By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The private sector is “baffled” by the seemingly “insufficient action” to address The Bahamas’ ease of doing business woes, the Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive warned yesterday.
Jeffrey Beckles told Tribune Business that the government and private sector needed “to find a way to lessen the anxiety, confusion and frustration” of many Bahamas-based businesses over the absence of any improvements in the economic climate.
Suggesting that the Compass Point owner’s threat to close the resort by the next general election was a symptom of such concerns, Mr Beckles said The Bahamas’ sharp decline from 54th to 121st in the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings represented a “huge fallback” for this nation and its commercial reputation.
While The Bahamas subsequently improved to 119th, this two-spot improvement has only occurred through moving up one place in the rankings in each of the past two years. The chamber chief said too many in the private sector “feel the government is not responsive enough”, and that dialogue between the two sides needed to improve to put business more at ease.
He noted that while the government-appointed ease of doing business committee was “working hard”, and had submitted multiple recommendations to the government, Lynn Holowesko, its chair, told a recent accountants’ conference that it was disappointed more of its recommendations were not incorporated into the 2018-2019 budget.
“What is still baffling a lot of people is there’s not sufficient action on the deficiencies,” Mr Beckles told Tribune Business, referring to the World Bank rankings slump. “One would expect there to be a clear identification of the issues that caused us to lose ground; that’s a huge fallback.
“Most businesses are upset as there is no clear identification of what the issues are and no clear plan to mitigate them. That’s not to say there isn’t a plan; it’s businesses saying: ‘We don’t know what’s being done’.”
Calling for better communication between the Government and private sector over the former’s plans to tackle The Bahamas’ ongoing ease of doing business woes, Mr Beckles added: “We don’t expect to know every detail, but the level of confusion, anxiety and overall dissatisfaction, we have to find a way to bring that down.
“There’s dialogue, the identification of areas we need to improve in, and development of a measurable strategy for managing success in these areas. These things work to lessen anxiety, confusion and frustration. These are things we have to give attention to.
“If we say these are actions that are good for the country, we have to share information on a regular basis. We have to do more to lower the level of disquiet.”
Mr Beckles spoke out after Leigh Rodney, the Compass Point resort owner, warned in a newspaper advertisement last week that he will shutter the resort at the next general election and out 60 Bahamians out of work unless the Government delivers on its promised ease of doing business improvements.
Mr Rodney had warned: “If the FNM wins the next election without acting upon the promise they made when they were elected two years ago, the Compass Point owner does not want to continue to do business in this country and will therefore close his business.”
Enacting major reforms to facilitate the smooth conduct of commerce by removing unnecessary bureaucracy and “red tape”, thereby improving The Bahamas’ 119th ranking in the annual World Bank standings, was a major thrust of the FNM government’s election campaign and appeal to the private sector. But, while some changes have been implemented, the reform effort drive to have eased in recent months.
“No matter what we think of the tactic,” Mr Beckles told this newspaper on Mr Rodney’s advertisement, “if more and more people are expressing frustration that should cause us to ask if the current strategy is working. The truth is businesses are frustrated. If they can’t open a bank account in a reasonable time, that’s a problem.”
The Government has already touted several achievements, including a reduction in Business Licence processing time to 48 hours and the introduction of provisional licences. The Delivery Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office said the time for approving and renewing Business Licences has been reduced by 37 percent and 77 percent, respectively.
The Unit’s annual report also hailed a 44 percent reduction in the time taken to register a property conveyance, along with a 12 percent cut to the time taken to obtain construction permits. The latter, though, was challenged by Gustavus Ferguson, the Institute of Bahamian Architects (IBA) president, who said he knew no one who obtained a building permit in less than six months.
Mr Beckles, while praising the improvements relating to Business Licences, said more must be done. He pointed to land reform, and land registration and a system of registered land, as key to unlocking domestic investment by Bahamians.
“More importantly we have to find ourselves in constant communication,” he added. “The money being invested is taking a risk. If it’s taking a risk it wants to understand what these challenges are and help the Government mitigate those challenges.
“It’s our reality but we have to find a way to fix it. The Chamber is always open to government, and constantly offers our support, but right now the business community feels the Government is not responsive enough and that may lie in not enough communication.
“There’s great confidence in the ease of doing business committee, there’s some tremendously competent and professional people on it, but when they say the Government has not enacted many of their reforms the business community is saying we can’t keep going down that road.”