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Bahamas needs new, creative people

We should recruit productive types from around the world to boost population, drive innovation

Immigration debates in The Bahamas are usually narrow in scope, focused on the dangers of Haitians or white foreigners coming “to take over”.

We have a fortress mentality, and it has nurtured a state policy designed to keep others out.

These fears are rooted in geographical realities, and a complicated past.

Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere with a population of 11 million. The Bahamas, with a population of 350,000, is to its north.

We have one of the most vibrant tourism economies in the region. Haitians seeking better lives come here in the thousands each year. They are mostly poor, unskilled laborers.

The Bahamas has a small population. Their numbers stand out.

According to the 2010 census, Haitians were 11 percent of the population of The Bahamas. That figure goes up significantly when Bahamians with Haitian ancestry are added.

War, crime and violence, and extreme poverty fuel migration crises such as Haiti’s. Venezuela’s collapse has led nearly 2 million people to flee the oil-rich state since 2015, according to data from the United Nations.

Central America has some of the highest murder rates in the world. Its instability is behind the migrant flow through Mexico that has U.S. President Donald Trump so exercised.

In Europe, the Syrian civil war and anarchy since the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya have driven millions of desperate people to a less-than-welcoming place. Far right parties are on the rise as resentment increases among the indigenous populations of the continent.

In The Bahamas, frustration with the state’s inability over the years to regulate the flow of poor Haitians has hardened into a harsh xenophobia. There is discrimination against Haitians. There is hatred.

Our other fear is “the white man”. When the first census was conducted in 1722, The Bahamas was 74 percent white and 26 percent black. At the last census in 2010, the country was 91 percent black and five percent white.

It took social struggle for the heirs and successors of slaves to have equal opportunity. Majority rule came in 1967, followed by independence in 1973.

Slavery, colonial dominance and unrepresentative minority rule have left in play an economic system in which many blacks remain disadvantaged.

When white foreign developers or bankers or executives come to invest or work here, there is a feeling that those who had power, who had the benefit of this place for so long, have returned to dominate while the effects of centuries of unfairness have not been fully remedied.

These are the anxieties of the Bahamian collective mind. They affect our policymakers’ thinking.

If we are to make The Bahamas the developed country we all want it to be, though, we must expand the parameters of the immigration debate.

Well-considered migration intakes strengthen countries.

We should not consider all outsiders enemies or threats. The skills, creativity and industriousness of productive people are exactly what we need to reinvigorate the economy and create new industries.

We need to open up. We need to recruit educated, skilled people with resources to be citizens of this country.

Stagnation

The Bahamas has had an unemployment rate in the double digits for a decade. That is partially the result of the financial crisis, and partially the result of deeper structural problems.

In the International Monetary Fund (IMF) book “Unleashing Growth and Strengthening Resilience in the Caribbean”, researchers found that real GDP per person in The Bahamas declined between 2000 and 2015 by an annual average of 0.4 percent.

Regional average per capita GDP rose by an average of 1.2 percent during the same period. The Bahamas was the only country in the regional group that declined.

The stagnation is evident in the most important tourism numbers, too. Tourism is our main industry.

There has been historic growth in the cruise business. Based on data from the Ministry of Tourism, sea arrivals to The Bahamas increased by 974 percent from 1971 to 2017. This drove our overall arrivals number above 6 million.

The problem is cruise passengers spend ($130 per person) far less than those who come by plane.

Stopover guests, those who stay at hotels, residences or in rented accommodations, spend between $1,400 and $1,500 per person.

The stopover segment has not fared as well. Last year there were 1.36 million visitors in this category. That number was near the same as total air arrivals recorded in 1985 (1.39 million). We are where we were three decades ago.

Robust growth in the United States and Canada has spurred a double-digit increase in air arrivals this year. However, this tug by good times up north has not changed the overall outlook that much. The unemployment rate in May was 10 percent.

Unproductive and uneducated

Our population is uneducated and less than productive.

The D average in the Bahamas General Certificate for Secondary Education (BGCSE) school-leaving exam is worse than it appears. Higher private school and Family Island scores bring the average up to a D. New Providence public schools, where most Bahamians are educated, would be in the F range.

Our boys are especially doing poorly. Whereas boys and girls enroll in similar numbers at the beginning of school, by the time final tests are taken, the girls do far better. In the BGCSEs in 2018, girls attained 15,005 grades and boys 10,040. The girls received 49 percent more grades.

This is part of a long-term trend. And the data gets worse.

For the girls, 51.6 percent of their grades range from grades A to C. For the boys, 57 percent of their grades range from grades D to U.

The girls receive so many more grades because the boys drop out. Many of the ones who remain are poor performers.

Employers have to choose from this mediocre pool. In its Group Country Strategy with The Bahamas (2018–2022), the Inter-American Development Bank noted that firm-level productivity in The Bahamas is on average 17 percent lower than the average Caribbean firm.

“Private sector growth is constrained by limited propension to innovate and access to finance,” according to the report.

“Private-sector-led growth will require innovation from both traditional and nontraditional sectors. Approximately 22 percent of firms are innovative in The Bahamas, four percent below the regional average of innovative firms.”

Yes, there is a problem with the quality of instruction in our public education system. But the issue is also cultural.

The drug trafficking of the Pindling years was harmful. Young men and women in the 1970s and 1980s learned that fast money was the way to the good life. Teenagers became millionaires in the drug trade. The mindset persists.

Education and achievement are not seen as necessary for progress. Ironically, the same Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) that led blacks to majority rule poisoned the culture through greed and corruption.

We must address our issues with education. We must continue to invest in young people to prevent them from being unskilled, uneducated and without hope.

Successive administrations have tried. This one is trying.

When our young are illiterate and innumerate, when they cannot find work, they are more likely to end up in lives of crime.

Beyond fear

The old economy employs as many as it can. However, for sustained growth we need more skilled, creative and educated people.

As of the last census, 70 percent of Bahamians lived on New Providence; 14.62 percent lived on Grand Bahama. Some of our biggest islands have no people. The population of Acklins was 565; Andros, 7,490; Cat Island, 1,522; Long Island, 3,094; Mayaguana, 277.

The greatest resource of any society is its people. We have the space but not the workforce to drive robust growth and prosperity.

The Bahamas needs an immigration policy that welcomes in thousands of skilled, educated people with money to join us permanently. They should have residency with the right to work. There should then be a simple, short and clear path to citizenship.

A special focus should be placed on attracting young entrepreneurs from around the world who would like to live here and create start-ups.

What we must stop doing is importing thousands of poor, desperate people. This is the current de facto policy by us allowing so many unskilled Haitians to come here.

We already have a surplus of poor, uneducated Bahamian people. Adding more creates social pressure at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The Commercial Enterprises Bill, which was passed in Parliament a year ago, was created of the right mindset. It seeks to bring in investment in particular sectors – several of which do not exist in The Bahamas – by liberalizing the granting of work permits.

The Department of Immigration is inefficient. There is corruption. It is not properly organized, nor are its processes fully digitized. It is difficult for companies to get prompt, rational responses when they need expert labor.

Businesses can’t wait forever for answers. If there is no surety that key technical people could work here, an entrepreneur might never invest. Or if he has, being denied skilled labor could cause him to leave.

The bill sets a minimum investment threshold. The sectors that qualify are some financial services, information technology, the maritime sector, health and biomedical services, nanotechnology, manufacturing and call centers.

Moving forward

The bill is a good first step, but we must be bolder. Our fears of “the other” hold us back as a nation.

We need more people. We need more capable people if we are to grow beyond today’s stagnation.

The Bahamas needs the new thinking of people from Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, Canada and beyond.

We need to embrace the idea that these islands would be more dynamic and prosperous if they were a multicultural melting pot of experiences, traditions, cuisines and ideas.

People grow economies, not governments. The Bahamas is a beautiful place. People will come and join us if we open up and welcome them.

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