Kaieteur News – The President is wasting his time with the Caribbean Community. His efforts in trying to promote regional food security will fail because the leaders of the region are not interested in satisfying their food needs, as much as possible, from within the region.
We keep reading about the massive food import bill of Caricom. But this bill is huge because of foreign-mindedness and corruption.
We prefer to eat foreign brands rather than support local production. This is true throughout the Caribbean, and not only in Guyana. Just go to any supermarket and look at the shelves. They are stacked with foreign goods. But that is only half of the problem. Look at the baskets of the shoppers. They are packed with foreign goods even though local substitutes are available.
The people of the Caribbean prefer to eat Minute Maid rice rather than the parboiled variety produced in Guyana. They prefer Robin Hood wheaten flour rather than the local brands produced. They prefer Cadbury to Charles when it comes to chocolates. They prefer Erin Farm Ham to locally produced ham.
And in many respects, they are correct in making these choices because the regional produced products are simply not up to standard. Some of the toilet tissues produced in the Caribbean are extremely abrasive.
The quality of regional products is a problem. This is one of the failures of the Jagdeo Initiative. The Initiative failed not only because it was stalled but also because it was deficient in many respects. One of those flaws was its failure to link food security to the need for greater quality down the value chain, or in other words to link food security with quality assurance in food manufacturing.
The other problem, which hampers intra-regional food trade, is that for reasons, which are well known, regional officials do tend to bypass regional trade rules in order to facilitate trade in food products with other countries. Some governments will grant derogations to the regional trade rules or they may simply go ahead and allow for the importation of competing imports even though they know this is in violation of the regional treaty rules. Just as Guyana did years ago with cement, other regional countries do with food imports!
The Jagdeo Initiative, which President Ali is championing, had highlighted 10 major constraints to the development of agriculture in the Caribbean. The Initiative misconceives the problem of regional food security. The problem is not at the level of production; it is at the level of intra-regional trade in agricultural production. Production will increase once the trade in regional agricultural products increases.
President Ali however is zeroing in on an important constraint: non-tariff barriers. He has made it clear that he is prepared to work for the dismantling of these barriers. Last December he announced his plans to establish a joint government-private sector high-level team to examine the barriers, which hinder market access of local products, particularly within Caricom.
He reported that he had asked his Ministry of Foreign Affairs to compile a list of all the barriers to local trade. It is surprising that he should have to ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when he could have asked his Vice President. And even more surprising given that he was a former Minister with responsibility for trade. Nothing much has changed in the five years he was in the Opposition between 2015 and 2020.
The Jagdeo Initiative may have been endorsed at the level of Heads of Government but it found no traction in the Caribbean. The development of the strategy was outsourced to Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The Jagdeo Initiative was unrealistic. Nobody wants to come to Guyana to establish mega farms, when there is little means to get the produce to regional markets. Transportation is a bugbear, which Jagdeo never bothered to fix. Nobody wants to come here and set up mega farms given the level of infrastructure, which has to be installed, and its prohibitive costs. The idea of mega farms was a mega joke.
The Jagdeo Initiative was parodied by regional experts. In one of his columns, Chris Ram reported that one expert had said that the Initiative was “not a perfect instrument; not a scholarly piece of work; evolving; a kick start and a vision and framework for all.”
The Jagdeo Initiative did not get very far. Its pilot failed to have any of the major recommendations materialize. Among these, which failed to get off the ground, was a regional agricultural modernization fund, joint marketing activities and Exim-type financing. This is according to three researchers from Cave Hill, University of the West Indies.
The President needs to dump the Jagdeo Initiative. It will soon be 20 years since that proposal was made. It can no longer be relevant given its age and the fact that it appears to have been abandoned. Even narrowing its focus to dismantling trade barriers will not get far. Regional governments are too insular and unwilling to change. The barriers will remain.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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