“They muddy the water to make it seem deep.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
There are memorable moments that truly transform our lives. Virtually everyone alive and aware can tell you where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The same can be said about other life-changing events. Some of those events are universal, and others are local.
For example, the birth of The Bahamas as a nation on July 10, 1973 will have diverse meanings for different Bahamians. I vividly remember that momentous event on Clifford Park like it was yesterday. Still, the common thread that stitches the community together is the realization that that event forever changed the destiny of our former colony.
This week we would like to consider this — have the events of the past year, which resulted in profound personal and collective costs and concerns, provided moments of clarity for us individually and collectively as a nation?
Nine months of labor pains
The last nine months, a pregnant pause in time, have been unlike any other period in recent memory.
During that time, we were devastated by one of the worst hurricanes in nearly 100 years. Then, in the early months of this year, like the Spanish Flu that killed millions 100 years ago, The Bahamas and the rest of the world were overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck the Abaco islands in the northern Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane, with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (mph).
The next day, the hurricane stalled over Grand Bahama, finally departing on September 3. The damage from Hurricane Dorian was estimated at US$3.4 billion. That storm also resulted in at least 70 official deaths, although many believe that the count is considerably higher.
We still have not received an accounting from the government regarding the contributions that we received from magnanimous donors from around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will take a long time to enumerate. Like so many other countries, The Bahamas will slowly emerge from the destructive consequences of COVID-19. Until a vaccine is discovered and readily available to all who want it, we will subsist under a cloud of uncertainty, relentlessly susceptible to a sudden and uninvited large-scale recurrence of the virus at any time.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will likely experience a rate of unemployment that approaches a depression level statistic of 35 percent.
There are currently 35,000 Bahamians who are living below the poverty line, with scant prospects of soon altering their circumstances.
We are approaching a national debt of $9.5 billion in an economy whose GDP last year approached $12 billion. The latter figure will undoubtedly significantly shrink because of the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Amidst these crises, demand letters are being issued by heartless bankers.
Although some benevolent commercial and residential landlords have exercised forbearance, others have demonstrated a degree of callous disregard for those who cannot to pay their rent.
In the meantime, those curfew breakers, principally impoverished residents of the inner city who are unable to afford legal counsel, have been hauled before courts that have exacted punitive penalties while well-heeled, well-connected, wealthy residents circumvent our curfew regulations with impunity.
A moment of clarity
In all that has transpired during the past nine months, we should pause to assess whether these events have provided us a moment of clarity. An important take-away from the events of the past nine months is that we have a unique opportunity to rethink: will we return to our pre-crises practices and behaviors, or will we take advantage of this time to review, renew, re-engineer and reorder our society?
The answer to this question will determine whether we simply return to the former social contract or script a new one.
While it is clear that pre-COVID-19 policies and practices did not render optimal results for the majority of our citizens, the most elemental question that we must address is whether we will have the will, courage and fortitude to reorganize and reorder our society for the betterment of the majority of Bahamians.
Although it will be challenging to do so, how we proceed will dramatically determine what our country will look like in the years ahead, perhaps even for the rest of the 21st Century. We are blessed as a country, not only because of our geography, but also because of our relatively small population of almost 400,000. That is not an unmanageable number, and our challenges can be resolved, but only if we use this moment of clarity to address them in an honest, systematic and orderly manner.
Avoiding past mistakes
We must be committed to avoiding past mistakes that have long handicapped us.
In its efforts to restore the economy, there will be profound pressure on the government to grant considerable concessions to foreign investors to get them to invest here.
The government must be extremely discriminating and discerning in granting such concessions.
Unnecessarily substantial concessions will drastically reduce future public revenue from those companies that receive them.
We must keep in mind that many businesses will establish their operations here in The Bahamas, even without overly generous concessions.
Investors who are prepared to make enormous investments in our country should be reviewed for their long-term benefit to the nation.
Those who are well-considered, eco-friendly and have long-term potential for the economic empowerment and progressive development of our citizens should be embraced.
Those investments that primarily enrich the foreign investor, at the expense of our inheritance, should be shunned and rejected.
We must not be lulled or duped solely by the trap of the number of jobs that such investments will create.
We want investors here who will encourage Bahamians to participate in their investments, such as through the vehicle of a sovereign wealth fund, if not by direct investment in those foreign businesses.
Bahamians should be encouraged by the government and the Central Bank of the Bahamas to make such investments.
In its commitment to eradicating excessive concessions to foreign investors, the government should consider renegotiating the concessions that have already been granted.
If there is extreme pushback by the recipient companies, the government should seriously explore the introduction of an income tax for the most significant businesses that have benefited from such concessions.
This will include the largest companies in the tourism and banking sectors.
We must also return to the time-honored and proven principle of Bahamianization; that is, where Bahamians are duly qualified to perform jobs, they must be allowed to get them, ahead of non-Bahamians.
We should also reactivate the Department of Immigration’s manpower projection surveys to ensure that companies train Bahamians within a reasonable timeframe to assume positions that are currently held by non-Bahamians, but which Bahamians are suitably capable of performing.
We must urgently identify additional methods to ensure that capital is made available for viable local businesses to develop and expand.
It is also time to dust off the National Development Plan that was shelved when the current administration came to office. That plan resulted from many thousands of man hours in a bi-partisan effort to methodically plan our national development. Without a national development plan, we are doomed to continue with ad hoc, knee-jerk reactions to events that affect us as they arise as opposed to following a blueprint to guide our development and growth.
We stand at a watershed point in our national life.
We can continue to do things the way that we have always done them in the past, with the result that too many citizens will continue to be left behind and excluded from active participation in our journey to greatness, or we can reassess what we have done right, replicating the positive programs and rejecting unproductive and unworkable policies and practices.
A moment of national clarity does not occur often, but the events of the past nine months have provided us with such a moment. Our challenge now is to seize the moment sincerely and assertively for the benefit of all who genuinely want a better Bahamas.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.