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Interview - January 26, 2012
United World talks to Robert Ameerali, Vice-President of Suriname

Please give us an overview of Suriname’s economy.

In all honesty, we benefit from high commodity prices (mainly, gold and oil). That was one of the main reasons for our growth. We are currently on the path of reformation. Suriname has been an independent country since 1975.  We are constantly striving to improve productivity.

One of the main reasons that we were able to overcome the global financial crisis was that we have already been primed to face various kinds of challenges, including the ones that we dealt with, prior to this whole development.

What challenges do you face?

The main challenge is to come up with a good government sector reform to make sure that the administration does what it is supposed to do. It should be able to facilitate and deliver services to the community, as well as checking if such services could be provided by other institutions or entities in the business community.

What are Suriname’s competitive advantages over other South American countries?

We are blessed to be in South America where we do not get too many disruptions from nature (e.g. no hurricanes, no intense earthquakes, etc.) In a way, we are very lucky. We have a lovely climate, a good mix of cultural influences (multicultural), a small but hearty population, and a vast natural reserve (1.8 million hectares).

You mentioned that Suriname has a small and strong population. While larger countries face the problem of overpopulation, Suriname lies on the other end of the spectrum. In your opinion, does having a small population pose some unique challenges, as well?

Of course, having a small population does have its challenges in terms of defending the sectors. Ideally, you would need a population of three to five  million people to do the things that you want to do in a country like ours, to explore the potential of our natural resources, be it gold, aluminum oxide, tourism, wind energy, etc.   

We understand that the government is currently working on diversifying Suriname’s economy. Can you expound on that?

Historically, Suriname was largely an agricultural country. As early as 200 years ago, Suriname had engaged in farming cacao and other traditional crops (e.g. sugar, coffee, cocoa, bananas, rice, and certain kinds of fruit).

For 50 years, our country had strengthened its rice farming industry, producing 80,000 to 120,000 tons of rice. This industry was sustained mainly by the preferential trade agreements that we had with the EU. Of course, that, too, came to an end and we experienced some problems.

The increase in food prices paved the way for a new economic boom in agriculture. Suriname once again had strong rural industries. It revived our exports (e.g. bananas, shrimps, etc.). As you know, Suriname has some of the best shrimps in the region. We export shrimps to overseas markets such as Japan. However, if you compare the revenue derived from agriculture to mining, it is still relatively low.

We have to be realistic. While Suriname is a big player in the agricultural industry, mining is one of the top industries globally. We need to position ourselves as a strong player in the mining sector.

We also need to look into industries that generate employment at a scale that we need. That is why we need to develop other sectors such as service and tourism. At the end of the day, the best way to develop a country is to develop its people. To do that, you need to create jobs. You need to develop a strong middle class. That is what we are working on.       

How would you assess Suriname’s relationship with other countries in the region?

Suriname joined the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in 1995. If you look at our country’s history, you will find that it was a Dutch colony in a Latin American world. Apart from Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, the Guiana Shield covers the British Guiana (now Guyana), the Dutch Guiana (now Suriname), and the French Guiana or Guyane. Surinames have never been too familiar with the Caribbean or Latin America. They have always been more focused on Holland. After the country’s independence from the Dutch, it took us another 20 years before we decided to join Caricom (of which we are a proud member ).

“The government is there to help create opportunities for industries with the highest potential.”

Robert Ameerali, Vice-President of Suriname

The new world brings with it a new set of challenges, and being in a multilateral association is a strategic way of preparing for these challenges. Today, Suriname is taking a lead role in Caricom. We are joining the Union de Naciones Suramericanas (Unasur). We are doing all these because we want to integrate further with what is happening in the region. At present, we have a very strong policy on that.        

How is the government working with the industries to expand Suriname’s export markets?

Looking at our export portfolio, you have three main commodities in terms of value: oil, gold and aluminum. While we are also strong in the exportation of bananas and shrimp, the value that these three major industries bring in is higher. Canada is an important market because of gold. Trinidad is a major market because of oil. We export more than we import to Trinidad.

Looking at the competition in this new market, China is strong in terms of their services industry. To compete with them in that area is going to be tough. We need to create a niche market for niche products to be able to maintain a strong service industry. We need to develop our strength in food, because this is something that the world is going to continue to need in the future. 

Kindly elaborate on the bilateral relations between the U.S. and Suriname. What role does the U.S. play in Suriname’s economy?

We have always had a good relationship with the U.S. Given the fact that the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) is almost 100 years old, and that Suriname was used as a U.S. aviation base during the World War, we have always been a very good partner for the U.S. We have the South Dakota-Suriname Partnership Program (SPP). The SPP is very good program with South Dakota that has been initiated by the military involving our armies.

I think things are going a certain way. So far, it has been positive. Of course, we have to be realistic. When it comes to volume in Suriname, you are talking about half a million people.

Here in Suriname, we use the American currency. We follow the same governmental structure. By selling the Alcoa Afobaka dam, we have fully integrated with American standards.

In terms of FDI, which sectors would you highlight?

Suriname’s agro processing industry has a lot of potential. The U.S. has the kind of expertise and technology that would help us develop the sector further. Suriname also has a strong potential in the tourism and forestry industries.
Of course, we also see some potential in mining, but a large part of it has already been spoken for (mostly by big American players who take the lead in their respective industries).  

How is the public sector working with the private sector to improve Suriname’s economy?

The government is there to help create opportunities for industries with the highest potential.

Earlier on, you mentioned a stronger focus on industries that create more jobs for the people. Can you expand on that?

In terms of the mining industry, we are looking to build two new mines in the coming years. This means we are going to have new operators for bulldozers and the like. We are going to need new drivers, mechanics, processing engineers and heavy equipment operators. Not many people believe this, but you can earn as much as US$1,500 to US$2,000 as a skilled worker. Of course, some would rather be pilots but the openings are for these kinds of skill-intensive jobs (and you can earn as much, too). People should realize this opportunity as early as now so they can get the proper training for it. They should not wait for the mines to be here; otherwise, we are going to have to fly in Filipinos who are adept in the field and miss out on the employment opportunity. The same goes for specialized jobs in the agricultural industry. We should get the training now and expand our agricultural production.

Where do you see Suriname 10 years from now?

I hope that by then, we have managed to grow our local population. I also hope that by then, we have managed to open the skies completely. When we manage to get that policy sorted out, we can attract the best people from the Caribbean and get them to live here. Suriname will continue to be a country with a good social climate and high level of safety. 

Formerly president of the Chamber of Commerce, in which you were involved for 14 years, and now the Vice-President of the Republic, in the course of your illustrious career, which achievements have you been most proud of?

I still think I still have some way to go. There is still a lot to do. My biggest challenge has been to reform the economy, the government sector and the efficiencies that we have in the country. This includes integration, digitalization and so on. I do have considerable experience in that area, which I hope to apply at a national scale.

I envision a lean and efficient government sector—the kind that would complement the business sector so that it can develop further and create more jobs. We should create a self-sustaining business sector that does not depend too much on the government. We want to create the kind of economy that brings rewards to those who are hardworking and industrious. Here, people do more than simply survive. They have opportunities to better themselves and acquire more wealth. As a government leader, these are all the things that I want for my people. I will do the best that I can to establish the sort of reforms that would change the way people do business. 

What kind of global image would you like Suriname to have?

I want Suriname to be perceived as one of the safest countries in the world. I want it to be seen as a secure environment to live and do work in. Ours is a hospitable nation. Our systems follow high standards.

What final message would you like to convey to the readers of USA Today?

We welcome everyone to come and visit Suriname. It is a beautiful, multicultural country where the weather is almost always fine.