Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018

OFF COURSE

A sober assessment of our Bahamas 45 years on
Governor General Dame Marguerite Pindling waves to the crowd as she is escorted by Commander of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force Commodore Tellis Bethel (left) and Commissioner of Police Anthony Ferguson following the inspection of the guard during the independence celebrations on Clifford Park on Monday night. TORRELL GLINTON

The celebration of Bahamian independence over the last several days provided a refreshing break from weeks of political strife, social unease and anxieties over our future as a nation, which had consumed us over the course of months.

While many remain jittery over our national prospects, and while many of our challenges still seem daunting, we were all reminded that as Bahamians we still have something to celebrate.

Celebrations were far from euphoric, however, as there is a certain malaise that has set in.

The current administration does not seem to understand where it had the Bahamian people just over a year ago.

At the time of the last election – not unlike other periods after an election – there was a renewal of hope.

There was a historic and tremendous mandate.

Bahamians everywhere were promised transformation, and they expected transformation in a major way.

In the months that followed that election, the government has been a political grinch, advising us to accept our political poison now to avoid calamity later.

This, along with various missteps, has contributed to an appreciable level of disappointment among the population.

Even though the Minnis administration may not be completely in the good graces of many Bahamians, we remain a land of bountiful potential.

Tapping into that potential has been among our most significant challenges.

Our national pride and our fierce loyalty to all things Bahamian have stitched together a rich fabric of aquamarine, gold and black.

Despite our differences, there is a certain specialness about being Bahamian, whether we are based in The Bahamas or somewhere else on the planet.

That specialness is hard to explain to others.

It cannot be diminished by politics, religious differences or anything else.

It provides freedom for those who call this place home.

It is what leads many of us to fight for a better Bahamas for all Bahamians, understanding that, as the inheritors of these islands, we have an obligation to protect them.

Forty-five years of independence meets The Bahamas at an interesting point in its development.

We have recorded important successes, including national institutions that have been sustained over many years. These include the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, the National Insurance Board, the now University of The Bahamas, Bahamasair and the Central Bank, among others.

We also have a stable economy, despite its years-long anemic growth.

We have repeatedly witnessed peaceful transitions of governments and achievements of our national heroes on home soil and on the global stage.

But we are still far off from where we could have been, had we not dismissed the talents and contributions of some among us due to political considerations.

Revolution

Forty-five years ago, those gathered at Clifford Park to witness the birth of a nation dreamed of a Bahamas with greater opportunities for their children and their children’s children.

Today, we are near-overwhelmed by our collective challenges.

Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands made an honest assessment of the state of the nation when he contributed to the budget debate in Parliament in June.

Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands.

“When you consider the plight of Bahamians, though independent, we are not free,” Sands said.

“The dream of 1967 has been thrown horribly off course, and the Bahamian who was shackled with the yoke of illiteracy, ill health and few opportunities in 1967 now finds himself imprisoned in a modern world where he is trapped with few skills, with very little access to land and capital and a feeling that this land has been possessed by others.”

Sands said 45 years after independence and many billions of dollars later, the people of The Bahamas have not been adequately empowered.

Sands also observed: “Our people have become appropriately cynical. They no longer trust that those elected to serve will act in their interest. It is largely this theme that we hear and see being played out every day. Believe me, I hear it; I see it; I feel it. It is for this reason that many have lost courage before.”

While majority rule in 1967 ushered in the social revolution, we are experiencing low educational attainment, high levels of crime, poverty and unemployment and a far from robust national economy.

The Department of Statistics’ Household Expenditure Survey of 2013 showed that 12.8 percent of the population was living in poverty. The poverty line at the time was $11.64 per day.

In 2018, many Bahamians remain challenged in their economic circumstances.

In May, the Central Bank of The Bahamas released the results of its Financial Literacy Survey 2018.

When respondents were asked to reflect on the last 12 months and indicate whether their incomes were generally sufficient to make ends meet each month, 47 percent stated that their earnings were usually insufficient to cover their living expenses.

Last November, unemployment in The Bahamas was recorded at 10.1 percent.

While the Baha Mar development has provided much-needed jobs, the government recognizes that the job market remains in a critical state.

There is a spark on the economic horizon, but it is far from full momentum.

In its Article IV consultation staff report released in April, the International Monetary Fund said the Bahamian economy grew by 1.3 percent in 2017, noting that economic activity has been supported by the completion of Baha Mar, the new FDI-financed projects, a stronger U.S. economy and post-hurricane reconstruction activity.

But 45 years after independence, the economic revolution has not yet been witnessed.

Bahamians have very little ownership in tourism, the country’s number one industry.

It seems the best many Bahamians can hope for is hotel jobs and other employment opportunities in tourism.

While successive governments have spoken of empowerment, we have not recorded tremendous successes in this regard.

When he spoke in 1998 at a Colloquium on Political Reform, Constitutional Change and National Development, former Prime Minister the late Sir Lynden Pindling predicted: “Just like the political revolution paved the way for majority political control, the combined political and social revolution have smoothed the path for the oncoming economic revolution, which will ultimately proclaim itself in majority economic control.”

Twenty years after his prediction, the economic revolution remains an unfulfilled dream.

In an article for The Nassau Guardian as we observed 40 years of independence in 2013, former Central Bank Governor James Smith noted that an over-reliance on FDI and public deficit financing have been the hallmark of economic development in The Bahamas over the preceding four decades, and although the standard of living has generally improved over the period, the long-term sustainability of that model is certainly open to question.

Other challenges

In that 1998 address, Sir Lynden highlighted the successes of the social revolution.

These included opening free high school education to the masses, introducing a massive college education scholarship program abroad and implementing effective Bahamianization at home, thereby creating a new middle class of striving and upwardly mobile citizens whose per capita income grew from $1,750 in 1966 to over $12,000 in 1992.

In 2014, per capita was recorded at $21,280, according to the World Bank World Development Report.

There are widespread fears that the recent increase in value-added tax from 7.5 percent to 12 percent will cause the middle class to shrink while straining disposable income further.

We also remain particularly challenged in the areas of health, national security and education.

Way back in 2005, a coalition of private sector organizations warned that the country’s present education “crisis” would have a serious detrimental impact on the national economy by the year 2020 if immediate steps were not taken to put in place reforms.

“A general low level of academic achievement has individual, national and international consequences,” the group said in a report titled “Bahamian Youth: The Untapped Resource”.

Frank Comito, then executive vice president of the Bahamas Hotel Association (BHA), said the consequences of not addressing the present crisis would be dire.

“Twenty years down the line we could find ourselves in a very uncompetitive situation where our cost of living would be incredibly high and our productivity would be incredibly low and the amount of dollars circulating through the economy because of that would be minimized, and it could have severe consequences not only on every individual in The Bahamas, but certainly on government revenues and support services and everything else,” Comito said.

The Bahamas has not progressed much in education since that warning 13 years ago.

Comito’s prediction for now remains on course.

Last fall, the Ministry of Education reported that national exam results worsened when compared to the year before.

While more students sat the core Bahamas General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE) subjects of math, English and a science in 2017, compared to 2016, fewer students achieved at least a grade of C in these subjects.

Jeffrey Lloyd, who became minister of education when the new administration came to office in May 2017, said in the House of Assembly last year: “It is no secret that the established education system in The Bahamas is unable to meet the needs of a 21st century society, one that is in a constant state of flux and evolution, and it is clear that we still battle against outdated and outmoded educational methods.

“We say ‘one size does not fit all’, but we often teach that way; we value knowledge more than we value skill and creativity; we are too focused on a so-called ‘D’ average without an understanding of what that ‘D’ average indicates; and generally, as a people, we are not involved enough in the process of education and the lives of our children and student population.”

Lloyd said: “It is the goal of this government to transform our country into a knowledge-based society. By that, as defined by the Organization of American States, we mean to treat knowledge as a commodity that can be traded for our country’s economic prosperity.

“Knowledge-based societies rely on the knowledge of their citizens to drive the innovation, entrepreneurship and dynamism of that society’s economy.

“This is the focus of this government as we seek to revamp the Bahamian education system in the next five years and in perpetuity.”

An honest assessment of The Bahamas at 45 shows there is also a crisis in health.

In his contribution to the budget debate this year, Sands also reported that we continue to have the worst profile of non-communicable diseases in the Americas and the highest rate of HIV/AIDS outside of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Hundreds upon hundreds of our people are afflicted with kidney failure requiring dialysis at a cost of $50,000 to $80,000 per patient every year.

“The same way that we fail to claim our health reality, for 45 years post independence we have for assorted reasons, added to the financial crises that we now seek to correct,” Sands said.

“The approach for our medical challenges demands medication, painful restrictive dietary changes and an abandonment of the lifestyle that shuns physical exercise.

“The prescription for our national fiscal illness requires that we wean ourselves from the sugary sweetness of borrowing in the face of mounting debt, spend no more than we earn and understanding that we cannot have it all.”

In the area of national security, we remain burdened by a significant illegal immigration problem and by a high rate of violent crime.

The Bahamas is a far cry from the single-digit murders in the 1960s, or even the double-digit murders seen in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.

In 1979, murders increased to 41, and dropped to 25 the following year.

Last year ended with 122 murders.

There were 111 murders in 2016.

There were 146 murders in 2015, the most in The Bahamas since murder statistics were compiled.

Other violent crimes – mainly on New Providence and on Grand Bahama – have also scarred the nation, particularly in recent years.

Impediment

Although our democracy has been stable and thriving over the decades since the attainment of independence on July 10, 1973, it seems to us that the greatest impediment to more robust national development has been partisan politics.

Some people have a hard time believing that not everyone is aligned with a political party or ideology.

Loyalty to a political party is not a prerequisite to being a contributor to the national development agenda.

However, we have seen repeatedly where those with the talents and skill sets necessary to solve some of our biggest problems have been cast aside because their loyalties were not to the “right” person or the “right” political party.

Some who dared criticize the “leader” have been exiled to the sidelines as a form of punishment.

The nation, meanwhile, has not always benefited from their brain power and capability.

In other instances, those who lack the know-how for certain tasks have been rewarded because of their loyalties and given the task to lead in areas that do not match their capabilities.

This has dampened forward movement and in some cases reversed national development gains.

There is sometimes a feeling that a particular administration is governing for just 50 percent of the population and not for everyone.

We have seen evidence that a stated commitment to meritocracy is more talk than actual belief put into action.

Those sidelined, meanwhile, have been content to remain quietly in their corner, focusing on their and their families’ personal sustainability.

Some are disillusioned and quietly frustrated.

Some will argue that this is the nature of party politics in a democracy, but it works to the detriment of more wholesome national development.

It will take Bahamians of all political stripes – and those with no particular political leanings – to attack our challenges in seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

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