Building national consensus

“I think it is possible to meet people in the middle, to have a discussion even though you may not agree on solutions, and find some common ground and get to consensus.” Patty Judge

In late January and early February, we featured a four-part series on “Poverty in The Bahamas”, a debilitating scourge on our society that, unless addressed swiftly and effectively, poses a grave and genuine danger to the success of our forefathers’ dream of a thriving and prosperous nation.

One of the ways we proposed to address this complex problem was the creation of “Poverty Project”, a public-private effort to address this insidious infirmity that has infiltrated us by setting a goal of reducing poverty to a realistically sustainable level by 2040.

Poverty Project would be composed of public and private sector representatives and civil society members. This body that could make such profound and necessary changes in our country will need to be able to reach a consensus on many issues to create a synergy that would accomplish far more than each organization or individual ever could.

Therein lies the problem. Our national problems often need more of a consensus to truly solve than is readily attainable.

This week, therefore, we will Consider This … are representatives of diverse sectors of the Bahamian community capable and ready to reach a consensus about poverty, its causes, its manifestations, and its solutions?

Protecting our turfs

Over a century ago, a visitor to our islands noted the thatching that formed the roofs of some dwellings. When he commented on how sturdy and solid it looked, he was told that it was a dying art because the one person left on the island who knew how to thatch properly would not teach the art to anyone because he was so intent upon not training anyone who may give him competition.

Hence, the difficult and demanding profession of thatching would simply become extinct in The Bahamas.

Rather than consider the greater good for society in the long term, if this knowledge was passed on, the individual considered what was best for him in the immediate short term.

And this is not a unique occurrence in our tribal society even today.

We all have had experience with those who protect their “turf” tirelessly, often at the expense of doing the right thing for a larger group.

From political parties to referenda on various subjects, such as gender equality and domestic gaming, we have all witnessed how small groups have foisted their beliefs on society, defeating ideas that would have significantly benefited many people.

Defining consensus

Consensus means “a general accord or agreement of different parts in effecting a given purpose”.

It does not mean that all parties come to share one belief, but that they all acknowledge that that belief is what will be the best solution for whatever problem the group is confronting.

American anthropologist and author, David Graeber, explains it best, “Consensus isn’t just about agreement. It’s about changing things around: You get a proposal, you work something out, people foresee problems, and you then perform creative synthesis. At the end of it, you devise something everyone thinks is okay. Most people like it, and nobody hates it.”

That is the nature of consensus.

The types of groups and individuals who must be gathered together to work productively on the problem of poverty in The Bahamas are all those who have operated for years, some for decades, independently.

They have zealously guarded their territory, sometimes just to survive and keep their organization or ongoing work productive. The proposed Poverty Project would invite its members to suspend that independence and unite unselfishly to create one group that speaks in unison.

Given our history as a nation of people who are seemingly overwary of how an individual or group could impact their life, if they get too close and divulge too much, can we dispense with that mindset?

Can we approach the problem with a “what is the best for the most” attitude rather than a “what is best for me/my organization” outlook? Can we recognize poverty for what it is: a systemic malignancy that threatens the very health of our society?

We recognize that consensus building is difficult because it is easier to safeguard and protect our hard-fought-for fiefdoms.

Moreover, we have become very comfortable with and proud of the gains we have made individually or organizationally.

We are, therefore, not easily inclined to unite our efforts and successes with other perceptively competitive individuals or organizations for the greater good. The result is that the synergies that could be achieved by bringing our skills, resources, and energies together suffer, or are at least postponed.

Reducing political

The other unfortunate factor that persistently permeates our social intercourse and constrains consensus is the proliferation of political polarization that has enveloped our national discourse.

There was a time in this country when we could respectfully engage each other while proffering diverse and divergent viewpoints on national interest and import matters.

Not too long ago, we could agree to disagree without being belligerent. There was a time when we might have thought your beliefs were misguided and even wrong, but we still respected your right to have those beliefs. But, unfortunately, those days have escaped us and appear beyond our reach.

This must change in the interest of the common good.

This change should begin with the political directorate which is ensconced in the perpetual campaign of one-upmanship.

Politics has become a zero-sum activity where both major political parties have adopted a “for me to win, you must lose” attitude.

This approach is counterproductive on so many fronts.

Firstly, partisan political considerations influence so many aspects of Bahamian society. Therefore, the behavior of many in the political directorate does not encourage competing parties in civil society to appreciate the value of pursuing common ground that is acceptable for all sides.

Secondly, the zero-sum scenario creates an atmosphere of antagonism that frequently obfuscates the approach to finding acceptably workable solutions for all parties or what could be seen to be a consensus.

Thirdly, the confrontational approach does not inspire confidence that all parties will negotiate in good faith.

This could inadvertently undermine the progress that could be achieved if the approach to negotiation was mutually respectful and driven by the objective of obtaining the best outcome for all parties.

Finally, the zero-sum scenario frequently creates an atmosphere of distrust or suspicion for future negotiations which negatively impacts national development.

Many of the behaviors we observe in the political arena are adopted by other sectors of civil society.

That is ample reason for our political leaders to establish a consensus-building approach to dispute resolution.

Moreover, their behavior is essential for setting the tone for addressing other national, non-partisan issues.

On the other hand, instead of the zero-sum, winner-take-all scenario, we should adopt another model for addressing national issues: the consensus.

This alternative is a win-win scenario where everybody wins something, and no one loses everything.

It is precisely the opposite of the winner-take-all approach to problem solving.

Nevertheless, it is the only workable, sustainable, and mutually beneficial approach to solving our national challenges for the long-term sustainability of our polity and civil society.


In the final analysis, the diverse sectors of Bahamian society, including the politicos and innumerate segments of civil society, could be much better off in so many ways if they would only reach a consensus on many areas that affect our lives.

As we advance into the depths of the 21st century, our challenges will become ever more complex and require a more significant commitment to finding lasting solutions that improve the lives of everyone.

While we are not likely to return to the “good old days” in our approach to resolving national issues, we can return to the “good old ways” of treating each other more civilly, more considerately, and with an earnest commitment to building national consensus on the vital challenges that confront us.

We have little choice if we want to achieve the success of our forefathers’ dream of a thriving and prosperous nation for everyone.

• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Bahamas, Advisors and Chartered Accountants. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com

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