The start of a (new) beautiful friendship
By Debbie Ransome, London
For anyone not totally immersed in World Cup football, a subtle but important shift took place in diplomatic circles during June 2014.
The quiet sound in the background was that of a shifting of gears for the vehicle of UK and Caribbean relations.
In the style of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, the start of this beautiful friendship was based on older, different links, dating back to when the ex-colonial master encouraged its newly independent former colonies to go forth and look after themselves. Today, however, both sides enjoy the status of equal partners.
The UK and Caribbean Forum, which met on 16 and 17 June at Lancaster House, fully reflected this change.
Even the old colonial links – between the former West Indies and the UK – were thrown out of the window for this gathering. The presence of another regional economic powerhouse, the Dominican Republic, signalled that this was about investment and emerging economic hubs, rather than the old ties between the UK, Spain, France and their former Caribbean turfs.
The significance of the venue, where many of the Caribbean independence treaties had been signed in the 1960s, was also not lost on the delegates and would-be investors.
The forum agreed follow-up activity on energy security, tackling serious and organised crime and education for economic development.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague emphasised the new path for relations with the region when he spoke after the meeting with his Caribbean counterparts.
“The Forum allowed us to celebrate that relationship but, more importantly, was an opportunity to look forward and agree concrete steps to promote prosperity and boost economic growth for both the Caribbean and the UK,” he said.
In between the formal talks for the politicians, the UK-Caribbean Trade and Investment Forum was also held at Lancaster House, bringing together the business sector and the diplomats on 17 June.
While the relationship between the Caribbean and the UK might have, at some points in the past, been closer to the song “What have you done for me lately?” the new relationship being carved in mid-June in London was closer to “You’ve got a friend”.
Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds summed it up when he spoke to the Investment Forum, pointing out that the aim was to “build our mutual prosperity” through two-way trade and investment.
“This is not just a one-way investment,” he said.
He added that the UK was still committed to promoting the Caribbean’s growth and prosperity.
It has become clear that the middle-income nations of the Caribbean are now being welcomed to a different table – that of investment prospect and investor.
Mark Simmonds pointed out that the Caribbean’s larger companies are already investing in the UK, with Jamaica’s Grace Food corporation operating both in London and in north Wales.
He said that Grace spends millions of pounds a year on its operations in the UK. “We want to achieve more,” he told the investment forum.
Energy and tourism were highlighted as two-way investment priorities as Caribbean nations were urged to “unleash that entrepreneurial flair”.
Even the recent victory in changing Britain’s Air Passenger Duty (APD) was held up by Mr Simmonds as a move which would make life easier not just for the Caribbean Diaspora in the UK, but also for British tourists and business travellers.
The message was clear: the Caribbean is now seen as a growing place to do business and to provide investment in Britain.
“The UK,” said Mark Simmonds, “is committed to supporting the Caribbean’s growth and prosperity.”
How they got there
It is easy to see why most players at this new table want a change in the relationship.
The UK, disillusioned by the non-delivery of wider European Union prosperity and having spent time chasing greater Brics investment, has remembered its old friends in the Commonwealth and the Caribbean.
The Caribbean, having pursued more ties with Latin America and gone through the cycle of negotiations with its neighbours to the North, is happy to renew new ties with old friends.
And understandably, both want something different this time.
The director of the London-based Caribbean Council, David Jessop, wrote before the meeting: “From a British perspective, the overarching interest is for the Forum to identify ways in which the relationship might be adapted to respond to its changing objectives and economic limitations at a time when the Caribbean region has new partners that are prepared to support infrastructural development, investment, and provide new forms of development assistance.”
He added: “Although the world’s sixth largest economy, Britain’s role on the world stage is diminishing and as a consequence, its priorities have changed.”
As he pointed out, the Caribbean’s needs have also changed and become more complicated, with the formal request for reparations from Europe, issues on visas and migration and the Caribbean’s economic growth leaving it ill-qualified for many international aid programmes.
Fixing a moving bus
Caribbean delegates did their best to remind Britain that, even if not Africa, the Caribbean still had needs that the UK could help satisfy.
Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) President William Warren Smith told the investment forum that the 10% to 24% chance of natural disaster still created a drag on economic growth performance in the Caribbean.
“Those are big numbers,” Dr Smith said.
He pointed out that the odds would worsen if climate change were not taken seriously.
Dr Smith also reminded his audience that the Caribbean’s challenges did not begin with the great Recession, but that the economic crisis of 2007-08 did exacerbate them.
He highlighted the progress being made across the region, from improving the business investment climate to what he called the “unprecedented” work being done in Jamaica on fiscal and debt management.
Dr Smith said that the CDB estimated that the Caribbean would need US$30bn to improve its infrastructure over the next five years.
“The Caribbean will need to change the wheels while the bus is moving,” the CDB head said.
Caribbean delegates were keen to remind the UK that it still needed to provide some support while talking about two-way trade and investment and talking up the Caribbean’s capacity to do business.
St Vincent and the Grenadines’ High Commissioner to London, Cenio Lewis, reminded the forum of the need to access climate funding and how little of the global money promised for climate change projects had actually been disbursed.
Officials talked of “bankable” projects and the importance of governments pursuing projects in conjunction with the private sector, as national public spending is being forced down.
The British business interests also reminded the forum of the hurdles they face in investing in the Caribbean.
The managing director for the Caribbean of construction giant Kier, Tim Corrigan, outlined the new competition his company is facing in the Caribbean from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and China.
“They’re tough to beat,” Mr Corrigan told the investment forum.
British politicians too indicated that, while they wanted to talk more with old friends, they still had to see to the UK’s newer commitments. The British MPs at the Forum had to apologise as they left early to head back to Whitehall for emergency sessions on Iraq and Syria.
Education and investment
Some of the promotional work being done in the reception area at Lancaster House put the emphasis on education.
The University of the West Indies (UWI) was on show and delegates and businessmen discussed the promotion of education to provide a workforce with globally-recognised qualifications and transform the Caribbean into a base for more investment projects.
Delegates talked of “massive investment” in the Caribbean’s energy sector, as well as helping it to prepare to become a strategic logistics hub when the expanded Panama Canal opens.
Within days of the foreign ministers’ meeting and the investment forum, it appeared that some action points were being delivered pretty rapidly.
Before the week was out, the UK said that it would work with the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) on options to “catalyse” the Caribbean’s energy market. This translates as support to reform Caribbean utility companies and for the development of energy alternatives.
As this message came from London, Washington also reminded the Caribbean of the role of its nearest and biggest neighbour.
US Vice-President Joe Biden held a meeting in the Dominican Republic on 19 June and his office subsequently announced a new initiative to boost the Caribbean’s energy options.
As the delegates flew out of London and the business cards were packed away, it was clear that the UK and the Caribbean were at the start of a new phase of a long-running relationship.