Recently, Premier Kathy Dunderdale and her entourage — Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy, Natural Resources Minister Tom Marshall, Nalcor head Ed Martin and Memorial University president Gary Kachanoski, to name just the dignitaries — returned from a Chinese trade mission that they’ve been on since June 20.
Dunderdale described the reason for the visit like this: “Over the coming days, we will hold meetings with key Chinese businesses and government officials to explore new opportunities and further solidify our current relationships.”
The mission garnered a small collection of memoranda of understanding — an agreement to mutually “encourage the post-secondary institutions to formally recognize diplomas, degrees and certificates from each other’s jurisdiction,” for example, as well as an MOU to place 20 doctoral students. That, coupled with four other MOUs on education and an agreement to enhance trade relations with Zhejiang province, pretty much mark the sum total of the trip’s returns.
In a series of news releases, the provincial government also highlighted its discussions with a series of Chinese officials.
Now, it may well have been a valuable mission; it may do something that MOUs with Chinese agencies and companies haven’t done in the past, in that it might actually make valuable working connections. Trips in the past have been long on promise and short on delivery. There have been MOUs signed to build ferries, package apple juice and any number of technological promises that have come to naught.
So why not try something new?
Instead of simply taking for granted that trade missions are of value — any trade missions, from the City of St. John’s and its regular winter march southwards to cruise ship trade shows and on up — why don’t governments do a cold, hard, cost-benefit analysis on what concrete results the travels actually have had? And do the work on the hard numbers, too — not on the pie-in-the-sky that is the “we’ll all work hard” MOU, but on the actual financial returns of expanded trade and investment.
We are all apparently supposed to take for granted that “get-acquainted” meetings between our provincial government and similar officials in other lands necessarily create business successes — but if history is any guide, they almost certainly will not. The government goodwill graveyard is littered with the remains of MOUs that have turned out to be MO-Useless. Yet we seem willing to continue down that road year after year, government after government.
Often, it seems like trade missions are more valuable in getting politicians away from sticky issues like renegade senators or bad by-election beat-downs than they ever will be for building trade.
This particular venture may be no better or worse on that score than any number taken by governments going back years, although its inability to harvest more than even a paltry collection of lightweight MOUs that could probably could have been handled by email certainly doesn’t advertise it as a particularly bright beacon of success.
There might be better ways to spend both the money and the time.
Why not do the review?