Central America has an important opportunity over the next few years to build inclusive and sustainable development through deepening regional economic integration, both to further the development of its internal market at sufficient scale, and to present the region as more attractive for investment. At the Secretariat for Central American Economic Integration (SIECA), we view coordinated regional integration as crucial to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Key priorities are facilitating trade, promoting sustainable, resilient infrastructure and ensuring the integration of small-scale enterprises into value chains and markets (SDG 9), as well as promoting gender equality through women’s economic empowerment (SDG 5).
Regional action to support trade
Central America has made considerable progress in fostering trade openness and economic integration. The majority of trade within the region is now conducted under a free trade regime – tariffs apply to only 1.8 percent of originating products. Because of this progress, intraregional trade went from accounting for 16 percent of total exports in 1960 to 32 percent in 2015.
However, the World Bank estimates that around 12 percent of the value of consumer goods in Central American countries is still associated with the burdensome procedures and out-dated infrastructure in borders. It also takes an average of 13 days to export and 14 days to import products, and freight moves at an average speed of only 17 km per hour. Costs associated with road transportation are particularly high in the region. In advanced economies, freight transport prices are as low as 2-5 US cents per ton-kilometre, but they average 17 US cents per ton-kilometre on main Central American routes; prices stand out even against other developing economies. This is why trade facilitation has become one of the region’s priorities.
In addition to taking part in the implementation of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) – El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama have already notified the WTO of its ratification, and the rest of countries are in the process of doing so –, Central America adopted its Strategy for Trade Facilitation and Competitiveness (STFC) in October 2015. The Strategy will involve the implementation of five short-term measures to streamline border management procedures, and a medium and long term plan to consolidate a Coordinated Border Management (CBM) system in Central America, following the guidelines and best practices from the World Customs Organization (WCO). Successful implementation of the Strategy could enable an increase of between 1.4 and 3 percent in the region’s GNP and a surge in exports between 4.2 and 11.9 percent, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The STFC, moreover, is conceived only as a step towards deeper economic integration. A roadmap to be implemented from now to 2024 has also been approved with the aim of establishing a Central American Customs Union (CACU).
Besides trade and integration, Central America is seeking to improve its infrastructure. Panama is the most ambitious; having recently invested US$5.58 billion in the expansion of the Panama Canal; they’re also creating a second metro line, and have already announced a third one valued in US$2300 million. Meanwhile, Honduras has focused in infrastructure supportive of trade facilitation, and Guatemala and El Salvador have devoted resources to energy-related projects.
Despite this the region still faces a sizeable investment gap. According to ECLAC estimates, Latin America needs to spend some 6.2 percent of GDP per year on average to fund infrastructure investment needs in transport, energy, telecommunications, and drinking water and sanitation, but spending is currently below 3 percent of GDP in Central America. The region also needs to revamp its existing infrastructure, building resilience to the effects of climate change, and improving adaptive capacity to face climate-related hazards and natural disasters, reflecting the targets under SDG 13 on climate change.
Just as crucial is investment in boosting micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Around 96 percent of Central America’s companies are MSMEs, which support 54 percent of employment and contribute to 34 percent of the region’s GDP. It is thus crucial to harness the potential of the regional market – which is large, with similar cultural background and a shared language – to offer small firms the opportunity to engage in international trade. SIECA has intervened to bolster MSME participation in value chains for key export products, including bovine meat, natural honey, foliage, cardamom, tilapia and shrimp, through the Regional Programme for Quality Support of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures in Central America (PRACAMS), which operates with funds from the European Union.
Moving forward, the region is looking to support MSMEs in other sectors of industry, creating a path for entrepreneurs to join the formal economy, create better jobs, and – because 46 percent of micro enterprises are owned by women – boost women’s participation in regional and global value chains and their economic empowerment. A recent SIECA study shows that the sectors with the most potential for participation in value chains include food preparations, vegetables, cardamom, coffee, and cattle.
Addressing financing gaps
All these efforts require a substantial amount of support. Overall, SIECA managed US$9.3 million in cooperation funds in 2014 and US$11.7 million in 2015, including for the work on MSMEs and GVCs above. As the sustainable development agenda moves forward, however, regional efforts will also require improved monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to ensure effective allocation of funds and an overarching strategy that ensures resources are aligned with the region’s own development goals.
Preventing overlaps or contradictions between each countries’ fund allocation will be crucial. To achieve this, the Council of Ministers of Economic Integration is expected to soon approve the Central American Aid for Trade Programme (AfTP), and later submit it to the Summit of Presidents for its adoption, a systematic investment plan to address regional trade-related investment needs in a coordinated way.
In SIECA’s experience, aid is more effective when there is a close collaboration between countries and donors. Clear communication and feedback mechanisms have helped us enhance the effectiveness of our collective actions. We’ve also learned the importance of coordinating the execution of projects at the regional level, to avoid redundancies and ensure regional efforts are coherent. Instruments to assist leaders in identifying financing gaps and seek investment and funds to cover them are also crucial. Applying these lessons will be crucial for success as Central America moves ahead with the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.