Former President says… : The Jagdeo Initiative more relevant now than ever : –but slow regional political support a major impediment

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“I SUSPECT one of the reasons why the Government of Guyana decided to host this seminar is because they recognise the importance of agriculture, not only for Guyana and the Region, but also the enormous potential for growth, income, employment opportunities, and wealth in this sector.”   That was one of the sentiments expressed by former President, Mr. Bharat Jagdeo in his 35-minute feature address at the Jagdeo Initiative (JI) on Agriculture Conference, held Friday at the Guyana International Conference Centre at Liliendaal,Greater Georgetown.

Chaired by Agriculture Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy, the conference was organised to bring new attention to the Jagdeo Initiative, its relevance, and progress since first adopted by CARICOM seven years ago.
The Jagdeo Initiative is one of two major themes being showcased at GuyExpo 2012; the other is the Low-Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS), also the brainchild of Mr. Jagdeo.

Giving a background to the proposal, Jagdeo said: “When the initiative first started — and this was a collaborative initiative – all the agencies involved in agriculture in the Region were sitting around the same table to work on the same initiative, and that was the first good thing.”

Back in 2001, which was when the discussions first started, he said, there was a certain sense of urgency, as the Region was facing an impending threat of rapid change in the trade regimes to which it had been accustomed for almost a century.

Many Caribbean countries were also confronted by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with demands for more access to certain sectors; the European Union (EU) wanted to change its non-reciprocal agreements to reciprocal ones, not only for agriculture, but for the entire trade regime; and there were bilateral requests coming from several developed countries to negotiate free-trade agreements instead of preferential agreements.

“So we thought (that) unless we brought the agriculture sector to a globally competitive standard, we’re not only going to lose the markets that we had — indeed, the traditional markets that we had — but we (were) also going to increase the food bill,” he said, adding:
“So it was a sense of urgency… And then a sense of panic almost, among many Heads (of Government) when food prices escalated steeply a few years back; and it became a political issue because nobody wants food prices to go up if they are running their countries, it affects them politically.

“… we saw a spurt of activities and interest in the (agriculture) sector; and then, unfortunately, that spurt died. And it was left to many of the technical people to carry the burden of moving the initiative along, although the demonstrated benefits were clear to the political entities across the Caribbean as well as the host country – Guyana.

“If we had a sense of urgency then, it is even greater today; because the world has faced, and is still going through, the worst recession since the 1930s, and this is causing major problems in many of the societies around the world, (and) has exposed the underbelly of trends in the Caribbean that we ignore.

“And so, what has happened now in many of the countries of the Region (is that) they find that they are using more than half of their resources to service debt. Some can’t even pay their bills, but it is getting better now. Today, we face greater threats than before; and so problems associated with water and the availability of water, lands and the degradation of lands still continue unabated. And a lot of these things will impact agriculture, and hence (drive) upward pressure on prices again.

“So, today, there is an even greater sense of urgency, but we don’t see this reflected in the projects of many of the territories, and I can be frank because I don’t wear the mantle of the government anymore, so I can say things that when I was president I would not say. But that’s the reality of it.

“We thought that putting together…and maybe this is because… Look, I didn’t come here to make a speech, it is to explore how effective this initiative has been, and whether we had it right from the beginning.

“We focused, and rightly so at that time, on all the things that affected agriculture, and we thought that if we fixed them, then we would have a smoothly functioning system and agriculture will blossom in the Region, but we took for granted that there was political support in each country behind the sector, and that seems not to be the case. And without political support in each country behind the sector, then any technical initiative you have, no matter how hard the technical people work and how good the strategies are, they are not going to deliver the results.  
“And so we need now to think about how we can build this political support for the sector across the Region.

“When you examine how much money is allocated by countries to the agriculture sector and to these initiatives, you will find now that very few countries see the sector as priority.

“If you take a walk across the Caribbean, you will find that gas and the financial and tourism sectors in most of the other countries (are) what they still see as the primary source(s) of growth, income, and job opportunities.

“And so, today, I think that GuyExpo presents a good opportunity for us to focus on agriculture in the Region. But, more importantly, (we need to focus on) what we in Guyana can do to attract the kinds of investments we need to grow this sector.

“Agriculture cannot (be) develop(ed) by government alone. We can provide frameworks; and what we have been doing here through this initiative, or what we (had) set out to do, was to create a framework for the development of agriculture (which) was conducive to the development of agriculture.

“And therefore everything: policy wise, concessions wise, attention wise, this sector should get the full attention of the cabinets  and the political leadership in the countries. (But) agriculture is seen as a sector that satisfies the concerns of a few people, but not as a primary sector.

“Here in Guyana, and Belize and Suriname, maybe Jamaica to some extent, you still have quite a bit of support behind the sector; so we have to think about the positions of the Ministers of Agriculture. Have they convinced their cabinets that this is a very important sector? And convinced the Ministers of Finance and their Prime Ministers that the sector requires the same attention as the other sectors? (Have they been able to convince their Ministers of Finance and their Prime Ministers) that they see their traditional economic model(s) as the ones that (will) be generating the wealth in the future?

“And so it brings me to the point I think where, given the reality of the Caribbean, we have, in fact, flatlined for the past four or five years; flatlined in terms of almost anything — growth, development, etc.

“Luckily, here in Guyana, we have had six to seven years of continuous growth in our economy. But why is this so?
The financial crisis affected tourism growth because people don’t have disposable incomes and the tourism sector was affected, and then the financial sector suffered a wipeout globally and also regionally with the Stanford issue and the CLICO issue etc, which has impact(ed) right across the Region. So if we continue to look at dormant sectors in the Region, or sectors that have almost plateau, they still can grow, but the rate of growth between where we are now and  where we need to be to create the kind of wealth that our young people need now; the type of jobs that they want and the kinds of income they want, and to keep them employed, then we have to recognise that a lot of this is not going to come from the traditional sectors; so you have to open the thing, and it goes right back to the economic model that we pursue in the Region.

“We in Guyana had three pillars of our economy — sugar, rice and bauxite. These were the three traditional pillars of our economy. Today, we have identified six new growth poles for the future, (which) will create the wealth of the future: information and communication technology (ICT); tourism; agriculture, but more industrialisation within the agriculture sector, for example aquaculture; oil and gas; our connection as the transit point to Brazil; and the markets that will open. And we have identified several of the new sectors, along with the traditional ones, that will create the wealth of the future: mining sector, manganese resuscitation, etc. So that’s why we call it the new economy, the economy of the future.
“Because if you were to go back and say let’s pursue the same thing and focus on the same sectors, you’re (going) to be generating the wealth of the future. So even when sugar — which has a big weight on our economy, maybe 15 to 16 % of our economy — even when sugar production is down in Guyana, we still have economic growth. If we had growth in the sugar sector, the overall growth (would have been) significantly higher. So, even when we had bad years in the sugar industry, we still (had) growth at the national level, largely because the sector is becoming more diversified.

“And then services (sector has) grown enormously. The services sector has overtaken most of the real sectors in Guyana. And so, whether it is construction services, security or hairdressing services, it has broadened tremendously, creating tonnes of employment opportunities, etc.

“And I think that if we do the rating across the Caribbean, we will find that agriculture will start creeping up, primarily in the territories that focused on[the] financial sector and tourism. That agriculture will start growing there, because they would look at (the) long-term sustainability of their balance of payments. And you can’t continue importing fuel at the rate the fuel prices are now, and food products, and still expect your countries to run positive current accounts either in the balance of payments or in the Fiscal Account. It’s almost impossible.
And these things have a way of accumulating.

“You see the problems in the U.S. now? Obama inherited almost all of (them), but the problems accumulated (there), and had the U.S. not had the world currency, you would have seen the turmoil in that country, because these things have a way of accumulating.

“And it’s mirroring itself now in the Caribbean, because the external payments are sucking the life out of these economies like it did in Guyana when we had to pay 94% of our revenue to service debts. We’re down to 4% now of revenue, so we can reinvest it. (That is) why I feel that we need now, emerging out of the seminar here today, that while the agriculture sector has tremendous support in Guyana, for those countries where we don’t have the support, we have to find a way, as regional thinkers, to get their support; because if it starts here, every one of these nine constraints in (the Jagdeo Initiative) could be addressed quickly.”
The Jagdeo Initiative is a regional agricultural repositioning strategy aimed at removing constraints to the development of agriculture in the Caribbean.