September 22, 2003
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China’s 7th International Fair for Investment and Trade recently offered an opportunity for Guy-ana and seven other Caricom countries to make a pitch for investment in the region by Chinese companies and to find markets for their products.
Events of this type make clear that Guyana has much more work to do if it is to aggressively compete with its brethren in Caricom particularly for the prized role as a gateway or platform for China and other big developing economies to access South and North American markets. And while Guyana inches along in its quest to be considered in this role some of its Caricom partners are making deeper inroads and doing a far better job of showcasing themselves. Though as a whole the Caricom engine splutters along the road to regional development some of its top performers such as Trinidad and Barbados are positioning themselves for roles that will put them far ahead of the laggards and improve their individual competitiveness in relation to free trade agreements like the FTAA. Even relative Caricom newcomer Suriname is hot on the trail of the gateway role so it is not a position that Guyana should feel it has some special lock on because of its unique status as the only English-speaking country on the continent of South America, its physical proximity to Atlantic sea lanes or its seaport potential. It is a status on which it has to work very hard to shape and perfect and to sell to investors and traders such as those who flocked to the trade fair in the booming southern Chinese city of Xiamen.
Therefore, if Guyana is serious about playing this role as it says it is, it has to be better prepared and show more savvy. It definitely needed a stronger presence at the trade fair to make a major impact. While Guyana was represented at a fairly high level in the form of Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Trade and International Cooperation, John Isaacs it should be noted that several other Caricom countries were represented at ministerial level notwithstanding their countries’ commitments to the Cancun trade talks which were scheduled around the same period. The presence of a well-prepared minister helps to signal the country’s commitment to the message it is arguing.
Besides Mr Isaacs there was only one other official, Dr Ashni Singh. There were no officers, for instance, from the Guyana Office for Investment (Go-Invest) - the official investment and trade promotion agency. This would have been a perfect forum for the head of Go-Invest or one of its senior investment officers.
In addition, the Guyana booth was understaffed. Each of the other Caricom countries save for the Bahamas and St Lucia had at least four and up to eight persons from a cross-section of industries and investment/trade promotion agencies manning their presentations. Suriname was represented by its Trade and Industry Minister Michael Jong Tjien Fa and its delegation also included his executive senior adviser, the President of the Suriname Trade and Industry Association, the general manager of the state oil company of Suriname, the President of the Suriname bank, the President of the dry dock industries and an engineering consultant among others. The same was true for Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad.
Most of the other delegations had private sector representation and this is always useful in sectors where the business is in the hands of the private sector. Surely arrangements could have been made for a well-briefed representative from one of the business bodies in the country to be part of the delegation.
Another area of deficiency was the material that was laid out from prospective investors. While it is always nice to have the sample bottles of rum, sugar and timber, in the investment area, detailed descriptions of available projects are needed for those who are interested or just drop by. Further, officers knowledgeable in the incentives that such projects would attract and the start-up process would need to be on hand to provide the details. The material also has to be supplemented by high tech aids which are now commonplace such as compact disks as the Surinamese were handing out. There was no evidence of this at the Guyana booth. Incidentally, what were handouts on the Enmore martyrs doing at the booth?
Further, when countries attend these expos they should have something tangible to attract investors. Suriname had its bidding round for offshore oil exploration while Jamaica was marketing its commercial free zone and trade distribution hub to Chinese manufacturers. Guyana touted the Guyana-Roraima (Brazil) Integration Project where it is envisaged that an industrial corridor will link Boa Vista (Brazil) to Georgetown and feature a deep-draught port on the Atlantic coast as well as a hydro-electric plant. The only problem is that this project remains pie in the sky for the moment and could end up frustrating people who might genuinely be interested in it. In truth, it may be another three to five years before these things begin to materialise if at all. Investors need to be sold on projects they can touch and investigate. The fact that the new investment bill is still to be approved by Parliament also does not help. Investors are not thrilled by promises of law changes; they want to deal with what exists.
Representation at trade and investment fairs has to be taken more seriously and where we aren’t fully prepared it is actually a better idea to skip them rather than to appear unready to compete with the top performers. Selling Guyana’s investment and trade prospects abroad should be an effort that cuts across all ministries and relevant agencies and which produces a standard document supplemented by power point presentations, slides, compact disks, brochures and other aids. It will cost more than we have invested at the moment. We must select viable projects and businesses ripe for joint ventures and prepare dossiers on these for future expos. In addition, investment officers should man these booths with the relevant input from the private sector and government.
We also have to be alive to the nuances of the cultures we operate in and in finessing presentations. For instance, Jamaica had all of its presentations and business cards in both English and Chinese not only as a mark of respect for the Chinese but probably because not many of the Chinese businessmen understand English. This is an important factor but first we must work on the core presentation and produce something we can all be proud of.