What’s next…

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley chairs the Road to Recovery committee. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1251 for May 28, 2020

Just a bit less than two decades ago, I showed up for a new job. I took the job for the reasons that most people do, money, a chance to learn and grow, an opportunity to apply what I’d learned to the company’s advantage.

The first two happened, the third did not. The experience was both one of the most harrowing of the employment engagements I’ve experienced and the most educational.

I had a terrible time. Some mornings I’d sit in my car, both feet on the ground, mustering the energy to just stand up and walk through the front door.

It was an educational experience I’d never have signed up for, but the lessons are I learned are still relevant today. Far more so than anything I learned in my secondary school classes.

Trinidad and Tobago is, metaphorically, doing that job now. We didn’t sign up for it. We aren’t enjoying it. But, if we are smart, we can learn from it.

The Prime Minister has appointed a twenty-two member Recovery Team, which some have dubbed Team Avengers. They are unquestionably experienced, mature representatives of a wide cross-section of the economy.

They are also the wrong people for this job.

The initial response to the group of 22 was that there were not enough women, but what we really need now is the economic recovery equivalent of the X-Men.

Young people with talent they are still learning to use their skills meeting the same challenges that the Avengers do, but doing so with an outlook that is informed by the beginning of a career, not its sunset.

The predictable response will be that such a group won’t know what to do.

I submit that today, nobody knows what to do. We can plan and model outcomes and examine current data, but the impact of Covid-19 won’t be readily understood for months, maybe years.

The measures required to meet its spread have been so limiting and so severe that they amount to nothing less than a fundamental culture change.

In very short order, Trinidad and Tobago’s citizens have been asked to reconsider how they work, how they learn, how they entertain themselves, how they eat and how to live together as a family or an individual in severely restricted circumstances.

Citizens of TT have been asked to reconsider how they work, how they learn, how they entertain themselves, how they eat and how to live together.

Now Team 22 must imagine an unimaginable future, extrapolating from the little that is known into the unknown.

In a recent panel discussion hosted by Island Innovation, Dr Didacus Jules, Director General of the OECS lamented, “We’ve spoken for years about the need to diversify our economy, but we’ve allowed ourselves to go for the lowest hanging fruit and the easiest opportunities.”

“We’ve ended up with a mono-service economy. There is opportunity for a more diversified economy with strong intersectoral linkages.”

Jules might have been talking about Trinidad and Tobago, but he is really talking about the Caribbean, which went swiftly from being a raw-material supplier to colonisers to an enthusiastic consumer of first world produced goods.

Forty years ago, the OECS boss noted; Dr Eric Williams put food security on the Caricom agenda. Now the region is facing a food import bill estimated at no less than $8 billion.

Jules specifically called for shorter, more regionally focused value chains, essentially a rethinking of Caricom as an economic sector and not just a fragile political coalition.

At the same discussion, Ludmilla Duncan, an MP for St Maarten painted a similar picture of that nation’s economy, which has 42,000 residents occupying 13 square miles and must manage mass layoffs with the collapse of its tourism industry, adding to an estimated 13,000 households that are operating in effective poverty.

St Maarten MP Ludmila Duncan

Dr Didacus Jules

“How can we move away from being a one pillar economy,” Duncan asked.

“Covid-19 has forced us to rethink how we see ourselves as a country.”

The very urban Dutch nation is now considering agriculture to buttress its tourism economy.

The Caribbean will also have to start thinking about itself differently.

As a chain of islands, it has been buffeted by the 2008 financial crisis, a chain of natural disasters since 2010 and financial blacklisting that cripples access to foreign money markets.

Conor O’Dea, Chairman at Cayman Finance, Cayman Islands worries about growing youth disenfranchisement and the need to stimulate direct foreign investment.

“We need to bring talent and capital back to rebuild the region,” O’Dea said.

“But the red tape in the Caribbean is unreal.”

Small island states are beginning a conversation about more meaningful economic integration.

Is the Recovery Team ready to shed old models of trade to embrace the potential of robust regional economic integration?

Will TT take the lead in leading Caricom from fractious to economically integrated?

When I left my last job ever, I’d spent a year planning what I would do next. No plan survives the reality on the ground and my plan certainly didn’t.  The market had changed. I had to adapt. Nothing I do today was in that plan, but another plan evolved out of its ashes and my earned experiences and I made that work. 

That’s where we are now. The key to the future will not be the plans that we make, it wil be the flexibility that we build into them.

The Road to Recovery Team

Chairman, PM Dr Keith Rowley

Co-chair, Public Administration Minister Allyson West

Co-chair, UTC chairman, Gerry Brooks

Former finance minister Wendell Mottley

UWI chancellor Robert Bermudez

First Citizens CEO Karen Darbasie

Former Central Bank governor Winston Dookeran

Prestige Holdings chairman Christian Mouttet

EY Caribbean executive chairman Colin Soo Ping Chow

TSTT chairman Sean Roach

Caribbean Airlines chairman Ronnie Mohammed

BHP TT president and Republic Financial Holdings Ltd chairman Vincent Pereira

Finance Ministry permanent secretary Vishnu Dhanpaul

Former Finance Ministry PS and former Port Authority chairman Allison Lewis

Energy economist Gregory McGuire

Prof Karl Theodore, health economist

Selwyn Hazel, Tobagonian economist

Labour unionists Christopher Henry and Michael Annisette

Tobago businessman Allan Warner

Social activist Rhondall Feeles

Former Minister Vasant Bharath