ADDRESS TO 2001 CONFERENCE OF THE INSURANCE ASSOCIATION OF THE CARIBBEAN BY HONOURABLE LESTER B. BIRD M.P. PRIME MINISTER OF ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA ON MONDAY, 4TH JUNE 2001
 
 

Mr Chairman, Distinguished Delegates.

Let me first thank you for giving me the privilege of addressing your Conference. As they say in the airline business, I know you have choices. I'm flattered you opted for me. I promise to return the favour by making this part of your Conference mercifully short.

Mr Chairman, I was intrigued with the theme of your Conference - "Riding the waves of Change".  It is a theme that has a special resonance for the Caribbean. Riding the waves of change aptly describes the Caribbean experience.

Isn't riding the waves of change what we in the Caribbean have been doing from the first human settlements in our region?

Did not the Arawaks and the Caribs ride the waves of change as they journeyed by canoe up this chain of Islands from South America?

Did not the Europeans ride the waves of change as they colonised one after the other of these territories?

Did not the Africans also ride the waves of change in their enforced transportation to the Caribbean?

Did not the indentured labourers from India and China also ride the waves of change as they sought a better opportunity in our region?

Did not the Portuguese, Lebanese and Syrians also ride the waves of change as they searched for brighter circumstances?

We in the Caribbean have been riding the waves of change from the moment that our region was peopled. Throughout our history, we have been battered and buffeted by them. Yet, we have survived. We survived the battles of European nations contending for ownership and domination of the Region; we survived the long subjugation of our people and the colonial exploitation of our lands; we survived the efforts to deny us education and to deprive us of knowledge.

Riding the waves of change is no new experience for us in the Caribbean. We should have no fear of it. In the past, it has been the bit in our teeth, the wind at our backs, the heat in our blood.  Today, we face different waves of change. We should greet them as we did their predecessors - with the full force of our intellect, our ingenuity and our inventiveness.

The current waves of change are summed-up in two words, "Globalization" and "liberation." Neither of them is an evil in itself. We in the Caribbean have been the objects of globalization and liberalization from time immemorial.

Apart from a brief period in two Commonwealth Caribbean countries, our economies have been wide open to all forms of trade and to all kinds of goods and services. What is wrong with globalization and liberalization is the manner in which the powerful and rich nations are manipulating and applying them to serve their sole interests.

Globalization has several aspects - cultural, social, environmental and economic. All of them have to do with conditions that cross borders, recognising no national boundaries.   For example, in 1999 when a new virus plagued New York and helicopters were used to fumigate the City, the press suggested that the pathogen had arrived through the bloodstream of a traveller, a bird smuggled through customs or a mosquito that boarded an aircraft.

The truth is that globalization and liberalization are not new developments. The world has been globalized since the 19th Century in the sense that conditions gave crossed borders creating change wherever they were introduced. The Globalization of the 19th Century had a political directorate in European imperialism and an economic framework in colonialism.

The difference today is that improved communications, especially jet plane travel, and high speed telecommunications, particularly by satellite and Internet, have incresed the change effect of globalization. Change effects are now virtually immediate and often unchallengeable.

Like it or not, the increased effect of globalization is part of today's reality. We could no more reverse it than we could reverse jetplane travel or tourism. We could no more limit it than we could limit the spread of advanced telecommunications and the Internet. What should constructively concern us, is how to manage globalization so that its consequential changes do not subjugate the world solely to the interests of those with the greatest power.

My own view is that the Caribbean's contribution to the process of globalization must be intellectual. Given our valued traditions of democratic governance and our history of fidelity to democratic principles, we are well qualified to take the lead in presenting to the international a vision of human governance, with celebration of humanity's diversity, promotion of democratic processes, social and economic justice and respect for human rights.

This will be no easy task, for the trend in the international community today is to deny democracy, depriving powerless states of the right to participate in global management and centring authority in powerful states only. We, in the Caribbean, have to fight relentlessly and unswervingly to secure our place at the decision-making table. It is a fight from which we will not recoil, and from which we will never retreat.

Those who doubt the trend in international relations to spurn democracy for dictation need only look at the Harmful Tax Competition scheme of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ( the OECD). Finding themselves unable to compete in the provision of financial services with many developing countries, the OECD embarked upon a campaign to discredit 44 small jurisdictions around the world on the unsubstantiated claim that they are harbouring "tax cheats."

Faced with a proposal by the small jurisdictions that the OECD should sit with them to devise rules and procedures applicable to, and enforceable in, all states including the members of the OECD, the Organisation sunk into a morass of sulking silence.

After three meetings in which serious and concrete proposals were advanced by the non-OECD countries for the management of cross-border tax issues on a democratic basis, the OECD'S only response was to threaten sanctions against those who choose not to surrender to their dictation.

Had it not been for an expression of unhappiness with the scheme by the new Bush administration in the United States, it is certain the the OECD would have proceeded with its plan for its member countries to impose sanctions.

As matters now stand, we are aware that enormous efforts are being made to convince the US government to resile from its stated position and to join the OECD cabal. We have to continue to hope that the US will continue to resist the OECD's dictatorial stance in favour of democratic management of an international matter. But, whether the US does so or not, we in the Caribbean will continue to resist the attempt by the OECD to manage the world by dictation and coercion.

Mr Chairman, distinguished delegates, as insurers, I know you share Caribbean concern about two particular aspects of today's globalization - climate change and health change.

There is little doubt that the increase in the intensity and frequency of hurricanes in the Caribbean is linked to global warming. The evidence is compelling that global warming is a result of a hole in the ozone layer. In turn, the creation of the hole is directly related to CO2 emissions primarily in the industrialised countries.

Consequently, it is in the Caribbean's interest to be part of the international machinery that manages the process by which climate change is addressed. If we fail to do so, decisions will be made that may not be in our best interests. Our ultimate objective must be to ensure that measures are introduced and applied globally to curb the changes in climate that create powerful hurricanes which cause such destruction in our region. That destruction costs us dearly, but it also costs you as insurers.

In this connection, I make now the first of several proposals that I urge your conference to consider. Insurers of the Caribbean should associate themselves in a joint lobby with governments such as ours to secure international action to do two things: curb global warming, and establish machinery for assisting countries affected by storms.

At this Conference in Antigua - one of the most vulnerable countries to hurricanes - Caribbean insurers might consider initiating a plan of action for a joint international lobby. Such a lobby could sensitize parliamentarians, the media and non governmental organisations to the disasters being wrought in small states by the indulgence of rich countries. It could propose action for dealing with the problem and urge financial support for prevention and rehabilitation programmes in affected states. I urge you to do so.

Mr Chairman, another of the recent phenomena of today's globalization is the spread of disease and infections. No nation's health can any longer be considered only within the confines of national boundaries. Infections and disease enter nation-states by means that cannot be controlled by immigration officers.

The most worrying of these is HIV/AIDS. The Commonwealth Secretariat now estimates that the magnitude of the epidemic in the Caribbean, including Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is second only to that of Sub- Saharan Africa. In the year 1999 alone, it is believed that 57,000 adults and children were newly infected. This compares with 44,000 in all of North America whose population is ten times the size of the entire Caribbean.

Of even greater concern is that the epidemic is more prevalent in younger age groups. Seventy per cent of the diagnosed cases are between 15 and 44 years old, with 50% of that number between the ages of 25 and 34.

AIDS is now the leading cause of death among the populations in the 15 to 45 age group regardless of gender. The flower of our youth in the region is being decimated in the region by the AIDS / HIV virus. The prospect of what such decimation will hold for our economic future is alarming.

I believe that, as Insurers of the Caribbean, you have an obligation to assist our governments to deal with the factors that drive the spread of this epidemic. If the epidemic continues at its present rate, there will be fewer people to whom you could offer health insurance, and your profitability in this region will decline significantly.

We know that the principal drivers of the epidemic are drug abuse, inadequate sex education, and lack of parental guidance.

All the Governments in the Region need to improve and intensify their programmes for coping with the epidemic. We need more resources, both human and financial. But, government coffers are already strained in meeting the demands of providing an increased demand for goods and services in a widening range of activities.

This brings me to the second proposal that I urge your Conference to consider.

While all Governments must continue to allocate resources to prevent the epidemic and to help infected persons, Insurers should consider creating and executing a joint programme with governments that helps to address the issue in a meaningful way.

Such a joint programme could focus on education and awareness among young people. It could also help to finance programmes of skill - training and job placement so that young people would not be lured by blandishments into lives of sexual promiscuity that increase the risk of infection.

I ask that the word go out from this place that Insurers of the Caribbean care, and in caring, are ready to act to curb the spread of HIV / AIDS.

Mr Chairman, the terms "globalization and liberalization" are spoken either in fear or in adoration. Liberalisation is adored primarily by transnational corporations who see it as an unguarded doorway through which they can enter into the markets of the world to sell their goods and services without let or hinderance, thereby multiplying their profits.

The same concept is feared principally by trade unions and small businessmen throughout the world who believe that competition will lead to job losses and the collapse of small businesses. Remarkably, this fear is shared in both the developed and the developing world.

The demonstrations that filled television screens in Seattle last year, and again in Quebec City this year, were about people and organisations in North America who fear that they will lose jobs and businesses through their inability to compete with the lower wage structure and the cheaper productive capacity of developing countries.

The current debate that is taking place in Barbados over the possibility that K-Mart could establish business in competition with traditional Barbadian suppliers is the same argument we witnessed in Seattle and Quebec City. Except this time, it is in reverse. What is driving the Barbados debate is the fear by some traditional Barbados suppliers that their business will fail because they cannot compete with K-mart.

Yet, neither Barbados nor any other country in the world can long resist the entry into so-called "domestic markets" of so-called "foreign companies."

In a world based on free trade with binding rules devised in, and applied by, the World Trade Organisation, we cannot welcome foreign investment in some sectors of our domestic economy and reject it in others. It will not be acceptable to lure foreign investment in hotels and manufacturing, but spurn it in commerce and merchandising.

The Caribbean cannot choose to compete in the international community with its own goods and services, including banking, shipping and captive insurance, while at the same time denying competition in the regional market to others.

If we wish to prohibit competition and to close our markets from liberalisation of trade, then we must choose to opt out of the current international negotiations in the World Trade Organisation and in the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement. But, we will have to recognise that, in opting out of these arrangements, while we may protect some of our local businessses, we will also stop the growth of our economy, halt investment, and lock ourselves out of the markets of the world.

It will not be long before our economies either and die. That is clearly not a viable option; indeed, it is not an option at all.

Two important elements of riding the waves of change are: one, our local business have to gear themselves to compete in the local market against external competition; and, two, more of our businesses have to orient themselves to vying in the international market for the sale of their goods and services.

We have proven in the areas of tourism, international financial services and international shipping that we have the capacity to compete successfully. Our local businesses must now learn to make the quality of their goods and services enough to survive against external competition in our domestic market. Caribbean businesses have only a short window of opportunity. They should take advantage of it.

Over the next few months, Caribbean governments will be negotiating in the FTAA and the WTO to ensure that account is taken of our level of development and the size of our economies. We will be arguing for longer periods by which to implement the obligations of new trade and investment rules.

At the root of what we will be arguing is that there must be the structure of these arrangements must be equitable and just, and they must be decided by principles of democracy which must include an equal voice at the decision - making table.

The trend of dictation by the few must be reversed. Caribbean businesses, including insurance companies, should seize this opportunity to work with governments in devising a strategy for these negotiations. That strategy should take account of the time that they need to restructure, recapitalise and reorient their businesses to continue to survive. And, if they calculate that they cannot compete then they should investigate mergers of similar Caribbean companies to protect and expand their market share.

Domestic Insurance Companies of the Caribbean should take advantage of their collective presence here in Antigua to begin to explore how they will meet the challenge of competing with larger external insurance companies once Caribbean countries sign up to the FTAA and new trade rules under the WTO.

Mr Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, as I said at the beginning of this address, riding the waves of change is no new experience for the Caribbean. We have done it successfully throughout the history of our Region. We should have no fear of our capacity to continue to do so. But, if we are to meet the might of the powerful players now arrayed against us, all sectors of our society need to work closely together.

Businesses and Governments in the industrialised countries are collaborating in the effort to manipulate globalization and liberalization for their benefit. We would be foolhardy not to join together to ensure that the Caribbean's interests are protected.

We have the intellect, the initiative skills and the ingenuity to meet the best in the world. We have done it in the past. Let us do it for our future.

Thank you.
 

 
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