• Top banker: ‘Right about business’ for election victor
• Warns Bahamas ‘on wrong path’, course must alter
• Gov’t ‘institutional strengthening’ vital to reforms
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas’ next administration will not have the luxury of a “honeymoon” upon taking office, a prominent banker warning yesterday: “It’s going to be right about the business because there’s a lot we must right.”
Gowon Bowe, Fidelity Bank (Bahamas) chief executive, told Tribune Business that the victorious party in today’s general election will have little time to celebrate if they are to change The Bahamas’ direction and set it back on “the correct path”.
He added that “institutional strengthening” across all government ministries, agencies and departments post-election by ensuring they have the necessary skill-sets will be critical to executing the incoming administration’s plans, he added, while asserting: “You are only as strong as the public sector you employ.”
Reiterating previous calls for The Bahamas to revive the National Development Plan (NDP) as the road map for its revival over the next 20-30 years, Mr Bowe said improved foreign currency debt and balance of payments management will also be critical for the new Cabinet to start addressing the country’s multi-billion national debt and fiscal deficit concerns.
Warning that the likes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral institutions, as well as the likes of Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s (S&P), lenders and creditors will all be scrutinising the new administration’s actions closely, the Fidelity Bank (Bahamas) chief said they will be looking “to see who is courageous enough to start doing things in the best interest of country and not political party”.
Giving a sober assessment of The Bahamas’ realities post-Dorian and COVID-19, Mr Bowe told this newspaper: “Every time we go into an election we’re often talking about being at a crossroads. The best way to describe it is that we’ve gone down the wrong path.
“We need an administration that will identify we’re on the wrong path, turn us around and chart a path that we should be following but, more importantly, articulate that path to the wider public so that they understand where we’re going.
“We’re long past the crossroads. We’ve already gone down the wrong path, and we have to decide how far down the wrong road we’re prepared to go before we turn around, get back to the crossroads and find the right path.”
The Bahamas had failed to achieve annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth of higher than 2 percent in the decade prior to COVID-19, with the pandemic’s fall-out further widening social inequalities and worsening long-standing systemic weaknesses in areas such as education and governance.
Unemployment and under-employment, together with major income loss, remain serious problems as businesses and the wider economy struggle to regain a stable footing following pandemic-related restrictions. On the fiscal side, the national debt stood at $10.356bn at mid-2021 with a projected annual deficit of some $951m for the current fiscal year, while the debt-to-GDP ratio hovers at close to 100 percent.
“The reality is that we don’t have much wiggle room left. There are consequences for the actions taken over decades,” Mr Bowe told Tribune Business. “There won’t be a honeymoon for a new administration. It’s going to be right about the business because there’s a lot we have to right.
“They [the new administration] don’t have a choice as to whether they listen. Regardless of who the next administration is there are realities that come to bear stronger than they have before. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, so I hope they have strong shoulders and a stiff neck.....
“Regardless of who wins, that’s our government. We can only hope the citizenry are discerning and make the best choice, and that is choosing the best among the bunch. We simply have to make the best choice.”
While there has been significant focus on economic growth, the possibility of new and/or increased taxes, and government spending cutbacks, Mr Bowe said a more significant issue is having “the right people with the right skill sets” in the correct government positions if the next administration is to properly effect much-needed reforms.
“We’ve not done enough as a country to address that skills gap,” Mr Bowe asserted. “How am I to realise social, economic, health and environmental decisions without appropriate skill sets, and make sure public bodies are filled with appropriate skill sets and not just bodies. We don’t want people who got there because of political patronage. That’s what we need to do to change the country.
“No matter who is in government, you are only as strong as the public sector we employ. If we have the right financial people dealing with debt management, tax reform and economic growth, they’re going to be the persons we need. If you have independent medical professionals not afraid to challenge the political directorate in what they do, they’ll help us with the health initiatives we need.”
Mr Bowe added that it was vital the next administration make use of The Bahamas’ entire “braintrust” and not just rely on its own supporters for advice. “The victor tendencies need to be addressed,” he explained. “We have to recognise that governments have run the country by using half its brain. We remain polarised, and use only political party supporters.
“We’re now going to use the full brain trust of the country and the private sector - people knowledgeable in their field - to bring their full expertise to the Government, which is something we have not done enough. Is this what I’d call a Majority Rule monumental election tomorrow [today]? No, but we need to send a very clear message that we’re looking at the quality of the policymakers put forward, and will hopefully pick the best.
“The international community is watching. The stark reality is I don’t think there’s a preference or comfort zone with one major political party over the other. I think what they’re all looking for is to see who will be courageous enough to start doing things in the best interest of the country, not in the best interest of politics,” Mr Bowe added.
“I’m going to be a little mischievous and say this much. Policymakers do not have all the answers. Being elected does not take you from naivety to super intelligence. We want these policymakers to realise that they will elevate themselves if they have smarter people in the room as they make decisions.”
The Fidelity Bank (Bahamas) chief said another priority for the new administration will be “more strategic management of the balance of payments”, and building sufficient foreign currency inflows such that it begins to repay elevated foreign currency debt obligations.