The rules for trading materials among nations are set and managed by the World Trading Organisation (WTO). In 1995, the General Agreement in Trade in Services (GATS) became the WTO’s legally enforceable rules for trading services among nations. Seven of the 12 categories of services that the WTO regulates directly involve Engineering services.
In 2001, I was in my second term as President of the Barbados Association of Professional Engineers (BAPE). During that time, I examined the Agreement and understood that the rules were designed to eventually bankrupt nations who were not prepared to play the game. It was also clear that we either had to play the game, or be forced to pay crippling reparations.
I monitored the trade proposals of larger economies, to identify the standards that Barbadian Engineers will likely have to comply with if they wished to trade internationally. However, I noticed a pattern in their published negotiating positions between 2000 and 2001. They all attacked the most vulnerable part of a small economy, which was foreign currency payments.
I wrote to the Government offering the full resources of BAPE to monitor and prepare draft counter proposals for the seven categories of services of the WTO that relate to Engineering. One week later, I was invited to attend a public seminar on the WTO and GATS, sponsored by the Central Bank of Barbados. At that seminar, I explained the threat to Construction and Engineering services. However, I was told that Construction was a small percentage of Barbados’ GDP, so it did not demand the importance that Engineers attached to it.
The Estimates of 2000 showed that Construction contributed approximately 5% to the national economy. However, other sectors of the economy were construction related, including: quarrying, the manufacture of construction materials, the retail of construction materials and equipment, and professional services. When these construction components were included, Construction’s contribution to the national economy appeared to be over 15%.
During the Central Bank’s seminar, I informed the gathering about the other nations’ proposals, and the foreseen negative consequences to Barbados’ economy. I asked whether we were preparing counter proposals. Our negotiators explained that we should not pay too much attention to the negotiating proposals of other countries.
One of the panellists boasted about how we planned to outwit them at the negotiating table. He gave examples of the Anansi stories, where Brer Monkey outwitted Brer Tiger. One negotiator declared that if the private sector wanted to come along to help them negotiate, then they would have to pay their own way. It seemed that we were being led by children.
Our offer to prepare counter proposals was rejected without explanation, except to say that they were ‘on the ball’. Our problem was that the large economies placed their negotiating positions on the table. As far as I was aware, not one of those larger economies knew Barbados’ position or the position of any Caribbean country, so we had nothing on the table.
Their negotiating positions were in their own interests – they wanted the national cake and every crumb. It was Barbados’ responsibility to publish counter proposals so that at the meeting, we could try to at least negotiate a win-win outcome. But our strategy appeared to be to surprise them at the meetings with our impassioned speeches and cleverness.
There are sectors of Barbados’ economy that are internationally competitive. However, they can become uncompetitive if they are forced to trade in an unfairly regulated market. For Barbados to sign unfair, one-sided, permanent trade agreements with larger economies is to gamble with our children’s future. So, how did we get into this winner-take-all gambling pit?
The larger WTO economies recognized that developing countries would never survive economically if they were forced to comply with all of the WTO’s rules. Therefore, they agreed that developing countries do not have to fully comply with all the rules, which would give them more control over their foreign currency payments for services. However, any nation that prematurely became a Developed nation, would be punished by being forced to comply will all the WTO’s rules, until they were reduced to a less developed country and could qualify for mercy.
For whatever reason, our politicians wanted Barbados to be recognized as a Developed country, that ‘punched above its weight’. Nothing is wrong with aspiring to be a Developed country, but we should have grown responsibly by improving the management of public services and meaningfully addressing the accusations of gross corruption. We should not have been ‘force-riped’ into this position, with that unnecessary baggage that can only limit our international competitiveness.
We seemed not to have recognized the benefits of being a Developing country, much like how adolescences do not normally recognize the adult-preparation benefits of being teenagers. Prematurely playing under all the WTO’s rules, with those who know our vulnerabilities and intend to take full advantage of them, appears to be the only legal way of losing control of our country. To be continued next week.