Economic Outlook Forum 2020 - President's Speech

(AMCHAM T&T's Economic Outlook Forum 2020 - (l-r) Nirad Tewarie, AMCHAM T&T CEO, Gregory Nicholas Hill, Managing Director, ANSA Merchant Bank Ltd., Justin Ram, Director of
Economics, Caribbean Development Bank, Wade George, Executive Chairman, Ernst & Young, Patricia Ghany, AMCHAM T&T President, Joel 'Monty' Pemberton, Founder and Managing Director, DeNovo Energy Limited, Greer Quan, Chief Executive Officer Caribbean, Pan-American Life Insurance Group, and Zach Nadur, Partner, Ernst & Young.)

AMCHAM T&T’s Annual Economic Outlook Forum 2020
(Thursday, 30th January 2020

Opening Remarks by Patricia Ghany - President of AMCHAM T&T

A Vision for 2020 & Beyond

Good morning Ladies & Gentlemen

It is indeed a pleasure for me to welcome each of you here today to our Economic Outlook event “A Vision for 2020 & Beyond”.

‘Vision’ is a word often associated with 2020. Fifteen years ago, Trinidad and Tobago was introduced to Vision 2020 – an ambitious plan to guide our country to developed nation status by the year 2020. We were to invest in sound infrastructure, establish a sustainable business environment, and improve governance structures.

Now we’re standing in the year 2020. Whether we agreed with the initial vision or not, we have to ask: was that vision realized? Where did we succeed? And, where did we fail? If we didn’t agree with that vision and wanted to see a different model of development back then, have we even achieved that?

This look back through the lens of the past is not about bemoaning what some may see as our lack of progress. We do, however, need to understand where we came from so that we can move forward. After all, what we truly want to focus on at this Economic Outlook Forum, is a vision for the future. Kristi Hedges of Forbes magazine claims that a strong vision must be future-oriented. Hedges writes, “Leaders need to stay aware of current objectives, but they must also be looking out toward a future that lies further ahead.”

So, I want you to imagine something: take a few seconds and imagine our country’s future.

Personally, I imagine a society that is inclusive, innovative, productive, and resilient.

We at AMCHAM T&T, see a country that will be safe for all our young people to live, work and grow. We see visionary leaders and good governance. We see a flourishing business community where investors and entrepreneurs work together to create a booming economy that works for all our citizens. We see high levels of social mobility and equality.

We’ve said before that we need more collaboration at the political level. We understand that politics involves some level of one-upmanship and we are not utopian in our thinking, to believe that all decisions will be made by putting politics aside but, surely, some big decisions can be made. Some consensus can be fostered.

Surely our government and opposition, political, civic, business, and labour leaders can come together and agree on some key crime reduction initiatives, initiatives that will continue regardless of which party is in Government.

Surely, these same groups can come together to agree on some initiatives to reform the education system, prepare citizens for the future of work and increase productivity.

Surely, we can develop a coherent, long-term population management strategy to address the declining, aging population and the impact of migration.

Surely, we can come together on environmental protection and enhancement.

Surely, when we strip away the surface layers and short-term goals, we want a better Tobago and Trinidad.

You might dismiss this all as wishful thinking. But a vision for a better future is instrumental to the work we do at AMCHAM T&T. We need to see the forest first – and then we can focus on the trees. Put another way, we need to see our country as we would like it to be and then we need to work out how to make our vision a reality.

Maybe sometimes we focus too much on the small things. Maybe because that’s what we think we can fix. Yet by tinkering and shying away from the big, transformative issues, we ended 2019 with the following sobering statistics:

 - second highest murder rate in our nation’s history;
 - 105th out of 190 economies in the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings;
 - 85th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index – a fall of seven spots from our previous ranking.

The results of the Business Survey AMCHAM T&T conducted in collaboration with Ernest & Young over the past two months show that our professionals continue to leave, there is scant medium-term confidence in the dollar, and that a clear vision and plan for our country is a top factor in encouraging investment.

You might think, in the face of that data, it’s ridiculous to imagine a society that’s safe and fair, innovative and dynamic. But the opposite is in fact true. It is because of this data, these outcomes, that we need to do better. We say, if we can’t even imagine our ideal society then we will never be able to build it. We need to define and work toward our vision of the future more than ever before. We need to believe that we can be agents of change. And we need to act to turn that vision into a reality. I have no doubt that the business community in Trinidad and Tobago is committed to this cause. In fact, the results of the survey show exactly how committed the business community is to our country.

But our country is at a crossroads. And ours is a tiny, rural crossroad, several miles away from the large, geopolitical crossroad. Our tiny region is already a key actor in the global aspiration of the big powers of the USA, China, and Russia. We need to have a clear strategy to know in which direction to head. So, we need to do things differently. We need to think about our country and our development very differently than we have in the past.

And turning the ship of state 180 degrees is possible. In 1993, Time magazine named Colombia’s Medellin “the most dangerous city on earth”. Just 20 years later, in 2013, Medellin was celebrated as “the most innovative city in the world” by the Urban Land Institute. A city once known for cocaine and murder is now known for entrepreneurship and innovation. If Medellin can transform, so can we.

In the absence of a clear vision and therefore, direction, we are reaping the havoc of virtually standing still. Our Caribbean neighbours, Jamaica, Guyana, and Grenada are actively changing the structure of their economies and acting with a sense of purpose. So, we have to do better. Or at least do some things and stick to them.

I’d like to focus on just two areas that will be instrumental in building the society we envisage: technology and public procurement.

First, let’s imagine, a digitally enabled Trinidad & Tobago.

You don’t have to take time off work to renew your driver’s license.

Fintech makes it easier for small businesses to secure loans, manage payroll, and process payments.

A thriving entrepreneur community uses technology to solve society’s problems.

A unique national identification number and a separate legal digital identity allow us to vote online, get government documents in days, and transact business with the state.

How much easier would your life become?

AMCHAM T&T is working to make this vision a reality. Last year, AMCHAM T&T held the first ever Tech Hub Islands Summit (this) as part of our goal to build a tech hub right here in T&T. We are encouraged by the ways our partners are also embracing technology.

For example, the Ministry of Trade and Industry recently announced that, as part of their e-commerce strategy, the public will soon be able to pay online for government services.

We applaud this change both as business people and as citizens, looking forward to increased productivity.

But we need to remember that these are the first steps. Technology will need to permeate many more aspects of our lives before we can be a truly digitally enabled nation.

Secondly: public procurement. In order to have a society that is inclusive, safe, and productive, we must also build a society that is fair and transparent. In such a society, opportunities would be available to everyone and not just to those who have the right connections. To this end, AMCHAM T&T has repeatedly called for the full proclamation and operationalization of the Public Procurement Legislation. This legislation is a powerful weapon in the fight against corruption and crime.

We were disappointed to learn of the government’s decision to proceed with proposed amendments that would limit the authority of the Procurement Regulator as it relates to Public Private Partnerships and government-to-government transactions. In order to build a truly fair and transparent society, we must have oversight over all institutions.

Therefore, AMCHAM T&T wholeheartedly supports our partners in the Private Sector/Civil Society Group (PSCSG) in calling for no amendments to section 7(2) of the Act. Even after attempts to justify the changes, we remain resolute that amendments to this section of the act will put the country in a disadvantageous position and leave much room for corruption.

Further, we believe that there should be no more delay in proclaiming the sections of the Act which do not require the proclamation of regulations. We can all agree that we need a fair and transparent society – let’s put that vision into action. Let’s start building the society we want today.

According to the Harvard Business Review, a useful vision has to be rooted in your past, address the future, and deal with today’s realities. It represents who you are and what you stand for. It inspires you, and the people whose commitment you need, to act to make constructive change towards a future you all want to see. So, let’s get on with it!

Thanks for your time and attention.

Standing here, on the cusp of a new decade, I hope that AMCHAM T&T can be more than just a beacon of hope. I hope that we can contribute to inspiring the nation’s vision. I hope that, through our actions, we can show who we are as a people and what we stand for. We look forward to working with our partners and our members to build the future we all want to see.


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