Tuesday, Jul 7, 2020
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Privatize BPL? No way

Dear Editor,

Just as residents of New Providence tuck into another muggy summer of intense load shedding that (by official statement released in late winter) is not happening, The Guardian chooses this time to call for the selling off of the utility. One sometimes wonders if those in charge do not share such ambitions, which are (in some minds) advanced by the failure of BPL right in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record.

In Britain, profiteers have wrecked the rail system to the point that there is a national clamor for renationalization and the last remaining vestige of Anuerin Bevan’s welfare state, the NHS, is the single most cherished institution in the UK, Windsors included. Unlike us, British people have good television and international news (funded by the BBC license fee) and are therefore able to look at the dire, third world mess of the U.S. private healthcare system and take a vigorous pass. Last month, a flippant statement of the U.S. ambassador to the effect that a post-Brexit trade deal may require limited privatization of the NHS almost derailed the Brexit process completely.

Closer to home, one wonders whether The Guardian has objectively considered the history of BTC (once Batelco) since privatization. To put it mildly, the sale of this proud, old Bahamian asset has been no matter of pride to any thinking Bahamian. It represented missed-the-boat thinking in two respects. Firstly, by 2011, most of the arguments for urgent privatization in the telecoms sector were already defunct, given the state of technology and proprietorship. And secondly, it was sold to a company bearing the ‘Cable and Wireless’ name, after the original Cable and Wireless had already been gutted of most of its valuable assets. Huawei, the Chinese giant, had already bought many of the most valuable assets and transported the administration to China. But that did not stop our government from being dazzled by the name.

And therein lies our problem: we get dazzled by names and images, rather than facing obvious realities. And here is the most obvious reality of all: BPL’s failures are the predictable result of the confluence of two factors – the successful economic development of New Providence and the failure to plan (and fund) for that development in advance.

The first of these factors is obvious, as ‘load shedding’ hardly if ever happens in the less developed islands. In the last decade, Baha Mar has been built from the ground up, Atlantis has expanded and Albany has steadily grown. Meanwhile, the population increased by almost 50,000 between 2000 and 2010. Has there been a corresponding investment in generation capacity (in advance)?

Meanwhile, the government feels compelled to pretend that the utility will either turn a profit or not be a “burden” on the taxpayers it is serving – a fiction that constrains our ability to fund upgrades in advance. Instead, they wait until things are at breaking point, then go looking for ‘radical’ solutions.

Capital investment in infrastructure has obviously been insufficient to deal with the growth of demand in New Providence. As in so many other areas, the government needs to spend more. And for this, we have to stop fooling ourselves that we can make do without expanding revenues.

– Andrew Allen 

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