By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Bahamas' chief negotiator says joining the WTO can help solve this nation's 'ease of doing business' woes, arguing: "We must move the needle on new industries."
Raymond Winder told Tribune Business that becoming a full member of the rules-based trading regime will force the Bahamas to modernise its economy and remove structural impediments to growth, citing the absence of "quality investment legislation" as one such bottleneck that must be addressed.
The Deloitte & Touche managing partner said he was "convinced we have lost out on potentially significant investment", especially for Grand Bahama, with this nation "never making the first cut" among investors due its status as a WTO non-member and uncertainty over "the rules of the game".
Trade regimes such as the WTO mandate that countries codify their investment rules in statute law, rather than leave them open to change as 'policy', and Mr Winder suggested one benefit from such an enforced change will be to "level the playing field" between foreign and Bahamian investors.
Many in the private sector have argued that the Bahamas must first improve its economic competitiveness, and address its 'ease of doing business' deficiencies in particular, if local businesses are to 'survive and thrive' in a post-WTO environment where they will have to battle larger foreign rivals 'head on'.
They have called for these weaknesses to be addressed 18-24 months before the Bahamas becomes a full WTO member, but Mr Winder rejected using this as an excuse to delay the country's accession.
He argued that the two issues - WTO membership and 'ease of doing business' - are not mutually exclusive and independent, but interlinked with progress on one helping to move the other forward.
With the economy's 'twin pillars' of tourism and financial services "under attack", Mr Winder said the Bahamas had little choice but to diversify and restructure its economy through WTO and other initiatives.
He argued that the country had wasted the past decade "fighting" over how to redistribute economic wealth, rather than "growing the pie" for the benefit of all Bahamians.
Explaining why 'ease of business' concerns "do not have a bearing" on the Bahamas' WTO progress, Mr Winder told Tribune Business: "We ought not to use these problems to not have a good quality conversation on the merits, and pros and cons, of becoming a member of the WTO.
"Some have alleged we should not be talking about WTO until we address the 'ease of doing business'. The 'ease of business' is a process, and most of it is internal. But the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) process, in particular, has helped to move the process of improving the quality and 'ease of doing business', and by moving further forward on the WTO some of the things that will come out of that - becoming a WTO member - will also help the quality and 'ease of doing business'."