By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamians must not view World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership as the "end destination" but rather "one tool" for achieving essential reforms, Chamber of Commerce executives are urging.
Jeffrey Beckles, the Chamber's chief executive, and Darron Pickstock, who heads its trade and investment division, told Tribune Business that the WTO debate must take place in the "broader context" of reforms this nation must make regardless of whether or not it joins world trade's oversight body.
Speaking exclusively to Tribune Business, the duo said Bahamians were in danger of becoming too caught up in the pro- and anti-WTO arguments to the exclusion of all other issues, including the "serious" economic and social challenges facing this nation that are becoming ever more pressing.
They argued that reforms to improve The Bahamas' ease and cost of doing business were critical to its economic competitiveness and living standards whether the WTO existed or not, advocating that this nation needed to proceed with changes such as the elimination of bureaucracy and red tape, reduced energy prices and easier credit access for its own benefit - not anyone else's.
"It's important to view this whole debate around WTO in the broader context of these economic and structural reforms, and address the social challenges of The Bahamas," Mr Pickstock told Tribune Business.
"The focus should be on what we need to reform the economy structurally. The focus should not be on WTO; it's one potential tool in the armour to help us achieve structural reform. We therefore urge the government to really look at addressing these structural challenges we have, and to also look at the social challenges.
"It's not a panacea; it's just one tool. WTO by itself will not solve the economic and structural change issues that we face. It is in that vein that we need to be looking at these things."
Mr Beckles, backing his chamber colleague, said simply: "WTO cannot be a destination, but most people see it as a destination. Bahamians need to understand that very, very clearly. These reforms we're speaking to are good for The Bahamas. Period.
"When it comes to the WTO, it will only allow us to better use the tools. They're absolutely necessary and critical to the country's health."
The reforms identified by the private sector and the likes of the Government's own "ease of doing business" committee will involve a combination of process reforms, legislative and regulatory changes, and their execution/implementation on the ground.
One view is that acceding to full WTO membership will force The Bahamas to modernise its economy, and enact such reforms for its own benefit. Without such external pressure, the fear is that the country will retreat from much-needed change and the status quo will persist, leading ultimately to economic stagnation and a lack of diversification.
Mr Beckles added that the Chamber and private sector, will back any government decision to join or reject the WTO so long as it resulted in a strengthening of the Bahamian economy.
He said The Bahamas' economic challenges cannot be divorced from the country's numerous social issues, with structural reforms that lead to GDP growth and job creation a critical component in addressing problems elsewhere in society.
"We're wrestling with lots of social ills," the Chamber chief told Tribune Business. "While we're throwing money at these ills, you cannot have social success without economic success and vice versa.
"Many of the social ills can be addressed by identifying an economic plan, development plan for the country. That would give people hope at the social level. They can attach themselves to some of the plans to move the needle, and be less reckless than we see in many aspects of our social life.
"We can't keep throwing tax dollars at social ills. We have to address the cause, not keep throwing money at it."