By Raffique Shah
Sunday, March 22nd 2009
I understand and can excuse the average citizen’s call for Government to cancel hosting the Fifth Summit of the Americas (SOA), and later this year, the Commonwealth Heads’ (CHOGM) meeting. After all, most ordinary people will have noted these conferences mere months ago, when Government alluded to them, to their costs, and what the country hoped to gain by hosting half of the world’s heads of governments (when both meetings are combined). The man-in-the-street would think Prime Minister Patrick Manning awoke one morning last year, and while still in a daze, took the billion-dollar decision up St Ann’s way.
But sensible people, or those who ought to know better, were fully aware that such decisions were made at least four years ago. The T&T delegation at the Fourth Summit held in 2005, which was headed by PM Manning, will have lobbied for this country to host the Fifth Summit. A similar position will have been taken at the last Commonwealth Heads meeting (CHOGM). The majority if not all the delegates at both meetings will have agreed. They would have seen Trinidad and Tobago as being capable of hosting conferences of this magnitude, based on certain commitments given by Mr. Manning.
Whether Manning was right to agree on bidding for one or both high-level conferences can be questioned. If I were in his position I might have chosen one, preferably the SOA: CHOGM is a much bigger exercise spanning a longer period-10 days, I think. But in his wisdom (or otherwise), Manning went after two. Hell, the country had started swimming in oil and gas dollars and the “skyline” projects were underway. Who could have predicted the global economic and financial collapse back then? Certainly not our PM, who, as recently as last September, gave the green light to a budget based on oil priced at US$70 per barrel.
If there was a time to oppose the hosting of these conferences, it was before the decisions to lobby for them were made. Politicians in opposition, those inside Parliament, those outside, and even those cast into the outhouse, know this. We cannot come on the eve of the conferences and cry foul. We cannot now say, “Look, we are broke, we can no longer host you guys in a manner befitting your status.” That would be shameful in the extreme.
It’s akin to Lord Coe telling the IOC that London can no longer host the 2012 Olympic Games because the UK is chin-deep in debt, or Nelson Mandela blowing the whistle on FIFA, saying South Africa can no longer afford to host World Cup 2010.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of how these major conferences and sporting events are staged must know that barring a major disaster, the countries awarded the honour as hosts simply cannot back out. Sure, we are entitled as citizens to question the benefits we expect to derive from the two conferences. We must also ensure that expenditure on them is transparent and kept at a minimal level.
We are also empowered to tell Government what benefits we, the people, expect to derive from them. Focusing on the SOA, this is the perfect forum for the hemisphere to come to terms with the economic realignment that has been brought about by several years of good planning and execution of policies by most countries in South and Central America, and some in the Caribbean. A new economic powerhouse is growing before our eyes, if we just look south. The USA and Canada will remain dominant in certain areas, but there is a paradigm shift that they must accept. In other words, when the leaders gather around that table, they must meet as equals, not, as happened in the past, Washington-Massa wielding the whip on children of a lesser God.
We in T&T must use the opportunity to re-focus our food security and trade policies. Many food producing countries in the Americas have their problems (drought in Uruguay and Argentina). But why should we import meats and dairy products from as far away as Australia and New Zealand? Can we not co-operate with South and Central America to grow or source most of our staples from these countries? Realistically, we in the Caribbean, except for Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, do not have the land space that will allow for free-range livestock to meet the needs of our meat-eating populations. And where there are cattle, there are also dairy products.
These latter food groups, along with grains (traditionally imported from North America) and edible oils, form the biggest slice of our huge food-import bill. By striking deals with these countries, by engaging in some joint-venture food-producing initiatives, we can enjoy more-and possibly less costly-food security. But PM Manning must know we want action, not talk. A year ago he announced a possible joint venture with Guyana: we have heard nothing more about that, even though that country’s President, Bharat Jagdeo, seems inclined to working with his Caricom partners in boosting food production.
If we are to reap some benefits from the SOA, at the very least we expect a New Food Pact that will see an integrated assault on food shortages and unpredictable prices.
-To be continued