Op-Ed

The importance of int’l engagement  

“If you are not at the table, you will be on the menu.”

Murmurings have begun to metastasize in some quarters about what is considered by some to be an excessive travel schedule that the prime minister has embarked on since taking office last September.

Some have suggested that the prime minister and the large delegations that accompany him abroad are expensive, unnecessary and excessive.

Others have suggested that because he is always out of the country, many of our domestic problems are not being satisfactorily addressed.

This week, we will consider this — have Prime Minister Philip Davis’ trips abroad been excessive, and should he reduce his travel to more attentively address issues that confront and impact us here at home?


Prime ministers must travel

Many legitimate reasons support the need for prime ministers to travel abroad. Let’s consider a few.

Prime ministers must travel to meet with their counterparts around the world. This is important at both the bilateral and multilateral levels.

At the bilateral level, it is sometimes vital for a prime minister to travel to confer with one of his colleagues in face-to-face meetings to discuss issues or concerns that are unique to the two countries because, as we all are aware, the positive impact of a face-to-face meeting is far greater than that of one carried out electronically over long distances.

More importantly, face-to-face interactions very often end with extremely productive outcomes sealed with a real, not virtual, handshake.

In the past, Bahamian prime ministers have recognized that they needed to conduct face-to-face meetings with other world leaders to discuss matters of mutual interest to their respective countries.

We saw this in the cases where former Bahamian prime ministers appreciated that, given the importance of the relationship with another country, they needed to meet to discuss concerns of mutual interest.

Prime Ministers Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie accomplished this during their meetings with the presidents of the People’s Republic of China.

For example, Ingraham and Christie appreciated the increasing importance of forging deeper ties with China, especially given the enormity of the latter’s investment in the Cable Beach project that culminated in the completion of Baha Mar.

No one can seriously doubt the benefits that accrued to The Bahamas from those in-person meetings in Beijing.

Secondly, there are important multilateral meetings that are inescapable. The prime minister’s presence at those meetings is vital for the other leaders who attend them and for Bahamian citizens who expect the nation’s leader to attend.

Some of those important conferences include the annual meetings of CARICOM Heads of Government, biennial meetings of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, and the annual meeting at the United Nations (UN) in September that is customarily addressed by most of the world’s leaders.

The presence of world leaders is crucial at important multilateral meetings to address issues of national and global importance, such as the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) that was convened in Glasgow, Scotland, last October and brought together 120 world leaders and over 40,000 registered participants.

There is no question that prime ministers, including our own, must travel to these globally important multilateral conferences.


Pent-up demand for foreign travel

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an exponential reduction in our political leaders attending foreign meetings. The Bahamas was not alone in this practice.

During the pandemic, many world and regional leaders held virtual meetings. With the return to normalcy, we have witnessed our leaders participate in more in-person international engagements in our radically transformed post-COVID global landscape.


Importance of being there

Governments must continuously assess the importance of our prime minister attending such meetings. True, there is a cost of attending such meetings including the travel cost and time expended on such trips, the cost of the prime minister’s security detail, and the media accompanying him to report the goings-on at such meetings, to name just a few.

There is a saying: “If you are not at the table, you will be on the menu.”

That is another way of recognizing that, while attendance has inherent costs, there is also a cost connected with our prime ministers not attending important international conferences.

There is also a cost to a nation for being absent from the world stage. If we are not represented at the table, our voices will not be heard, and our concerns will not be proffered. We will not be able to reap the benefits that being physically present and eye-to-eye with your fellow world leaders can produce.

Cost-benefit relationship

Invariably, the question arises: what is the cost of the travel by our prime ministers, and what are the benefits derived from these trips abroad? We have already discussed some of the costs. Successive governments have promised to report on the cost of such trips, but this promise has notably remained unfulfilled.

In business, travel expense reports are customarily submitted, so that companies can assess the cost of such travel. Governments should be no different. Unfortunately, we have never developed a culture of accountability for such travel. Citizens must consistently insist that their government should routinely adopt this business practice of accounting for travel expenses.

In addition to a report on the costs, the government must also ensure that our citizens are informed about the benefits derived from these trips abroad.

It is crucial for the prime minister and all Cabinet ministers, on returning to The Bahamas, to apprise the nation of the benefits that we have or will derive from their trips abroad.

We could go further. We should mandate that all public officials who travel abroad on the public purse must report to Parliament regarding the benefits and costs of such travel. This mandate should establish a deadline for reporting travel expenses.

Failure to do so could result in a level of waste and a degree of slackness toward accounting for public expenditures, with the possibility of misusing public funds connected with foreign travel.

We recognize that this level of reporting will require a paradigm shift in our political culture and will establish greater accountability for using public funds for foreign travel.

This mandate to disclose expenditures will also help to eliminate the tendency of some to be less than cautious with funds that belong to the people, not to them.

Has PM Davis traveled excessively?

We do not believe that Prime Minister Davis has traveled excessively since coming to office.

We should remember that Davis became prime minister in mid-September 2021.

He was immediately required to attend the annual meeting of world leaders at the UN later that month.

The following month, he attended COP26 in Scotland where his remarks were featured by the international press in print, electronic and internet outlets all over the world. His absence would have been catastrophic.

In January, Davis attended the World Expo 2020 in Dubai, showcasing The Bahamas on the international stage in a manner that has not been done in nearly two years.

Davis seized the opportunity to inform the world that The Bahamas was open for business after being shut down for nearly two years because of the unfortunate and ill-advised decision of his immediate predecessor, Prime Minister Minnis, to lock down the country.

Last month, Davis represented The Bahamas at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, another important meeting with the presidents and prime ministers in this hemisphere.

He then addressed the important digital assets conference in Austin, Texas, immediately after that. This speech underscored the fact that Davis has impressively demonstrated that he intends to feature The Bahamas as a center of excellence for the nascent cryptocurrency industry, as he stated at the FTX Conference in The Bahamas several months earlier.


Conclusion

Prime Minister Davis has demonstrated that he is an avowed internationalist – a global leader who advocates greater political and economic cooperation and engagement among states and nations.

As the leader of a new internationalism, Davis has demonstrated that we should engage more proactively and unite across national, political, cultural, racial and class boundaries to advance our shared interests.

His actions illustrate his belief that governments should cooperate because their long-term mutual interests are of greater importance than their short-term disputes and differences.

We believe his commitment to this variant of internationalism will pay enormous dividends to our small nation.

In the short time that he has served as prime minister, Davis has put his money where his mouth is to demonstrate that he unflinchingly understands the importance of international engagement to the future of The Bahamas.

We believe that, as the prime minister brings The Bahamas more fully into the brotherhood of nations, our challenges, some of which – like climate change – are caused by these countries, will come more fully to the attention of the world, and solutions can then be more fruitfully discussed. And with those solutions, come more opportunities for the people of The Bahamas, opportunities that can only strengthen and enhance our future.


• 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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