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A Time to Choose: Caribbean Development in the 21st Century

The Caribbean region is at a development crossroads and its member nations must take significant and concrete steps to improve productivity and competitiveness and face up to a more global competition if they are to accelerate or even maintain past growth, says a new World Bank report. By taking such steps, they will reposition themselves strategically as an emerging trading bloc for goods and services; without such action, they risk growing economic marginalization and erosion of many of the social gains of the last three decades.

According to this flagship 15 country report, A Time to Choose: Caribbean Development in the 21st Century the region needs to move beyond decades of reliance on traditional markets and trade preferences to swiftly adapt to diversify into new sources of growth, exploiting its natural advantages of location, environment, political stability and democratic traditions. Citing the examples of Ireland and Singapore, the report argues that small economies, despite their size, can be competitive in many sectors, particularly in niche marketing.

The report, which draws upon extensive consultations with governments, private sector and civil society, recommends that countries work together to negotiate an orderly dismantling of preferences in return for increased technical and financial support, arguing that trade preferences, combined with subsidies, have yielded less than optimal results for the Caribbean nations. In just 15 years, the region’s share of European and North American imports have fallen from 0.71 percent in 1985 to 0.27 percent by 2000.

Emerging Opportunities

Although tourism, one of the region's key sectors, is under increasing pressure from emerging markets in Cuba and Central America--the Caribbean Community’s market share of international tourist arrivals declined from 0.91 percent in the 1990s to 0.69 percent in 2002--the report offers upbeat prospects for diversifying the traditional tourism product and for exploring opportunities in other industries.

An increasing demand in new product areas such as adventure and cultural tourism, eco-tourism and upscale resorts, provides an opportunity for the region to revitalize the mature tourism sector, borne out by the success of St. Lucia’s Jazz Festival, Dominica’s Creole Festival, and the increase in eco-tourists across the region.

Other positive examples are cited throughout the report, with offshore education, health services and information and communication technology (ICT) enabled activities identified as possible additional areas of potential growth, particularly for English-speaking countries.

In offshore education, medical schools, represent a small but growing services sector that has responded to a growing and unfulfilled demand for physicians in the United States. St. George's University School of Medicine in Grenada and Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica are two of 23 primarily offshore medical schools in the region, whose graduates together account for close to 70 percent of the international medical graduates entering the US. Demographic trends suggest there is scope for an expansion of growth in this sector. Similarly, the cross- border provision of health services has created opportunities for Caribbean health service and health-tourism providers: Le Sport in St. Lucia and rehabilitation services such as Island Dialysis in Barbados are two case studies cited.

Across all sectors, two critical inputs are needed to aid and stimulate growth. First, the effective use of ICT is an essential ingredient for improving competitiveness. Firms such as Unique Jamaica, a cluster of 100 small hoteliers and attractions, used ICT to launch a cost effective marketing campaign devised to attract higher-end adventure and nature tourists. In order to foster an environment for greater and more effective use of ICT, Caribbean policymakers must facilitate access and create a more competitive telecommunications sector (including addressing the problem of high internet costs), provide support services for firms, and accelerate regional harmonization in key policy areas related to ICT. Second, enhancing the skills base of the labour force will be key to fostering a workforce ready to compete in the 21st century.

Dangerous slippages

The report cautions, however, that the Caribbean region faces a number of challenges which threaten to undermine the remarkable health and education indicators attained in the post-independence period. Unemployment, particularly of youth, is increasing, inequities are emerging, productivity is falling, and all are contributing to stagnant or declining economic activity. Without remedial action, the report notes, growth per capita growth is expected to reach only 2.3 percent for 2001-2010, compared to 4.3 percent in the 1970s. Caribbean Governments will also have to address the high debt levels which have grown from a regional average of 67% in 1997 to 96% in 2003 against a backdrop of declining aid flows.

A Time to Choose says overall investment rates have been quite high at about 30 percent of GDP since 1990, but warns that they could decline with eroding preferences, the maturing of traditional industries such as tourism, and an increasingly more competitive international environment. The report, which draws on a survey of 159 firms operating in the regions, argues that to improve the investment climate, Caribbean countries must improve their performance in the areas of infrastructure, policy and legal environment, and taxation and customs.

This is a large agenda, and one that requires considerable political will and leadership. The opportunities are great, but time is short and implementation will be key. Going forward, Caribbean governments, rather than creating expectations about the continuation of preferences or donors flows, should engage all stakeholders – civil society, the private sector, trade unions, the media, donors, and each other – in a dialogue and partnership on the challenges and opportunities of new sources of growth and competitiveness. Business as usual will no longer suffice.

The report

oecs 2

arrow   Highlights


arrow Complete Report (303 pages, 24.0Mb)

arrow    Front & Foreword(90k pdf)

arrow   Executive Summary 
(165k pdf)

arrow Chap 1 - Growth Performance (200k pdf)

 Chap 2 - Government Finances and Expenditures (123k pdf)

arrowChap 3 - Attracting Private Investment(175k pdf)

arrowChap 4 - Changing International Environment (210k pdf)

arrow   Chap 5 - Emerging Opportunities for the Caribbean (180k pdf)

arrow   Chap 6 - Improving Labor Market (165k pdf)

arrow   Chap 7 - Building Skills for Knowledge-Driven Growth (210k pdf)

arrow   Chap 8 - The Performance of Caribbean Infrastructure: Size and Institutions Matter 
(160k pdf)

arrow Bibliography (70k pdf)

arrow   Annexes (290k pdf)


arrow   By chapter

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 Audio interview

Caroline Anstey _smallCaroline Anstey, World Bank Director for the Caribbean, 
discusses the findings of this report

arrow  Interview 

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