Political analysts share concerns over WISEZ

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By Makeida Antonio

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The 2021 Licence Order which stipulates the governance and activities of the Western Imperial Special Economic Zone (WISEZ) came under a microscope of two political professionals yesterday.

In September, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda granted to Millennia-Montaigne Developments (Antigua) Limited (MMDA) a licence to establish a Special Economic Zone in the designated lands in Jennings and Five Islands.

Louis Rivera, the Vice-Chairperson of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) who possesses a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in International Relations/Economics from the University of the West Indies, shared his concern that the document was created without public consultations and he believes the document is too extensive not to have any guarantees that would benefit Antigua and Barbuda.

Rivera explained that anything that involved mass concessions needs consultations from citizens, especially in a case where the governing laws and regulations of the SEZ do not align with those of the country in which the development is occurring.

He suggested that the Special Economic Zone Act, 2015S should be amended so that greater control lies within the power of the government that the people elected. He called for explicit parameters to be set in law so Parliament does not have to meet to decide terms and conditions in every instance that an investor applies for an SEZ.

“If we decide as a people that this is the type of development that we want, we the people must set limits on these Special Economic Zones. So, tweak the main law so that Parliament is not burdened every time.”

Additionally, Rivera wanted policymakers to consider the financial implications of WISEZ and the impact it will have on the country’s economy. His fear is that the finances of the development would not be regulated by Antiguan authorities as the nature of this SEZ is autonomous activity. He said this setup has blacklisting and derisking implications for the country’s financial sector.

While some may argue that there are benefits to be derived from successful SEZ’s Rivera remained firm that the success lies in the guarantees to the host country that are outlined to those investors. He said that the tangible benefits such as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and other benefits that would be indirect can only be gained if there are certain conditions that must be met and limitations set such as requiring local employment and that a range of revenue must be earned by the State.

According to Rivera, in his estimation and research, the only real benefit was the purchase of lands even though some duties were removed. He recommended that a cost-benefit analysis should be factored into the decision made to bring investors on board, especially decisions that will have a long-lasting impact not only in Antigua but across the wider Caribbean region.

“What about stipulations saying that 40 percent of the workforce must be Caricom nationals, given all the hard work done into regional integration?” he asked as an example.

Dr David Hinds is a political commentator from Guyana and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies with a concentration on Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University was the other contributor to Observer media’s Big Issues topic yesterday.

Dr Hinds said that this type of development is not a new initiative in the English-speaking Caribbean and referenced the Free Zone in Jamaica, established in the 1970s, which he noted had little to no significant benefit for Jamaican workers. As he made the comparison, Hinds said he does not believe that the WISEZ framework is the most suitable arrangement and encouraged Antiguans to be “extremely skeptical” of this initiative.

Regarding the language used in the License Order, Dr Hinds warned that small island developing states often find themselves at the mercy of investors who have options from across the world.

“It is not the type of language that should be accepted but its accepted by small economies in the Caribbean. The language is so general and overarching, it binds the host country. As the Zone develops, the host countries give up more and more to keep these Special Economic Zones.”

Hinds said that the guarantees from WISEZ are not quite clear and that he thinks that it is an expansive project that can “affect the economic sovereignty of the country”. He also questioned whether or not the rights of workers will face implications as a result of this development.

In closing, Hinds said, “I don’t think these things are driven by ideology.”

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