Op-Ed

Back to the Third World, pt. 1

 “I have to tell you, our infrastructure, folks, is a mess. America is like a Third World country.” Donald Trump

Forty-six years ago, The Bahamas gained its political independence from Great Britain. July 10, 1973 will forever be celebrated as the day that Bahamians assumed responsibility for their destiny.

At that time, and for many decades after, Bahamians assumed not only the leadership of the political directorate; Bahamians also became captains of industry and major national institutions, both in the private and public sectors.

State-owned institutions, including The Bahamas Electricity Corporation, The Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation and the Water & Sewerage Corporation, the Central Bank of The Bahamas, the College of The Bahamas and the National Insurance Board in the post-independence Bahamas were all headed by Bahamians. 

In the private sector, we witnessed the formation and growth of the Sunshine Boys, black Bahamian entrepreneurs who proved that, once given the opportunity, they could rise from humble beginnings to become the founders and owners of some of the most prominent industries in the new nation.

One of the greatest legacies of the Pindling-led era was the government’s commitment to the newly minted Bahamianization policy. That policy ensured that Bahamians who were qualified to work in various sectors were not displaced by foreigners, a practice that had long prevented Bahamians from rising to the top of their respective disciplines.

The Bahamianization policy ensured that well-educated, professionally trained Bahamians in medicine, law, accounting, engineering, architecture, tourism, banking and other fields were not eclipsed by their predominantly foreign counterparts as was customarily done prior to Majority Rule and political independence. Expectations abounded that this fledgling nation was well on its way to the First World.

This week, we would like to consider this — despite the advances that were made in the post-Independence Bahamas, are we at risk of returning to the Third World in fundamentally important aspects of our society?

The Third World defined

“Third World” is a phrase frequently used to describe developing nations. The term initially emerged during the Cold War to identify countries whose views did not align with either the member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and capitalism or the Soviet Union and communism.

The First World countries were those whose views closely aligned with NATO and capitalism. It is generally accepted that the Second World referred to countries that supported the Soviet Union and communism. Hence, the United States was considered a member of the First World, and Russia was considered a member of the Second World. Third World countries generally referred to those nations in Asia and Africa that were not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union.

Reference to “a Third World country” later evolved to connote developing nations characterized by poverty and a low standard of living for much of its population. The term evoked a prerogative perspective of such countries. The term “developing country” is a preferred description and has generally replaced the earlier nomenclature of “Third World” when referring to economically developing nations.

The Bahamas is therefore often referred to as a “developing” instead of a “Third World” country. But in light of developments over the past few years, we should examine whether we better fit the description of the latter instead of the former. Let’s examine some of our national institutions that can inform our perspective.

Bahamas Power & Light

Over the past few months, the residents of New Providence have experienced the gross ineptitude of the management of one of the country’s most essential public services, the generation and distribution of electricity. Virtually every single day, on one part of the island of New Providence or another, Nassauvians suffered the inability of Bahamas Power & Light (BPL), the public electrical utility, to provide continuously reliable electrical power to our homes and businesses. This summer seems to have been the absolute worst in recent memory. BPL has been intractably inept in addressing this situation.

BPL’s recent performance stands in stark contrast to past years when we expected reasonably intermittent interruptions of power distribution because of load shedding. However, the past few weeks have witnessed unprecedented power interruptions, resulting in many wondering whether the management of BPL has any idea of what they are doing.

BPL is an enormous state-owned enterprise and, for many years, household and commercial consumers have complained about the high cost of electricity. In many businesses, the cost of utilities represents the second or third highest business expense, outpaced only by the cost of labor and finance cost, depending on the business and the amount of debt individual businesses have incurred to fund their activities.

The shareholders of any respectable, world class company that performed at the level of gross incompetence that BPL has would have fired the management and the board long ago for gross incompetence and replaced both with more qualified persons.

But, here in The Bahamas, we have a propensity to politicize everything, often firing or terminating competent people when they refuse to kowtow to the political directorate. Instead, the politicos appear to be determined to reward inept individuals and penalize those who endeavor to reform archaic business practices that have become entrenched over many years of neglect and nonchalance. The result is that we are left with the lowest gross denominators in many of our institutions that ultimately cost us enormous sums of money. We also now have a corporate culture that destroys and depreciates employee morale.

The high cost of electricity in The Bahamas is exceeded by its total unreliability. Without back-up generators that have been purchased by those who can afford them for homes and workplaces, business and social life in this country would come to a virtual standstill. Those organizations that cannot afford to purchase back-up generators daily face an existential threat to their ability to continue as a going concern. This is unacceptable and must be resolved if we are going to remove the scourge of being viewed by Bahamians and the rest of the world as “Third World”.

The constant interruption of electricity over the past few months reminds me of trips to Haiti and South Sudan several years ago, where we were warned, in advance, that the power supply would be available for only a few hours each day, followed by long, swelteringly humid hours of discomfort and no access to electrical devices. Both Haiti and South Sudan could readily fit the definition of “Third World” nations in its earlier connotation.

Given the performance of BPL lately, that company seems to be doing everything it can to assist us in joining those two countries back in the Third World. This is shameful, disappointing and inexcusable. It should not be tolerated.

BTC

Before being privatized in the early years of this century, The Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation, BaTelCo as it was then known, was managed by Bahamians for many decades. After privatizing the national telephone company, the new name, BTC (Bahamas Telecommunications Company), was assigned to the newly privatized company which promised to offer improved telephone services with greater efficiency and reliability, all at a lower price.

As is often the case, the foreign owners of BTC appointed their hand-picked managers, displacing well-educated, experienced Bahamians who, for decades, successfully managed the corporation.

While it is true that we have entered a new era with BTC, including some improvements in service at generally lower prices, we have not yet reached the promised land in telecommunications. The recent insensitive and misplaced pronouncements by BTC’s chairman have patently demonstrated what that company’s management thinks of The Bahamas and Bahamians.

With all of the financial resources at its disposal, the private owners of BTC still face many challenges today and Bahamians still suffer from dropped calls and sub-par service in many areas. There have been instances where their entire telecommunications network, both landlines and mobile, was offline, resulting in disruption of service to individual and corporate subscribers.

If The Bahamas intends to achieve First World status in telecommunications, it is vitally important that these disruptions are totally eliminated and that BTC’s offerings are expanded, not contracted. Furthermore, it is critical for these foreign-owned companies to realize that Bahamians are equally qualified to manage the company, much as they did before it was privatized.

The political directorate can take a page from the Pindling era by renewing its commitment to the Bahamianization policy.

Conclusion

In part two of this series, we will examine how the services of Cable Bahamas, a private company, and other prominent institutions have also contributed to relegating the Bahamas to Third World status.

• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com.

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