There are key underlying factors that led to public fallout over the outcome of last week’s pledge conference sponsored by The Bahamas government and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the implications of which extend far beyond the conference itself and the killer storm that gave rise to it.
To begin, it is necessary to consider some of the dynamics at play ahead of the fallout.
Hurricane Dorian left thousands from Abaco and Grand Bahama homeless and destitute, with a frustrated majority of storm victims questioning what the government has done with millions in donations collected thus far.
Dorian left in its wake a vulnerable nation whose full fiscal and economic losses have yet to be realized, rendering Bahamians uncertain of their future and to what extent their government might decide to increase the already stifling burden of taxation to satisfy its obligations.
Under an ever-imposing mountain of national debt that has mushroomed despite the multibillion-dollar implementation of value-added tax (VAT), and under pressure from global agencies to alter our legislative regimes in pursuit of ever-changing goal posts, Bahamians are questioning what our sovereignty is really worth.
Political efficacy — which is trust in government — is at an inarguable low, abraded by years of lies, disappointments and the current administration’s failure to live up to core campaign pledges, hence many Bahamians do not trust the government’s word and do not trust that its intentions on behalf of the Bahamian people are honorable.
The reality of this small island nation was overwhelmed both by historic loss in a natural disaster and by the on-the-ground involvement of foreign groups whose numbers, work and front-line management eclipsed that of its own government, leaving Bahamians to question their country’s ability to respond to its most basic needs.
Seeking to survive Dorian’s financial blow, Bahamians have had to forfeit their life’s savings, and, with forced displacement, this has brought disconnection from land that gives a citizen his or her sense of security, ownership and a place to call home.
Post-Dorian, many storm victims and Bahamians in general are grappling with a feeling of desperation and a sense that their world has spun out of control and into the control of forces and factors not of their own choosing.
In short, Bahamians are afraid.
And in the context of a post-Dorian existence, Bahamians feel stripped, exposed and unprotected.
Their concerns are augmented by historic anxieties about the role of foreign entities, their level of access to government and the perceived preferential treatment they receive.
When, in an attempt to quell their fears, the average Bahamian puts questions to their government about decisions taken and policies implemented, they are perpetually insulted, belittled and dismissed — further crystalizing their feelings of hopelessness and angst.
This was the melting pot of social apprehension prior to the pledge conference.
Devil in the details
When the government announced that $1.5 billion had been pledged toward hurricane recovery on Abaco and Grand Bahama, most came away with the impression that the figure primarily represented donations of various forms.
The following day, the governing party issued a press statement which politicized the event, crediting the prime minister and his party with its accomplishment and chiding the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) for not having accomplished such a feat.
The party’s press release sent a signal that the government was seeking to use the event as a means of political posturing; capitalizing on the devastation of Dorian and the willingness of donors in order to boost its political capital.
It would not have been the first time the administration demonstrated unseemly opportunism in the aftermath of Dorian, and it primed the pump of public distrust for what was to follow.
Once politics gratuitously entered the equation, wounds exacted by betrayals of public trust were rubbed raw when the public came to realize that the lion’s share of the event’s pledges was not donations but a business proposal by U.S.-based real estate and development company P3 Group Inc., which pitched an offer in the form a $975 million loan to fund “revenue-generating” projects.
That the P3 Group is seeking to do business in The Bahamas in the aftermath of Dorian is not, in and of itself, what triggered many Bahamians.
What triggered them was that it was not the government of The Bahamas but the group’s CEO Dee Brown who was the first face and voice of this proposal to the public, with Brown making forward-looking statements that sparked questions about the level of talks held with members of Cabinet prior to or beyond the pledge conference, and the extent to which the proposal was a done deal or on track to be.
While appearing on the Eyewitness News program “Beyond the Headlines”, Brown mentioned that the company’s proposal could include as much as a 30-year deal and public land acquisition by lease or purchase as part of its negotiated terms.
The mention of land ownership by a foreign company whose proposal had not been explained by government and was fraught with more questions than answers, unsurprisingly lit a fuse of anger in many Bahamians.
Members of the public in search of answers were left asking “What is going on here?” and “Has the government sold us out without our knowledge?”
Though Brown did not say a deal was reached, viewers expressed sentiments of discomfort with what they perceived as an unspoken pressure to buy into such a deal.
Those who were struggling to make sense of how much control The Bahamas has over its hurricane recovery process learned via the UNDP, days after the conference, that the Bahamas government “selected” the agency to administer the country’s National Recovery and Reconstruction Fund.
This is the fund into which Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis last year announced an initial government injection of $10 million to finance a home repair program on Abaco and Grand Bahama.
The UNDP said in its press statement that it “has been assigned responsibility for the design, establishment and administration of the fund”.
“As the fund administrator,” it continued, “UNDP will work with government and donors to ensure that funds are deployed to the critical needs and priorities in Abaco and Grand Bahama in conformity to UNDP’s global standards for procurement and disbursement.”
Minnis previously announced that the government was seeking to establish an “independent, non-political body to help fund home and building repairs for Abaco and Grand Bahama residents”, which the public naturally assumed would be a Bahamian-led group of non-politically exposed persons (PEPs).
Last November, he advised that the fund “will receive applications from Bahamians in need, and work with pre-selected contractors and project managers to pre-approve applications, inspect homes, disburse funds directly to contractors or building suppliers and receive necessary government approvals”.
Last week, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, Management and Reconstruction Carl Smith said the UNDP will manage the fund “in collaboration with” the government, though he indicated that the details of how this would work for The Bahamas had yet to be worked out.
For struggling homeowners who are anxious for promised assistance, the news that details of this new arrangement have yet to be ironed out suggests even further delays as the five-month mark of Dorian’s passage approaches.
And the devil will be in the details on the precise role the UNDP would play in controlling how the Minnis administration and those who follow can utilize borrowed or otherwise accepted funds from current and future pledges.
As for the P3 Group, Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands and the prime minister ultimately pointed out that no deal had been struck, but their comments in doing so ratcheted up public animus and hardened public resolve against trusting the government’s word.
“Ungrateful, silly, uninformed”
In response to public concerns regarding the P3 proposal, Sands said Bahamians ought to be careful not to appear ungrateful.
Storm victims and Bahamians throughout the country and abroad have been exceedingly grateful for the donations and assistance that have poured in from individuals, NGOs and government agencies throughout the region and around the world.
It is possible to be grateful and discerning at the same time, and to conflate a call for transparency with a posture of ungratefulness was an illogical reach for Sands.
P3 Group Inc. is a business that is seeking to enter into an arrangement that its CEO insists will be a “win-win” for his company and The Bahamas, so there is no charity here for which the public ought to be grateful but rather a foreign investment proposal that, like all such proposals, must be circumspectly evaluated by government.
Minnis later branded questions and calls for clarity by Bahamians as “silly” and “uninformed”, even though it was his own office that did not make clear from the start that most of what was pledged was not in the form of donations, but rather a loan offer.
His disrespectful characterization underrated the ability of Bahamians to discern when something could potentially be amiss, even if they cannot fully articulate what they detect.
Both ministers seemed concerned about how public discourse about P3’s proposal would appear.
The United Nations, democratic member states and persons from those states who participated in the pledge conference would well know and respect the role of public debate and civil discourse in a free society.
Are we to believe that government ministers fear donors from free societies shying away from business prospects or offering assistance simply because the people of a country are engaging in peaceful, civil and robust discourse on the merits of offers being considered?
Nevertheless, the prime minister’s move to publicly assail Bahamians in unnecessary defense of an offer by a potential foreign investor poked the bear of fear that the government’s interests and focus in Dorian’s aftermath are misplaced.
Playing on the nation’s fears
By stark contrast, we wonder where was the concern about how this country appeared to the international community when waves of xenophobia and hate against Haitian migrants in the aftermath of Dorian imbrued the fabric of the nation.
Neither the prime minister, nor any of his Cabinet ministers, stood up and demonstrated leadership in the height of the furor by enjoining Bahamians to be civil, humane and compassionate toward all victims of Dorian regardless of nationality or immigration status.
This was not done, we submit, because the animosity against displaced Haitian migrants was politically useful at the time and was a ripe canvas for a politician to paint, with the storm-drawn blood and tears of migrant victims, a picture of being the savior of all things Bahamian.
Some of the dissent expressed by Bahamians regarding our illegal migration problem is also rooted in fear of the impact illegal migration has on the Bahamian way of life, but it was then and remains a politically advantageous fear that continues unabated to this day.
Now some of the same kinds of fears that prompted backlash against how the P3 proposal was presented to the public are seen as politically inconvenient and embarrassing to the government.
This is what happens when underlying factors in a nation such as fear are discounted, disrespected or manipulated as a means to an end — it may accomplish a particular objective but it leaves the citizenry impotent and less able to solve its own problems.
From a psychological perspective, fear is often at the root of anger, with both tied to a deep need for a sense of control in one’s world.
The anger we are seeing in the streets, in our workplaces, in our homes and in our communities in many cases stems from the fears of those who feel that family, financial, political and now environmental factors beyond their control are stripping them of the ability to live as truly free men and women in a free society.
Founding father of the United States John Adams said “fear is the foundation of most governments”.
Fear is used to win power, to maintain power, to usurp power and to convince people that their power is better utilized in the hands of another.
It isn’t P3 or Dee Brown that concerned Bahamians are afraid of, but rather what the entire situation seemed to represent — yet another potential action with long-lasting ramifications for Bahamians over which the Bahamian people will have no power, say or control.