Former energy minister Conrad Enill is probably right that diversification isn’t going to solve any of TT’s economic problems in a hurry. But there has also been no articulation of a meaningful diversification strategy that has been comprehensively identified, explored and codified by any recent government despite their enthusiasm to use the word carelessly.
In the absence of such planning, Minister of Energy Franklin Khan told his international peers at the Gas Exporting Countries Forum convened at the Hyatt Regency last week that the main thrust of the government’s diversification planning is natural gas and the development of downstream industries based on it. That isn’t diversification, it’s substitution, and the government’s top-level strategy seems to be based on minor tweaks of existing presumptions about the country’s economic profile and a continued reliance on the petroleum sector.
Reinforcing that strategy was the announcement by Venezuela’s Energy Minister Manuel Quevedo, that he expects first gas from the Dragon field, a massive natural gas reserve sitting in deep water on the border between his country and Trinidad and Tobago, in two years. While Quevedo admitted that this first whiff would be test molecules and far short of the expected daily flow of 150 million cubic feet of gas expected from the project, it’s also a timeline that falls neatly into the nation’s election cycle.
Diversification of business and production in TT has always been challenged by the ready availability of cash from our petroleum natural resources, which makes other projects look like a lot of unnecessary hard work. The result of that perspective is something that Enill flirted with addressing when he spoke on diversification at the Institute of Chartered Accountants last week. An inefficient government bureaucracy, poor work ethic and an abundance of crime and theft at all levels of society, as Enill pointed out, have led to a middling national showing in the Global Competitiveness Index. But an economy that stifles entrepreneurship and continues to prize the notion of building concrete boxes into which the contents of shipping containers get stuffed for sale is just a continuance of lazy thinking based on an economic model that is rapidly evaporating.
A government has five years to build a narrative for its re-election, a time that’s entirely too short for the considerable arc of national transformation which demands changes in our education system, a rethinking of business development incentives, a specific intent to design a realistic economic future for TT and a robust national plan that is both readily understood by the wider public and embraced as a shared mission.
Until then, diversification will be consigned to being a buzzword for political speeches, colourful lip service to a mission critical idea.