By MALCOLM STRACHAN
THE sudden resignation of former Bahamas Power and Light chief operating officer Christina Alston came as a shock to many. Although BPL has been far from the poster child of efficiency, Ms Alston’s appointment represented the dream for many Bahamians who have lived abroad to return home and make a valuable contribution. Assuredly, for Ms Alston, who left the home she had made in the US for the past few decades, this was a decision based on an innate sense of duty.
Unfortunately, in this case, as in countless others, things don’t always go as planned.
When Alston’s appointment as a part of a Bahamian executive team was announced in 2017, many supported the move. Since then, the dream would have seemingly turned into a nightmare. It only took a year after the government appointed the Bahamian executives for dominoes to begin falling as first chairwoman Darnell Osborne, then other board members were asked to resign by Minister of Works Desmond Bannister.
As perhaps one of the most unprofessional spectacles we’ve witnessed played out across national media, the prime minister eventually had to step in and massage matters. While meeting with the outgoing board, he promised an investigation into what took place.
It is now more than a year later and the Bahamian people have yet to hear about any of the probe’s findings or even if any investigation has taken place. There has been zero indication of when, if ever, we will learn what actually occurred.
It is safe to say the damage may have already been done.
The entire ordeal served as a black eye for the works minister whose jibes at Ms Osbourne appeared juvenile, petty and less than stately. And for the prime minister, it gave his hardest critics more ammunition.
In the long-term, this won’t likely do any damage politically. The true cost will be felt when another highly skilled Bahamian emigrates to another country or passes up on an opportunity to return home – knowledge and experience we won’t get to capitalise on.
This may be what led former Mrs Osborne to make a public statement when news of Mrs Alston’s resignation broke. She said: “Sadly, the opportunity that she had looked forward to for many years came to an abrupt end last week for unknown reasons… In my opinion, it is indeed a sad day for BPL and the country as the opportunity has once again been lost to attract and retain one of The Bahamas’ best and brightest minds and talent.”
Alston’s resignation, while we do not know the intimate details of what led to her departure, was confirmed by sources not to have been on amicable terms.
Bahamas Electrical Workers Union president Paul Maynard’s comments to the media supported these claims. He said, “I would’ve gone too. I [am not] getting disrespected. You got to respect the woman and her staff. You can’t come to me and say that she didn’t know what she was doing because if she could get another job…that shows her capabilities.”
Certainly, no one who has lived someplace else where life afforded them more convenience is going to tolerate disrespect – nor should they anywhere. This idea of living the “American Dream” (Canadian Dream) has immense appeal to more and more young Bahamians. Parents who are tired of the system are advising their children not to return home after graduating from university.
What we have to realise is millennials are far more intrepid than their parents and grandparents were. Thus, young people in The Bahamas are less committed to continue running into what feels like strong headwinds.
The brain drain – the departure of educated or highly skilled people from their home country to live and work in another – has become one of the most crippling factors to The Bahamas’ growth and development. Politicians in and outside Parliament have recognised this. However, there are so many systemic problems that have prevented us from addressing these issues.
In 2017, former DNA leader Branville McCartney spoke to the issue: “This is because of lack of opportunity and they feel unsafe. How can they have these opportunities if there’s no economic growth in four years? Four years!”
McCartney continued: “It’s causing a significant brain drain. They have no choice but to stay elsewhere. It’s not happening in The Bahamas. That’s the reality.”
Although the IMF concluded last year that our GDP is projected to grow by 2.1 percent this year, following the upward trend of 2.3 percent growth in 2018, this provides little comfort to Bahamian professionals flourishing abroad. With the recent growth in GDP coming as a result of the country’s success in tourism, The Bahamas’ tourism-dependent economic model provides little incentive to Bahamians abroad.
For one, most of the jobs in these organisations occupied by Bahamians are line staff positions. This is not to negate that there are Bahamians in middle and upper management roles. However, the compensation for Bahamians is not in the hemisphere of being on par with expatriates. Furthermore, with foreign direct investment like oxygen for the Bahamian economy, successive governments have not found themselves in a favourable seat at the negotiating table.
It is a tragedy.
Adding insult to injury, expatriates are also given car and rental allowances. Meanwhile, Bahamians are treated like second-class citizens and have to deal with “black crab in a barrel” mindsets from fellow Bahamians. Other issues like the cost of living and crime are also major deterrents.
Crime, although trending down, is still a vexing issue. Murders, armed robberies and sexual assaults have created widespread fear among the citizens of The Bahamas in recent years, and despite a decrease in murders, The Bahamas is still ranked 13th among countries with the highest murder rate per capita.
Indubitably, the desire to feel safe is likely shared by all Bahamians. And when grouped with other societal issues, some people decide there is a better life out there for them.
Commendably, the Minnis administration has made it clear it wants to recruit Bahamians working abroad to return home and contribute to the development of our country. However, this will be a hard sell if we don’t, in the first place, address and correct the issues that deter them from returning.
As the Bahamian dream seems more and more elusive, we face serious challenges. The loss of potential entrepreneurial vision, shortage of skilled workers, less tax revenue and overall decline in competitiveness are all troubling implications of the brain drain which we cannot afford to ignore.
While credit can be given to the government for securing some promising projects in Grand Bahama and the Family Islands, as well as launching the Small Business Development Centre, the most precious resource cannot be forgotten - Bahamians. More pointedly, highly skilled ones. These Bahamians will be needed for us to get to the next level. And if we want to see them take the baton and blaze the trail that takes us to the next level, we have to transform the environment into one that facilitates their success.