Countries seldom grow rich by producing the same things more productively. They usually change what they produce in the process of development. Structural transformation is the process whereby countries move to new economic activities that are more productive and thus are able to pay higher wages. This process is very important for growth: countries that are able to upgrade their exports by developing new economic activities tend to grow faster (Hausmann and Rodrik, 2003; Hausmann, Hwang, and Rodrik, 2006).
The purpose of this paper is to apply new methodologies to analyze the history of and future opportunities for structural transformation in the Caribbean. We first look at the composition of exports from the Caribbean, and show that the region is specialized in relatively unsophisticated, ―poor-country‖ export products, and this is not simply a consequence of their small size or specialization in tourism and financial services.
We then review the concept of the ―product space‖ and determine where the Caribbean countries are specialized within this space. The results show that generally these countries export peripheral products that are intensive in capabilities with few alternative uses. In addition, we consider what effects regional integration would have on this opportunity set and show that future opportunities for structural transformation are much higher for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) as a perfectly integrated zone—higher than for any of its members on their own.
The final section discusses the policy implications of these results. We show that for almost all countries in the Caribbean there is a need to move to new export activities. Some countries in the region have a set of nearby activities they could exploit, including in the services sector, which suggests a parsimonious approach to promoting new activities is appropriate. This approach involves the government better orienting itself to learn what emerging sectors need in the way of publically provided inputs. But for many countries in the region, there are few nearby activities, suggesting a more proactive search process is necessary. In the appendix we apply the product space data to this search for nearby and more distant export activities for Belize and Jamaica. However, such data is merely a starting point for what must be a continuous process of high-bandwidth dialogue with the private sector to learn what is needed for new activities to emerge. We provide general design guidelines for such a dialogue, both for nearby and more distant activities, and we outline some specific initiatives as examples.