The three major challenges the Caribbean must address NOW

When advising policymakers and multilateral development partners, I am often asked what I see as the top challenges facing our region, which of them are in our control, and how we can resolve them sustainably.

The following are my remarks delivered at the World Bank’s forum “Building Resilience Through Sustainable Development Financing in the Caribbean” on February 10th 2023 at the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank in St. Kitts, which address these same questions.

Photo credit — World Bank and ECCB

Here are the three major development challenges I see in the Caribbean. Not all of them require debt to be addressed, and all of them are related. I see us addressing one of them with some enthusiasm but not the others, and the one we are devoting most attention to, in my opinion, is the one we have the least control or influence over:

  1. And that is the climate crisis — right here at the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (which deserves massive congratulations for being the world’s first solar powered central bank), I am seeing evidence of the urgency to switch to renewable energy. And while this is encouraging and necessary, it is unfortunately insufficient — remember that we in the Caribbean are already <2% of the global carbon emissions problem. The climate crisis therefore won’t disappear even if we were all net-zero! Keeping temperature increases below 2°C versus pre-industrial levels means bringing GLOBAL net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. Indeed, if India — the most populous country on the planet — were to get to even HALF the resource intensity of China, we lose 2 degrees! But India, like us in the Caribbean, deserves to develop — sustainably. At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries committed to mobilising USD100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries. The goal was formalised at COP16 in Cancun, and at COP21 in Paris, it was reiterated and extended to 2025. BUT according to the OECD’s most recent data, USD83.3 billion was mobilized in 2020. What is the shortfall in 2021 and 2022 and what is preventing the full disbursement each year? The Loss and Damage Fund promised in Egypt has…no funds! I think this is something we as a region should be tracking independently and highlighting at every opportunity. We need to hold G7 countries accountable for their promises to begin to right their historical wrongs. Already in the Caribbean we suffer a massive demographic shift that is only exacerbated by the perennial brain drain that we have experienced for decades, and poverty and the climate crisis only worsens this delicate situation. The UN estimates that up to 2020, over 7 million persons had already left the Caribbean, which you have surely experienced in your own community and family. This is truly a major drag on our development, and amplifies an already vicious cycle. This vicious cycle will not be broken until people feel that it is safe and sustainable to live and work and raise families in their home countries in the Caribbean.
  2. I wish to highlight a challenge well within our control to address but I see very little action regionally — and that is gender inequality. Women unfairly carry the weight of this polycrisis, because we account for the majority of frontline workers, the majority of displaced tourism workers, and the majority of informal workers. We perform at least twice as much — up to 10 times more — unpaid care work in the home, often on top of our paid work. This means that we work on average 4 years longer in our lifetime, and we get less sleep and exercise, with untold effects on our physical and mental wellbeing. We suffer the majority of the consequences of society’s ills, such as crime, violence, abuse, and poverty. We endure much lower levels of financial inclusion, partly due to lower access to the internet and smart devices. We earn less pay for the same work, sometimes as much as 50% less, even though we are more skilled and educated than Caribbean men. This means we have to work on average 27 years longer to make the same total earnings as men. And despite being more educated, we consistently represent the majority of the unemployed and underemployed in Caribbean society, because despite more of us reaching leadership positions that previously were only open to men, less women enter the workforce. Less women than men are given the opportunity to be part of the solution to our socio-economic challenges. WHY is this? Because it is heartbreakingly difficult to gain employment outside the home, when you have to look after the kids, cook for the family, take the children to school, and do homework with them. And increasingly, also care for elderly family members. You can observe this in all of your countries and communities and in fact, with ESG becoming the most popular issue I am asked to speak and advise on, and the social impacts of these issues, we have a captive audience in the private sector. But WHERE are the policies to address gender inequality? Women bear this burden of caregiving disproportionately, and this is to the detriment of EVERYONE, including men, AND the ones we are caring for. WE MUST do something about this — public AND private sector. A new study by CAPRI in Jamaica has estimated that the value of unpaid care and domestic work in Jamaica could be as much as JMD991 billion annually, or 45% of GDP. When women work, we invest 90% of our income back into our families, but men only 30–40%. Maternal income was found to increase family nutrition by 4–7 times more than the income of fathers. Gender inequality costs women in developing countries NINE TRILLION US DOLLARS EACH YEAR. And at 90% reinvestment into our families, just imagine the multiplier effect and social impacts of this HUGE tide of revenue. Women ARE THE ANSWER TO THE GROWTH PROBLEM! Paying women equally could increase human capital wealth globally by more than USD160 trillion — almost twice global GDP. Achieving gender equality will add to the global economy, the size of the Chinese AND the US economies combined! WHY would anyone want to deny THEMSELVES this level of progress? Women head the majority of our households in this region, but are more likely to be poor. As a matter of fact, we make up 70% of the world’s poor. However, despite all the disproportionate suffering, women are still less likely to have access to social protection such as health insurance, pensions, and unemployment benefits. Countries with higher levels of gender equality tend to have higher income levels, and evidence from a number of regions demonstrates that closing the gender gap leads to a reduction in poverty. So now is the time to show where you stand on policies and issues affecting women at work.

3. And speaking of poverty — when was the last time you heard a policymaker in the Caribbean cite their poverty data? I have constructed a chart with the most recent poverty data across the region and the most recent data point is from 2019! We can’t fix what we don’t measure. According to World Food Program estimates, in August 2022 there were 4.1 million people who are moderately or severely food insecure in the English and Dutch-speaking Caribbean, an UNACCEPTABLE 57% of the population or 3 in 5 persons. These figures have more than doubled since the start of the pandemic. We KNOW that poverty intensified during the pandemic and during last year’s inflation. Which countries in this region have a poverty reduction strategy? This is one of the issues I unfortunately have to point out most when advising governments and speaking with policymakers. Poverty and food insecurity only exacerbates the brain drain I spoke of earlier, it affects women and children disproportionately so it amplifies gender inequality, and it is therefore amplifying the downward spiral that we are seeing in this region. By putting your focus on a firm anti-poverty, gender sensitive, net zero development strategy in your country, we can begin to resolve several issues at once.

Between poverty and food insecurity, demographic shifts, climate crisis, brain drain, pro-poverty regressive tax regimes, blacklisting, dis-ease of doing business and gender inequality, I believe we are spiraling downwards in the Caribbean. We need a massive and urgent shot of adrenaline to counteract this. We need to measure poverty and human development indicators regardless of the possible political fallout. We need greater access to vulnerability-indexed, disaster-claused concessional financing. We need private and public policy reforms to support women and families. We need urgent poverty reduction strategies with a Jamaica EPOC-like mechanism to drive accountability and implementation. We need to measure the gap between what is promised and what is delivered re climate finance from G7 countries. And we need greater regional cooperation on all of the above. Policymakers and the multilateral community — as you advance on these strategies, you will begin to break this downward momentum we are witnessing in the Caribbean.



Economist and leading advisor on the Caribbean

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