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Choosing commercial attachés
T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce
The Government of T&T has, over numerous administrations, attempted to devise an appropriate format to assist local companies in penetrating foreign markets. It has established trade facilitation offices (TFOs)—one in Panama and one in Cuba; the TFO in Panama was closed due to a lack of sustainability and the TFO in Cuba is currently transitioning from being a totally government-sponsored organisation to being partially self-sufficient, and finding the transition to be a bumpy one. Governments have also in the past not sought out persons with specific qualifications to serve as commercial attachés, but instead might have used ordinary foreign-service officers with very little specific business training or knowledge of the particular local industry. The formulas have not worked as planned. In some cases, the wrong person was chosen; in others, persons with particular skills sets were not properly matched to the missions to which they were posted. But, in all cases, there has been no local backstopping and support for their activities. It is not surprising, therefore, that the rate of success of these past initiatives is so low. It is now time—indeed, well past time—for the Government to have in place a comprehensive commercial-attaché programme at this country’s foreign missions.
For years now, the matter has been talked about. Now, this Government has an opportunity to improve this dismal record. It should start by carefully selecting the persons to represent our commercial interests abroad. It is necessary for these appointees to be highly qualified, knowledgeable about the private sector in T&T and the region, and be able to function at a high level (commercially and diplomatically) in overseas territories. Then, it must put in place a system of performance measurement. Goals should be set in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Trade but also with interested private-sector bodies as well and there should be measurable targets to be met. In order to get the best out of these individuals, it might even be possible to set in place a framework of incentives for performance above the expected level. The future commercial attaché should also ideally have his/her own budget lines within the overall budget of the mission, to allow for attendance at commercial shows and events, required travel, communications and entertainment. They should have technical support within the mission, as well as support from both the public and private sectors in Trinidad and Tobago to follow up initiatives and requests for information and guidance. The commercial attaché must be in close, even constant contact with the private sector in T&T, using the available communications technologies.
All future attachés should first receive training on basic elements of diplomacy, as well as the foreign policy of the Government, since through performing commercial diplomacy they will need to be au courant with other aspects of our foreign policy, as well as knowledgeable about the dos and don’ts of traditional diplomacy. However, simply hiring the right people with the proper mix of experience, personality and technical business and trade knowledge is not enough. The Government must carefully and strategically choose the right countries for trade attachés. In implementing the commercial-attaché programme, priority should be given to both shoring up traditional export markets like Caricom and the United States and the European Union, while seeking to extend into Asia, Latin America and Africa in search of trade and investment. The chamber would suggest that the Government look closely at countries such as Costa Rica and Dominican Republic that we have had trade agreements with, but limited market penetration, as potential new markets to begin to roll out new commercial attachés.
Properly done, it can support the work of the Competitiveness and Innovation Council and the Economic Development Board. This programme would allow T&T to maintain leadership within the Caricom and to begin to support more effectively the export activities of its services providers and goods producers as they seek new business opportunities abroad. The chamber is pleased that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to be taking this approach and is consulting with business organisations. The ministry should be given every support from all the elements of the Government that it is leading.
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