CARICOM governance in crisis: Challenges of context and political traditions

4 April 2011

A prominent debate is underway in the Caribbean on the vexing question - "Is the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in crisis?" Many observers share the view that the small states of the Caribbean are facing ‘existential threats' that pose serious "systemic challenges to [their] viability as functioning socio-economic-ecological-political systems".(1) The intersection and recurrence of large-scale natural disasters, the effects of climate change, declines in the global economy, coupled with other longstanding social challenges have created a development crisis with which individual Caribbean states are much too small and not adequately mature to contend.

Therefore, regional integration has been presented as the single most important tool for combating the threats of marginalisation in the global political economy. However, in a context of intensification and unrelenting persistence of existential threats, there is much to suggest that not only the survival of small Caribbean states but also the sustainability of CARICOM are under threat. It is worrisome that the regional governance process is in decline and has failed to develop an effective response to the development crisis. Stark deficiencies in the regional governance framework have impeded efforts towards the achievement of shared development outcomes, including the establishment of a Single Economy, first proposed in 1989 and now slated for implementation by 2015. The primary challenges relate to a "deliberative inefficiency" - a weakness in effective consultation and inclusion of non-political stakeholders in the decision-making process; and an "implementation deficit" - a failure to realise development outcomes. Caribbean leaders seem to have failed to correct an internal governance crisis that has emerged from the establishment and maintenance of institutions and procedures that are ill-equipped to confront entrenched political tradition and to surmount interwoven development challenges.

CARICOM's governance experience: Context and tradition

To date, CARICOM states have operated within a framework of political ambivalence in which they struggle to strike a balance between three contextual elements: acknowledging structural limitations; embracing the inherent potential of regional integration; and overcoming the legacy of a failed attempt at regional integration.

By virtue of their small size and shared social and economic challenges, Caribbean states have operated under inherited frameworks of unfavourable terms of global trade and relatively low levels of international competitiveness due to inefficient production structures, limited human, technical and natural resources and shared socio-economic challenges including high rates of unemployment, poverty, crime and violence. These structural features have driven the pursuit of regional integration as a principal development strategy for achieving economies of scale and increased development capacity. However, in spite of this obvious inducement to integration, the development of common governance structures has been a significant challenge.

Political leaders accept the fact that economic integration hold potential for overcoming the limitations of the structural context by building shared capacity - through regional institutions - for better governance.  However, regional integration not only presents itself as an imperative for good governance but also as a threat to national sovereignty. William Demas, a former CARICOM Secretary-General, argued in 1965 that: "a greater degree of economic independence for each country can paradoxically be achieved only through meaningful economic integration in the region...a greater degree of effective sovereignty is attainable by each Caribbean country only through some surrender to the regional collectivity of some of its formal sovereignty".(2) Yet, such a strategy of collective governance has been viewed by politicians as inimical to national sovereignty and contrary to a political culture that seeks to guard and preserve the purity of sovereignty.

The consequential wariness of surrendering authority to a regional governance framework originates from the collapse of the West Indies Federation in 1962 that has left a psycho-cultural impact on political leadership. It has fostered the emergence of an informal view that regionalism is an inferior mode of governance.

The intersection of such structural limitations, political imperatives and historical legacies have impinged on the establishment, evolution and functioning of regional institutions. CARICOM leaders have developed and held steadfastly to political traditions that have contributed to the governance crisis. Ineffective traditions are evident in three principal areas of CARICOM governance: decision-making, implementation and legislation.

CARICOM has adopted a personalised political culture which relies heavily on the personal authority of Heads of Government. The Conference of Heads of Government, the Bureau of the Conference and the Quasi-Cabinet of Heads of Government, with assigned thematic portfolios, dominate the regional decision-making process. The latter two institutions also function as the primary regional implementation bodies - the regional executive. This political structure impedes other regional institutions such as the various Ministerial organs and the Secretariat from fully exercising their decision-making authority and also discourages the participation of non-political stakeholders. In brief, the Heads, as guardians of sovereignty, use the decision-making process to preserve as much national autonomy and control as is possible.

In addition to the weaknesses in decision-making, CARICOM's legislative framework has failed to strengthen the regional governance framework. The Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas(3) maximises the sovereign control of Heads, legitimising the personalised political culture, and protects each Member State from regional interference in their affairs. In essence, the Treaty provisions and regional decisions lack direct legislative effect and must be ratified individually by each Member State. Given the limited capacity of small states, the ratification process is usually lengthy and in some cases remains incomplete.

CARICOM is also served by a Secretary-General who acts as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), but is neither given authority to intervene in national jurisdictions nor supported by more than an administrative Secretariat charged primarily with servicing the meetings of the Community. Resulting from this arrangement, implementation has been slow or non-existent. Despite the proposals for the creation of a supranational structure with authority to implement on behalf of the Member States, Heads of Government have wavered from year to year between rejection and adoption of the proposals. The "Time for Action" has still yet to come.

In a tradition of decision-making controlled by Heads of Government, ineffective legislation and insufficient executive authority for implementation, the overall CARICOM governance framework has focused largely on the procedures of governance rather than on the intended outcomes. CARICOM has therefore been operating under what Robert Buddan has referred to as a model of "Governance by Bureaucracy".(4) In that vein, Heads meeting at the Inter-Sessional Conference in Grenada in February, have once again acknowledged that the CARICOM governance process has not improved the lives of the Caribbean people and has, in fact, resulted in a "benefit-deficit"(5).

Overcoming context and reforming traditions for transformational change

Admittedly, there are limitations to what can be done about the challenging context in which small states exist. History cannot be rewritten to prevent the disastrous collapse of the Federation and the remnants of historical political culture are likely to have lasting influences on the future. Change, however, is imperative in a culture of ineffective political traditions and institutions.

Last year, at the Conference of Heads of Government in July 2010, a new agenda for governance reform was tabled. The proposals included the appointment of new leadership of the Secretariat; a review and reform of its administrative procedures; the rationalisation of the role of existing institutions and strengthening of their capacity; and the development of a new regional executive body - a Permanent Committee of Ambassadors.  Some eight months later, at the start of the Inter-Sessional meeting of Heads in Grenada, there was no measurable evidence, available in the public spheres, about where Heads intended to lead the Community in relation to the governance reform agenda. Despite the adoption of the new agenda last year the proposals' feasibility and the extent to which the Heads can resolve the crisis of existential threats are still not clear. Certainly, with the advent of alternative frameworks for regional cooperation with external partners, including the EU, the resolution of these internal challenges is imperative notably for the implementation of agreements. The task now for the political leaders is to overcome the context of existential threat and reform their political culture.

At the end of the Inter-Sessional Meeting, the Heads expressed their concerns about the lack of unanimous acceptance of a common strategy for governance reform  and they have promoted the perspective of a Community "at the crossroads of opportunity"(6). They have agreed therefore, to prioritise the formulation of a new focus and direction for the Community and are expected to retreat on the matter before the regular Meeting of the Conference scheduled for July 2011 in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Heads may wish to consider that the transformation of governance in the Caribbean calls for three important pillars:

1.     Strategic leadership - leaders committed to a vision that recalls the regional roots of the Caribbean struggle for independence while reinterpreting the role and place of sovereignty in governance. The expedient appointment of a fully-empowered Secretary-General, who is ready to adopt an implementation mandate, is an imperative.

2.     Ideological framework - a set of ideas and action plan that can solicit people's participation in a partnership based on a flexible notion of sovereignty that produces development results. The people's participation, through a strengthened Charter of Civil Society and Assembly of CARICOM Parliamentarians, is likely to make a meaningful contribution to the task of addressing the "benefit-deficit".

3.     Effective institutional framework - institutions empowered with authority to implement regional objectives based on shared values and aspirations. The review and reform of the institutional structure of the Secretariat must be given high priority.

Is it too much to hope that the forthcoming Retreat and Annual Summit in July can find ways to definitively implement a new and effective model to manage the intersection of existential threats and reverse the governance crisis in the interest of the developmental needs and goals to which the people of the Caribbean Community have aspired for so long?


Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts is a regionalist, development planner and researcher. A former Commonwealth Scholar, she completed her recent doctoral research on the evolution of CARICOM regional governance and was a CARICOM Youth Ambassador. She is currently an Associate Researcher of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) "Fifty-Fifty Project" and the Programme Manager of the Community Renewal Programme (CRP) at the Pl


1  Girvan, Norman (2010, November). "Are Caribbean Countries Facing Existential Threats?". Available at (accessed on 17 November 2010).

2  Demas, W. G. (1965). The Economics of Development in Small Countries with Special Reference to the Caribbean. Montreal: McGill University Press.

3  CARICOM Conference of Heads of Government (2001). Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas Establishing the Caribbean Community and the CARICOM Single Market and Economy.

4 Buddan, Robert (2011, January 21). "Crisis Governance and the Caribbean: CARICOM and National Governance of the Region's Existential Threat". Presentation to Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Kingston, Jamaica.

5  Golding, Bruce (2011, February 25). Address by Jamaica's Prime Minister, Hon. Bruce Golding to Inter-Sessional Meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government, St. Georges, Grenada.

6  CARICOM Heads of Government (2001, February 25). Communiqué Issued at the Conclusion of the Twenty-Second Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community, 25-26 February 2011, St. George's, Grenada.

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