“Our economy is bolstered by our international reputation”

Kamla Persad-Bissessar

Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, talks to Global about her plans for strengthening and diversifying the economy away from its dependency on oil and gas reserves. She has high hopes of enhancing competitiveness through legislative and institutional reforms, and strongly believes that expanding trade relations with Latin America and the new emerging economies is the way forward.

Persad-Bissessar also touches on the rise of women’s participation in parliament, and reveals planned measures to tackle the big challenge in the country’s education system – that of boys’ underachievement.

Global: For 2013, the World Bank has ranked Trinidad and Tobago at 69 of 185 countries for doing business. This is one step up from 2012, but still an uncompetitive ranking for a country seeking to attract new foreign investment and encourage local investors. What concrete steps are your government taking to improve the conditions for doing business?

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar: Improving the ease of doing business in Trinidad and Tobago is a priority for the government of Trinidad and Tobago. In this regard, a series of reforms are being aggressively pursued. [For example,] implementation of a Single Electronic Window for Trade and Business Facilitation. This IT platform, which became operational in February 2012, links over ten government departments in delivering key business-related e-services (such as efiscal incentives, e-import/export licences and permits, e-company registration, ework permits and e-certificates of origin for exporters) in real time to the business community.

[In addition,] several pieces of legislation – such as the Companies Act, Fiscal Incentives Act, Value Added Tax etc – are being amended so as to remove burdensome procedures and regulations which adversely affect the business community. In January 2012, the Electronic Transactions Act was proclaimed into law, which now allows the state to transact business in the electronic realm.

Earlier this year [2012], there were over 13 state agencies across various ministries in Trinidad and Tobago in which potential investors had to interact with. The cabinet in August 2012 streamlined the portfolios of each of these agencies, and assigned InvesTT – a subsidiary of Evolving Tec Knologies and Enterprise Development Company Limited (eTecK) – as the official Investment Promotion Agency. This will allow for a smoother and better coordinated investment facilitation process in Trinidad and Tobago.

[We are also] strengthening entrepreneurship. Under the Ministry of Labour [and] Small and Micro Enterprise Development, the National Integrated Business Incubator programme focuses on pre-incubator training and incubator services and financing in community-based centres.

With which countries or regions does your government see its future trade and economic relationships, and why?

Trinidad and Tobago continues to value its existing trade and economic relationships. However, it is absolutely essential that it deepens its existing relationships and expands with other countries as we promote the growth and diversification of our economy. In the area of trade, Trinidad and Tobago envisages consolidation of relationships with its traditional trading partners, such as the United States, Canada, Europe and our neighbours within the Caricom region.

The USA is our main trading partner. In 2011, total trade with the USA was approximately US$7 billion. It is also the highest source of inward investment for energy and non-energy products and services sectors (66 percent in 2010). Europe is our second largest partner through the CARIFORUM-EC Economic Partnership Agreement.

Caricom is our third largest trading partner, and that market is critical as the region seeks to deepen the integration process. Canada is our sixth major export market for energy and non-energy products, especially for the large diaspora community in Toronto and Ottawa.

My administration has stated its intention to expand and strengthen trade relations with Latin American countries, given the geographic proximity and increasing purchasing power of its citizenry. We have commenced initiatives with such countries as Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador. We consider these to be important markets, especially for the exports of goods and services from the non-energy sector.

Our traditional sector, energy, requires us to engage other economies whose economic activities are aligned to this industry. Here we envisage trade and economic relations with a number of African and Asian countries.

We are assiduously working towards making Trinidad and Tobago the gateway to the Americas, as it is ideally positioned geographically. We have also significantly integrated Spanish into our society, in order to facilitate more robust trade with our South American partners.

Our progressive economy is consistently bolstered by our international reputation as a peaceful and stable democratic nation.

Additionally, considering the changing patterns in world trade and investment flows, such countries as Brazil, China, South Africa and India also emerge as candidates for future engagement. We are therefore actively seeking to enhance our relationships with these countries.

Economic diversification from oil and natural gas is proving to be a difficult goal to achieve by successive governments in Trinidad and Tobago, including yours. What are the special difficulties being faced by your government in this regard?

Economic diversification for countries blessed with an endowment of natural resources has been a challenge for many governments worldwide, including Trinidad and Tobago.

The special difficulties faced by my administration are not new but are issues that have posed challenges to previous administrations as well. The special difficulties are: vulnerability of Trinidad and Tobago to international economic environment; risk aversions of local businessmen; very limited value added to products and lack of capacity and ability to adapt technology and to innovate; outdated legal/regulatory and institutional/administrative frameworks for private sector activities; productivity levels; [and] very limited foreign investment in the non-energy sector.

However, my administration remains committed to broadening the role played by the non-energy sector of the economy. Indeed, in 2012, the growth in the non-petroleum industry (estimated at approximately 1.9 percent) is expected to outperform the petroleum industry and will also be the first time since 2009 that this sector of the economy has achieved positive growth.

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Planning and Sustainable Development, the government has identified six business clusters – Energy, Food Sustainability, Maritime, Tourism, Creative Industries and Financial Services – to drive its diversification targets. The government is also actively pursuing the operationalisation of a National Innovation System of Trinidad and Tobago (NISTT) and National Innovation Policy, which we anticipate will act as a catalyst for increased innovation to be the driving force behind our economic sustainability.

Economic diversification is not a quick fix solution but has to be sustained in the medium and long term. It would require political will and fortitude to water and nurture the seeds of diversification, through the economic ups and downs, to take deep roots and bear fruits many years from now.

My administration has the diversification of the economy as a top priority and is committed to the long-term process.

Caricom continues to fail to meet projected objectives in relation to the establishment and operation of the Single Market Economy. Several deadlines have been missed. Has the economic and trade grouping run its course?

I do not believe so. Economic integration for countries all over the world has always been a challenge. Caricom is the second major market for Trinidad and Tobago [and] provides an avenue for sharpening our domestic competitiveness since we are the leading exporter in Caricom, generating in excess of 80 percent of intra-Caricom merchandise exports. Therefore, Trinidad and Tobago’s further integration with the Caricom region must, by necessity, remain a priority.

Trinidad and Tobago, as a member of Caricom, is fully committed to the realisation of a Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME) since the main objectives of the CSME are: full use of labour (full employment); full exploitation of the other factors of production (natural resources and capital); and competitive production leading to greater variety and quantity of products and services to trade with other countries extra-regionally.

It is therefore expected that these objectives will in turn provide improved standards of living and sustained economic development throughout the region.

You were Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth up to October 2012 and you are now part of its leadership, ‘Troika’. What is your vision of the Commonwealth’s role in the future, and how is your government pursuing that vision?

The vision for the Commonwealth has always been multifaceted, as it has evolved over the years to cater to the political, social and economic development of its member states. In doing so, the vision for the Commonwealth is that of a network of collaborative organisations and partnerships, which can be a force for the greater good of its membership and for the world.

One area envisioned for further development is the strengthening of the Commonwealth’s role in education, in particular, the issue of the education of young girls. This is particularly important to me, as in many parts of the world there is systemic discrimination, which denies them access to education, therefore shackling them and relegating them to a life of marginalisation and poverty.

In Trinidad and Tobago, education remains one of the largest expenditure items in the annual budget. We maintain free and compulsory education for all children up to the age of 16. My government’s eConnect and Learn (eCAL) programme distributes computers annually to girls and boys entering secondary school, as well as to their teachers, underscoring the government’s commitment to learning and to bridging the digital divide.

In Trinidad and Tobago, one of the main challenges of the education system is not the exclusion or marginalisation of young girls, but that our young women are significantly outperforming their male counterparts. The problem is rather the underachievement of boys and young men. Therefore, we have sought to target young males in mentorship and skills-building programmes.

Our thrust to bridge the digital divide has resulted in greater access to online tertiary education programmes, thereby opening the window of opportunity for both young men and women to learn at their own pace and achieve their own academic goals while they pursue their careers.

As Commonwealth Chair, you had projected an increase in women’s representation in parliament and cabinet to 30 percent minimum, 50 percent where the first has been reached. Was that a successful projection? Has it been achieved in your own government?

The government of Trinidad and Tobago is committed to establishing mechanisms to accelerate the achievement of gender equality in political participation and representation at all levels of the electoral process. It is also dedicated to ensuring women’s full participation on the basis of equality with men in all areas of public life, including governmental bodies, the judiciary, trade unions, the private sector, political parties, employers’ organisations, research and academic institutions, and national corporations.

My government intends to support these objectives by providing gender awareness training for recruiting bodies, including political parties, to ensure that women participate equally; and by implementing mechanisms to evaluate and monitor progress.

I am pleased to report that there have been increases in women’s overall participation in national leadership and decision-making in Trinidad and Tobago. Participation of women has increased in the Lower House from 11.1 percent in 2001 to 28.6 percent in 2010, and that figure has been maintained up to 2012.

We are currently preparing for local government elections in 2013 and it is my hope that we will see increased women’s participation in the local government arena. As of April 2012, there were 40 female councillors, accounting for 30 percent of persons in local government.

About the author:

The Honourable Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP, is Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago


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