The Bahamas has monumental challenges to address. Are we ready to meet these challenges? Our economy must grow an average of not less than 3 percent per year for the next ten years if we are to stave off rising poverty and general economic decline. That growth must be job producing, income enhancing and spread throughout the archipelago. The jobs produced must pay a living wage; the income rise must match and exceed inflation; and growth in the islands must be sustainable. In share numbers, we must add a minimum, on average, of $360 million per year to our economy for the next ten years in job and income enhancing ways to lift the economic spirits of the people of this nation.
To do this, The Bahamas must attract at a minimum some $1.5 billion in direct investment annually over the next ten years. These investments must be job creating, fit the wage profile of the Bahamian labor force and be sustainable. They must be export orientated and high value added. Chances are that they will represent sophisticated services or technology industries highly integrated into the global value chain. They must also be able to endure the constant exposure of The Bahamas to devastating hurricanes.
I have said it repeatedly, there is nothing more critical at this time than growing the Bahamian economy and growing it robustly. We have many more important challenges, but they are either linked to this one or will be hampered in their solving by it. The growing national debt, illegal immigration, poor public infrastructure, crime, public health deficiencies and more can all link their fortune or misfortune to the state of the Bahamian economy. Fact is, we are at a tipping point in this nation and if we do not find a way to boost prosperity for the Bahamian people over the long term, our economic decline in a matter of years will mirror some of the countries we were wont to pity in years past. This is a tall order and the question is: are we up to the challenge?
I honestly have my doubts. These doubts do not have to do with our potential to be able to meet the challenges facing us. Rather, my doubts arise from the attitudes too many of us seem to be displaying currently. We seem to think that our problems in this country have everything to do with everyone other than ourselves. It’s the Haitians; it’s the government; it’s the church; it’s the schools; it’s the greedy businesspeople; it’s the WTO; and on and on. None or little about what ails us is about our own individual readiness, skillfulness or impressiveness. But what investor, local or international, is looking on our nation and saying to himself or herself, “My God what an impressive group of productive workers!” Not any I know.
We have prospered by effectively attracting foreign investors to our shores, but now we think we can do it without them. It does not matter that almost every part of The Bahamas without foreign investment is economically stagnant. There are some of us who will pompously declare that we can make it on our own. Even though Bahamians with money will not go into these areas and invest, we prefer to row them for their choices than admit that we need foreign investment to make it better.
There are those of us who proudly say that we Bahamians can do anything. That simply is not true. There are many things that we can’t do or can’t do to the level of competitiveness as those from more developed countries. That is why we protect some of our businesses from competing with those foreign businesses, because we cannot compete with them. That is why those same businesses have sought to upgrade their own ability by contracting foreign consultants to help them. We cannot do many things because we lack the education, training and experience of many of our foreign counterparts. We also lack the global networks and exposure to operate on that scale. Until we admit this and do more to address it, we will resort to xenophobic, protectionist impulses to shield our deficiencies.
In so many areas of life, too many of us are mediocre at best and it is weighing down our economy and society. This includes many in our leadership and many of us they lead. We simply are not capable of meeting the stubborn demands of this present moment. This would not be so bad, if we were not so full of pride that we find it difficult to admit just how far short we fall. If we do this, we can seek out the help we need, no matter where that help is. I have no problem getting help from foreigners who have more knowledge and skills than me. I do have a problem, however, sitting my backside down and not learning from them enough that I might be able to perform better on my own next time.
Too many of us are now averse to doing hard work. We wonder why the foreigners, in particular the Haitians, get jobs that we don’t. The reason is they work hard. They work hard not because they are better than us; they do so because they are more driven than us. Their desperation fuels their need to stay employed, so they do the necessary to impress their employers. Japanese work harder than Americans on average, we are told, because they must pay three times as much for the same piece of land as an American. By any metric, our productivity is low. It is the primary reason our economy grows slowly.
Can we meet the challenges we face? Not in our present condition; but if we are strategic and go get some help, we might have a chance. If we get this help, change our attitudes and raise our skillfulness, we can meet these challenges. If we don’t, then God help us all.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.