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Immense challenge explaining WTO accession to public

Zhivargo Laing has an immense task in front of him. He is the country’s lead negotiator for accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Laing, a former member of Parliament and Cabinet minister, is also lead spokesman to educate Bahamians on the process, its benefits and the government’s intent.

The government of The Bahamas has been on the road to accession for nearly two decades. The Minnis administration seems serious about finishing the process.

There are reasoned arguments for joining, and not joining. The challenge faced by Laing and the government, however, relates to a crucial problem in the modern Bahamas: We are a woefully uneducated people.

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

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

There is a cultural component to our dysfunction, too.

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.

Many Bahamians simply do not understand the fundamental concepts that would help them come to a reasoned conclusion on whether to join the WTO, or not. They don’t understand what global trade is. They don’t understand what global trade regimes are. Hence, explaining WTO accession is a near effort in futility.

In a democracy the government is obligated to openness and transparency. But when the people cannot understand what is being said to them, what do you do?

Take a look at the lunacy discussed on social media. People think joining the WTO would mean foreigners entering the country the day after, displacing Bahamians as the majority; some think Bahamians would no longer be allowed to own businesses; others think joining the WTO would mean Bahamians would no longer be able to own land.

What is happening with the WTO discussion is what happened with the two referenda on gender equality. Because of our poor education levels, too many can’t understand national policy debates. They then get afraid of the proposed change they can’t mentally process and simply say “no”.

We have done a poor job as an independent country educating our people. They want to participate in debates regarding the direction of the country, but too many are ill equipped for the task. Consequently, discussions veer between the ridiculous and the absurd.

There should be a reasoned back and forth on the merits of joining the WTO. There are fair arguments on both sides. Sadly, that’s not happening.

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