at meetings of Heads of Government and liaising with international bodies to further the agenda of the business community and to position the region as an economic hub for global trade.

In recent times, the CAIC had withdrawn from its original construct as a regional Business Support Organisation (BSO) dominated by powerhouse BSOs and multinational corporations that seeks the interest of its own constituents bolstered by support from their National Governments. CAIC’s withdrawal has been in an effort to not compete or poach in the territory of the national BSOs.

Its restructuring in 2012 hoped that the CAIC would become a repository of information; which the BSOs are usually loathe to share, and while there is distrust between the private sector and the government, there is also distrust amongst private sector organisations. This been compounded by changes in officials in both the government and the private sector, the economic state of the region and indeed the rest of the world.

The Caribbean Business Council

The call for the formation of the Caribbean Business Council (CBC) 11 years ago has been supported (and initiated) by the CAIC, whom, along with the CARICOM Secretariat attempted to operationalise the Council. In recent times the CAIC chaired the Steering Committee for the CBC organised by Caribbean Export who were to collaborate with the CARICOM Secretariat as decided by the 39th COTED.

A major challenge towards operationalising the CBC is the removal and natural cycles of leadership that has occurred over the past years. In waiting for the CBC to kickstart, many large companies have moved on and made inroads into new markets with and without the assistance of their governments. Whilst they may want to look upon the CAIC and find it irrelevant, what relevance then can the CBC give them, if constructed using the same model? Would it quell the distrust between organisations who should be working together?

Thus far, the initially proposed structure of the CBC did not differ from that of the CAIC 60 years ago, nor did it take into account the volatile conditions of global trade even though a new model for the CBC has been voted on by the usual powerhouses. A strong recommendation from the CAIC is that it be made up of a National Private Sector Organisation from each CARICOM member states and pan-regional private sector organisations with a rotating chair.

The CAIC believes that the CBC can be a true attempt at integration on a level that governments have failed. However, who would the CBC represent? CARICOM territories? CARIFORUM? The definition of the Caribbean adopted by the CAIC hails from the OAS which deems the Caribbean as all shores washed by the Caribbean Sea. It should be recognised however, that the CBC will become an affiliate arm of the CARICOM Community (CARICOM), and thus the recommendation is that it be a CARICOM Business Council.

In support of the CBC it is hoped that it would be representative of the CARICOM region, moving the region to a state of profitability where it can become a bargaining power rather than reliant on concessions; not a reinvention of the wheel expecting a different outcome with the same pillars to satisfy egos.

Where is the CAIC?

In an editorial from the Jamaica Gleaner of December 12, 2017, the editor asked if the CAIC could be the sort of organisation that purported to be the umbrella organisation for private sector organisations. With no physical office and an outsourced Secretariat, the CAIC was reduced to insolvency by the previous Heads as the once “big boys club” lost the support that its constitution defined as its backbone, with a look to establishing a new club whilst clamouring for a body to represent its interests and mediate with governments and international bodies.

In its current reincarnation, the CAIC has worked over the past five years intra-regionally on matters such as Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Business Continuity, which has suddenly exploded as the topic of the day and everyone wants to jump on the wagon in the hopes that there is funding to be had. Trade with Russia, China, the Pacific and South East Asian territories, deemed to be too far away for businesses wanting to expand outside the region, have also been on CAIC’s agenda along with ACP and CARIFORUM-EU relations, the monitoring of the EPA, and the WTO agenda in engaging the private sector.

Losing the support of its founding members, the CAIC works predominantly with MSMEs and devotes its efforts to the creative industries including the fashion industry, trade in services, investment promotion and assisting both former stakeholders and financial members when called upon. Rife with the distrust in the region, CARICOM agencies would also call upon the CAIC to lend support and provide feedback while attempting to measure what mettle the CAIC may still hold in the region.

CAIC’s work with MSMEs is dominated by the fact that a major percentage of the private sector labour force is engaged in more entrepreneurship and small-scale expansion of businesses that survive the three-year mark. With increasing importance placed on MSMEs by various international bodies such as the WTO, the CAIC views the MSMEs as the future and can no longer be regarded as a small fish in the pond that larger enterprises disregard in seeking their own agenda.

The CAIC has also taken a position to support the decent work programme and the creation of more sustainable and value-oriented products and services. These concepts move away from the evolved culture of fast food, fast fashion, cheap products and cost cutting in the work environment and work force. This position may not hold well with some of our major stakeholders who are in the “merchant trade industry” but it is hoped that we can influence them to come into alignment with this strategy so we can preserve the depleting natural resources.

 

A Private Sector Organisation for the future

In crafting the CBC, which organisations believe would rob them of their independence, we should instead envision what private sector advocacy action and opportunities can be realised with the formation of the CBC. Given the economic hardships in the region and tribulations of BSOs, other fears arise with the financing of the CBC. Where would it come from? Locally? Do we go after international funding? In what areas? Which agency has funding for this purpose? Are we sure or are we doing guesswork? If not, the fears of organisations, big or small can either be alleviated or confirmed as a threat.

The CBC could change the tide and add value to the region giving voice to those who are otherwise disregarded such as the Haitians who are aggressively taking their goods and services to market, no longer begging and looking for handouts. However, their efforts are overshadowed by corrupt governments demanding aid that rarely filters down.

Are we prepared for an all-encompassing CARICOM represented business council? Giving heed to the needs of the territories that may be small but with talent to bolster and add experience, corporate governance, direction and progress to our existing regional agencies? Or are we simply trying to see what money we can swindle from the Europeans whilst tearing down the foundation of one organisation and rebuilding it in the same image and likeness to function as its predecessor.

 

This is the first of a three-part series by the CAIC on the subject matter with support for a common agenda.