Controversy erupted over the weekend after the Davis administration led a large delegation to Expo 2020 in Dubai that left some cultural artists questioning what criteria were used to select some acts and other Bahamians demanding accountability over the expenditure of taxpayer dollars for the trip.
The government went on the defensive with Director of Communications in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) Latrae Rahming saying in a statement the government budgeted $1 million for The Bahamas’ participation in the event, which allows participating countries to show off innovations and to network.
“People have been asking what is the cost of The Bahamas’ participation in Expo 2020,” Rahming said in a statement on Saturday.
“The UAE has spent $3.5 million, and the Bahamian private sector has contributed half a million dollars.
“The Cabinet of The Bahamas has approved up to $1 million to support the pavilion in The Bahamas and Expo 2020. Meanwhile, the Cabinet of the previous government had approved $1.7 million.”
News that a delegation of more than 100 traveled to Dubai for the event, while The Bahamas continues to suffer from an economic and financial crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic provoked the ire of many.
The delegation included Bahamian artists and performers, among them Shaback, a choir led by OPM Press Secretary Clint Watson, whose relatives also made up the delegation in other capacities.
The lack of clarity on the process used to select performers has only added to public frustration over the matter.
Philip Burrows, a prominent member of the Bahamian cultural community, addressed the controversy in a Facebook post.
“It seems obvious that there could not have been a proper vetting process but that performers were either chosen by reputation or possibly who they knew on the committee,” he said.
Burrows, who is co-founder of Ringplay Productions and a board member of the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts, said he believes the expo is a good idea and noted that he briefly sat on the committee for the event.
“I’m not going to quarrel with the size of the contingent as that is not my focus at the moment,” he stated.
He continued, “What bothers me most is that all of the work that has gone before, by so many, can easily be destroyed by either short-sightedness, favoritism or just a downright lack of knowledge as to what is actually quality material.
“Hopefully, the people from all around the world who have seen some of what The Bahamas had to offer at this expo will not walk away thinking what a lot of us at home, who have been watching these offerings, are thinking.
“It would be a shame to ruin such a stellar cultural reputation that it has taken many of us so long to build.”
When questioned about the cost to taxpayers during a briefing at OPM on Thursday, Rahming, who was unable to provide a figure at the time, emphasized the potential trade and tourism benefits of the experience, as well as the merits of providing Bahamian artists with the “exposure”.
In his statement on Saturday, he claimed that participation was approved by the Minnis administration. Rahming said that in an April 2019 letter expressing support of the government for The Bahamas’ participation in the event, the director of investment at the Bahamas Investment Authority recognized the opportunity to “merge investment promotion and increase foreign direct investment”.
He said former Cabinet ministers Elsworth Johnson, Lanisha Rolle and Darren Henfield made “several trips to Dubai with large delegations”.
“Because of the millions invested, to date, in order to ensure The Bahamas’ reputation was protected and promoted in order to maintain good relations with the government of UAE, (the Davis) Cabinet agreed to support the country’s presence at expo up to a maximum of $1 million,” Rahming said.
“This figure is budgeted to cover the expenditure for the duration of the expo from October 2021 to March 2022.
“This represents a substantial reduction from the $1.7 million approved by the prior FNM government’s Cabinet because our new day administration recognizes the significance of a number of potential investment relationships and potential mutual cooperation between our two countries in relation to climate change and sustainability.”
When asked about the matter yesterday, former Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said his government did not allocate any funds specifically for Expo 2020.
“My government was not prepared to sponsor a feel-good trip or vacation for anybody,” he said.
“And that’s why if [the Ministry of] Tourism insisted that it was necessary, they have a budget, do it themselves within the budget.”
Minnis added, “That matter came up and my government informed [the Ministry of] Tourism that, whatever they do, if they thought it was essential, then all the funds should come from their budget. They were not getting any additional funding from us, not the government.
“And since [the Ministry of] Tourism was arguing that it’s a great investment opportunity, then [I said] they should get the private sector involved but, as far as us, we were not going to put any additional funding.
“Less than one percent of tourists would come from that particular area. It was up to [the Ministry of] Tourism but they were not going to get anything, any additional funding from us.”
In a statement released yesterday, former Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture Iram Lewis questioned the size of the delegation, as well as the selected performers.
“We share the concerns of a number of Bahamians who question the wisdom of the prime minister and his government to send such a large delegation, with some of whom may not have been chosen, because they ideally were the right fit for the stated objective of the trip,” Lewis said.
Lewis said sending a smaller delegation to “participate in a targeted way” would have been a more prudent decision, as he called for a full accounting of the trip costs, as well as an explanation of the vetting process for artists.
“Bahamians are watching carefully just how careless and negligent this current government is, especially as it relates to the scarce resources of the country,” he said.
“We are calling on this high-flying government to give a detailed account of the Dubai trip including an itemized list of expenditure…”
While it was announced last week that the Ministry of Tourism, Investments and Aviation’s trade mission, which was a planned component of the Dubai trip, had been postponed, Rahming said hundreds of commercial representatives have already expressed interest in doing business in The Bahamas as a result of the event.
“In only the first month of the expo, The Bahamas saw over a quarter of a million visitors to this pavilion with over 10 million more anticipated to follow over the course of the expo’s six-month run,” he said.
Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis and his wife, Ann Marie, are also in Dubai. Davis’ office said he will attend a series of bilateral meetings.
Davis accepted an invitation from the Royal Family and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates to attend Bahamas National Day at Expo in Dubai, OPM said.
“PM Davis is especially grateful [to] the government of the UAE for offering to cover the costs of his delegation,” the office added.