Who needs a national plan?
It is the opinion of many thoughtful Bahamians that the reason we lack a sense of direction and a sense of purpose as a nation is because we have no national development plan.
The argument goes that we are stuck in a five-year cycle. During the five years that a party is in power, it focuses on being able to return to power and puts that above actually working toward long-term goals.
Meanwhile, the half of the population that didn’t vote for that party opposes everything it does and wishes it would fail. Then, when the opposition becomes government they attempt to disassociate themselves from many of the initiatives of the other side; they dismantle, discontinue or starve the former government’s programs to death.
Then there’s the fact that the government of the day arranges its activities — whether we are discussing hiring or the timing of infrastructural improvements or civil service bonuses — according to the five-year clock. Many argue that the remedy for this situation is a long-term national plan.
I think though that what we are suffering from is a lack of will, in the main.
Our leaders know with even better understanding than we do (because they have access to information we are denied), just how severe our problems are and just how to address them. But the concern is re-election.
Additionally, I think that we must understand that when it comes to public policy there are competing forces, competing interests at work. What may be good for the whole may not be good for a certain influential minority of men and women (numbers house owners, gas station owners, car dealers or teachers, for instance).
And the pressure that this minority can and is prepared to exert on those who determine public policy is far greater than the pressure the whole population is prepared to exert (even though it can in actuality exert more than anyone else). So the public good is delayed, diminished or discarded.
Those who call for a 25- or 30-year national plan are being a bit naive.
I understand the frustration they feel; the sense they have that our leaders are clueless, that they must need some guidance in order to set things straight. But this is ultimately a mistaken conclusion to draw.
Our leaders consciously choose not to tackle certain problems head-on, or make certain decisions. Besides, it goes against the nature of our politics to have opposing sides agree and share one plan devised by one or the other.
If Ingraham and the Free National Movement (FNM) were to take the time to devise a 25-year plan, the plan would not be worth the paper it was written on the minute the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) or the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), or whoever else, gained power. The new government would certainly not wish to be constrained by the plans and visions of its adversaries. They want the freedom to put their own stamp on affairs and they would want to be able to respond to the peculiar demands of changing times.
I will say this, however: it is not an entirely impossible pipe dream, this notion of a long-range national plan.
The thing is, it simply can’t come from a political party. We are not some one-party state like China or Cuba. This is a capitalist democracy where there is a parliamentary system that allows for constant opposition to the government. There can only be but so much cooperation between opposite sides in this kind of system when it comes to the initiatives of one side or the other.
The game is to discredit your adversary and take power, after all. But there is nothing to stop our government experts and technocrats and members of civil society from devising long-range plans.
In fact, each ministry or major branch of government should be required to contribute to a plan that takes us 30 to 50 years ahead. Such plans would hopefully not have the ‘stain’ of party politics on them since it would be the work of permanent civil servants and other experts.
They should represent the informed vision of people who have the country’s best interest at heart, not the next election (ideally speaking). And since these plans would be derived outside of the parties they could be embraced and acted on by any party. And it creates a yardstick by which the performance of all parties can then be measured.
The National Planning Commission of Nigeria (also known as the Ministry of National Planning, NPC) and the National Planning Commission of South Africa are responsible for strategic planning for those countries. A similar commission was also created in Kenya. According to Nigeria’s NPC website, here are just a few of its responsibilities:
• To provide policy advice to the president in particular and Nigeria in general on all spheres of national life;
• To set national priorities and goals and engender consensus among government agencies, as may be contained in guidelines issued by the commission from time to time;
• To undertake periodic review and appraisal of the human and material resource capabilities of Nigeria with a view to advancing their development, efficiency and effective utilization;
• To formulate and prepare long-term, medium-term and short-term national development plans and to co-ordinate such plans at the federal, state and local government levels;
• To monitor projects and progress relating to plan implementation;
• To advise on changes and adjustments in institutions and management techniques as well as attitudes necessary for the alignment of actions with plan targets and goals;
• To conduct research into various aspects of national interest and public policy and ensure that the implications and results of the findings in such research are geared towards the enhancement of national, economic, social, technological, defense and security capabilities and management;
• To mobilize popular group and institutional consensus in support of government policies and programs;
• To manage multilateral and bilateral economic cooperation, including development aid and technical assistance.
Basically, what these countries, including some of our regional neighbors like Barbados, have concluded is that planning for a nation has to be removed to a great extent from the politics of getting and staying in office.
In Barbados, they have created the “National Strategic Plan of Barbados 2005-2025: Global Excellence, Barbadian Traditions”. This document, produced by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, brought together the input of the coalition of trade unions and staff associations of Barbados, the non-governmental organizations, officers of government ministries, and the academic community.
Some of the broader themes of the document include: “Unleashing the Spirit of the Nation”; “New Governance for New Times”; “Building Social Capital”; “Strengthening the Physical Infrastructure and Preserving the Environment”; “Enhancing Barbados’ Prosperity and Competitiveness”; and “Branding Barbados Globally”.
The plan is then broken down further into national objectives, strategies and targets, financial resources, implementation, and a planning matrix. The preparatory work alone took three years. Whether it will work is yet to be seen.
Regardless of whether one has any confidence in the effectiveness of a national plan and a related national planning commission, it remains true that Bahamian party politics and day-to-day governance limit the ability of most governments to plan long-term.
The smaller the nation is the smaller the gap between the executive, the people and the micro-issues. This is a part of why we still have parliamentarians who attend funerals and flock like geese whenever there is a gathering of disgruntled citizens.
Sadly, a good portion of the electorate would feel slighted if they stopped doing so. Add to that the task of keeping the existing system from falling apart, and who is going to step aside from all of that to examine the broader picture?
It is not true that Bahamians are incapable of planning. We have produced a whole range of studies, reports and proposals over the course of our history on everything from education, to crime, to youth development, to economic diversification and constitutional reform.
And we have also paid for experts from around the world to give us their professional advice on how best to grow as a country.
The trouble is that in addition to needing better leaders, leaders who are prepared to make big decisions, decisions that may be unpopular in the short-term but in the public interest in the long-term, we also need better citizens.
Citizens who are going to educate themselves and be prepared to apply real pressure on our often reluctant leaders, pressure that will make them take the paths we know will lead to greater peace, prosperity and opportunity.
Politicians, like most people, put self-interest first. They must be made to see that the price for not making the right choices is too high to pay. Otherwise they’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing: kicking the can down the road and buying us hams and turkeys.