Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019
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Letters | Memory often lasts longer than an election

Dear Editor,

We have been consumed by the discussion around accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), as well as the other lesser known agreements such as The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). There seems to be an interesting debate that is usually partisan and polarized between those who wish to join and those who are steadfastly opposed to joining. However, much detail and many experiences are washed out of the discussion.

Firstly, as with the United Nations, if a country is not on the Security Council or has fewer votes given its size and “strength”, it and its interests can be easily sidelined by the larger, more powerful countries. They are not the focus of the major league players.

Further, even though The Bahamas agreed to WTO when it signed onto the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with other Caribbean countries, who negotiated as a bloc, and the European Union, little has been said about the lack of preparation that had been a precursor to the signing. Also, the lack of change to adapt to or reflect the requirements of the EPA has remained unspoken.

Secondly, in order to compete with the big players in the EPA, small countries are required, as are large and medium-sized countries, to create internationally recognized certification systems as well as programs that would produce international-level certification for all trained professionals. For example, musicians must be certified by a national body that is internationally recognized or nationally established to meet international requirements. At the same time, a register was to be created to capture these certified, trained professionals. Has this happened?

In the 10 years since the signing, it seems that little has been done to “protect” such national entities as those seeking national accreditation and working in the national space in “protected” fields. Thirdly, TRIPS, a knock-on part of all these agreements, requires a robust and comprehensive framework and regulation system for working with intellectual property, which includes music. This also includes creative industries and the material produced therein, such as Bahamian straw and fabric craft, to use two examples. This would allow regulatory systems to be setup that could function globally and protect creative and entrepreneurial rights as gained locally. This system has not yet materialized. However, we are told to have faith in government and we shall be rewarded.

Memory is long! Except Bahamians do not talk stories and they/we certainly do not relate local events and tragic situations to international events and globalization. Two “small” events that had long-lasting and widespread impact have come and gone, and have all but been forgotten. One event was the removal of tariffs from imported chicken. The effort was meant to make chicken cheaper for Nassuvians. That decision had the “unforeseen” impact of closing most of the chicken farms on New Providence, as they could no longer compete with the imported chicken of lesser quality.

These are WTO-like steps toward liberalization. The even more unforeseen part of this meant that people lost jobs and so spending in the economy was reduced. When people are unemployed, the answer is often to them jobs in tourism: an often fickle and seasonal industry. Tourism cannot and should not absorb all unemployed bodies. Moreover, once borders to entities are removed, who can say how many Bahamians will continue to be contracted or absorbed by an international tourism, foreign direct investment model that can offshore its profits without controls and employ anyone it chooses?

The second minor shift occurred when business people were setting up a local juice manufacturing industry on one of the islands, government announced that duty would be removed or reduced on imported juice. In one fell swoop policy decision, an entire industry was wiped out before it could even develop sufficiently to look after itself. Importers, as shown in Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt, can always outmaneuver home-grown industry because they can lower prices without losing too much until the market has been changed and then raise prices again once they dominate the market. Never mind how many potential local jobs were lost or how much investors would have been out of pocket, this is progress.

These two instances only paint a very small picture of the ineffective, short-sighted and lack of consultative relationship government often has with industry and people. It would appear that neither the poultry or juice industry was warned that government was going to take those measures that would have such long-term impact. Some argue that these are the necessary casualties of growth. However, can it not be that, though WTO accession be positive if worked out well and planned sufficiently and well enough in advance, can the casualties or collateral damage of lack of long-term-cross-sectoral planning not be mitigated against or greatly reduced? What makes this moment so different from all other moments that precede this election, and how do we simply have blind faith because we are told this will be good for us? Lower duty is meant to have a positive impact, but not if those who pay the lower duty have no jobs because of the unforeseen results of the policy change and so cannot shop. And we wonder why people are skeptical about trade liberalization? Some people got long memory.


– Ian Bethell-Bennett

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