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Arguably, we have never seen a stronger case made for global leaders to invest in our Region’s future survival than that put forward by the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley at COP26, the climate summit that took place in Glasgow, Scotland. If ever there was a time to press the reset button for our development agenda, it is now, with business playing a central and important leadership role.

It is with this spirit and momentum we need to approach the new trade partnership with the UK as a critical opportunity to advance a transformational agenda, creating jobs and opportunity for our people. We need to capitalise on the advantages of longstanding trade ties and friendship between the UK and the Caribbean to give life to this agreement by focusing on the private sector as we strive to deepen our trade and investment relationship. This is vital as we seek to transition to a green economy, which is essential given the fact we are one of the most climate vulnerable regions on the planet. Quite simply, time is not on our side.

Signed on the 1 January 2021, the CARIFORUM-UK Economic Partnership Agreement, has the potential to make a difference in economies across the CARIFORUM Caribbean, which is a grouping of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Dominican Republic. We need to give purpose to the document so it can generate real game-changing outcomes for our people. This is precisely why we at Caribbean Export are partnering with the United Kingdom to convene a virtual summit taking place on 24 November bringing together businesses, trade promotion experts and high-level officials from the UK and Caribbean to look at how we can work together to give life and meaning to this agreement. It is clear that we must deliver concrete and practical results where it matters the most, on the ground and at the firm level. It is good to see the strong interest shown with close to 500 participants already registered.

Trade between the UK and CARIFORUM Caribbean countries amounted to GBP £2.9 billion in 2020. Given the historical and strong people-to-people ties, this is a fraction of what can be realised. Therefore, to make this agreement achieve its full potential we need to be both bold and ambitious in forging a common agenda, including a focus on a green economy transition here in the Caribbean.

There are clear benefits for both sides. For us in the Caribbean, we can capitalise on the UK’s status as a world leader in the renewables sector as we seek to also revolve our economies around energy that is clean and green. Additionally, technology and innovation represent another area that are vital to us especially in areas such as agriculture which needs to be more climate-resilient, so we can have the ability to feed our people. For our businesses, the UK represents a major high-value market for our existing and potential exporters as we seek to leverage exports to create jobs and earn valuable foreign exchange. At the same time, we are clear that increased emphasis must be placed on micro, small and medium scale enterprises here in the Caribbean, which account for the majority of employment and at least 50 percent of GDP in so many of our countries.

The question arises, how can this be done? I am proposing just a few initial steps.

Firstly, we need to provide targeted capacity building support for Caribbean businesses in the form of financial and technical assistance so they can take advantage of the opportunities under this agreement. The clear emphasis has to be on where it matters, on the ground and with a forensic focus on enterprises across the Region. Secondly, information is truly power. Therefore, we have to make information or market intelligence available on a real time basis on the opportunities that exist under this agreement to businesses here in the Caribbean and in the UK. However, just focusing on these two along will only give sub-optimal results.

We also need to stress measures that will assist in long-term relationship building. We need to think creatively about how we facilitate connections and remote collaboration, a new normal in the pandemic. Caribbean Export’s matchmaking and networking efforts have reaped real rewards for businesses, bringing together traders, buyers and investors at trade promotion and exposition events. A virtual investment summit, supported by Caribbean Export, took place earlier this month in Trinidad and Tobago, which saw more than 700 participants representing businesses, investors and site selection experts from close to 70 countries explore investment opportunities in the twin island republic. This is just one example of how we can leverage technology to bring together a broad cross-section of businesses here in the Caribbean and in the United Kingdom to create the basis for enduring trade and investment relationships.

Looking at this week’s Virtual Investment Summit on the UK-CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement, we at the Caribbean Export Development Agency recognise that it represents a major opportunity for Caribbean and UK business. However, the key is breathing life into this agreement by focusing on the private sector and working closely with business so they can take advantage of the possibilities provided by this partnership. To be successful, we are aware that it will require a major effort from all parties. We at the Caribbean Export Development Agency will stay the course and work with all partners to help deliver results for our people in these unprecedented times.

Deodat Maharaj

Deodat Maharaj is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency.