Hubert Edwards: Is economic dignity the Bahamas’ new direction?


Hubert Edwards

Is there a new economic philosophy emerging in The Bahamas? With a relatively new administration, a first-time prime minister and a decidedly tough task ahead in coping with the economic fall-out from COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian, there could be very fertile ground for such out-of-the-box thinking.

Personal outlooks on economics always influence policymakers. This, though, must play a secondary role to any overarching party position. In countries with clear philosophical differences between opposing parties, this becomes easier to understand. Where differences are negligible, as in the case of most Caribbean countries, economic philosophy becomes less pronounced as a differentiator compared to social leanings.

There is, however, a very progressive (American) economic outlook that seeks to bring together both social and economic philosophical thinking. This seems to counterintuitively align with the social overweighting we observe in the Caribbean, but in a way that more seriously focuses on creating value. This is an economic construct that seems to place the social and economic well-being of the people ahead of the economy.

This powerfully attractive (if you are predisposed to the social advancement of people) concept is ‘Economic Dignity’, a philosophy which appears to have found favour with at least one Caribbean leader, Phillip Davis KC, prime minister of The Bahamas.

On page 297 of his book, Economic Dignity, author Gene Sperling writes: “Amid all the metrics, means, policies, labels and debates over political strategies that bombard us daily, it is this vision of economic dignity that should be the North Star for economic policy that guides us every step of the way.”

This statement points to a pivot away from the traditional means of looking at economic development, where we become generally satisfied with macroeconomic growth without paying enough attention to the fortunes and fate of all a country’s people. How well are they progressing when there is economic growth? ‘Economic Dignity is thus a very bold, progressive and naturally disruptive view to status quo economics.

The concept

The concept of Economic Dignity, with its roots deeply embedded in US progressive (democratic) politics, is generally a broadside hit to the prevailing approach to policy and economic life in the Caribbean where entrenched factions consistently benefit more than the ordinary citizen, while those in vulnerable groups struggle immensely to live life with a sense of dignity.

It is a concept that is undergirded by ideas of equity and fairness, and which nudges the political directorate to pay attention to the poor, the disenfranchised, those who tried and failed, run afoul of society’s rules but deserve second chances, and those with debilitating health conditions which push them to the margins.

The Prime Minister attempted to deliver this message, which will likely be radical for some, during a lecture on the National Development Plan at the University of The Bahama. The intent, I believe, was to lay out his view to approaching economic policy that is seemingly well aligned with, if not the same as, Gene Sperling’s.

He attempted to show how The Bahamas, despite economic advances across many administrations, has failed to achieve the very aspirational objective of “uplifting the masses” in a broad-based way. The country has grown and flourished, but many have languished for generations in disadvantageous economic and social circumstances.

The Prime Minister’s effort did not translate as boldly as its enabling theory, largely because there appears to have been a desire to balance this disruptive idea and its underpinnings with the nature of the event that called for a more inclusive discussion.

Despite there being significant clues, maybe our lack of appreciation of the concept, together with the architecture of the speech, resulted in many missing the underlying message, at least initially. As a result, several commentators, I believe, misclassified the speech.

It is likely that on re-examination one might better understand the intention. It is this understanding that is critical to an appreciation of how the Prime Minister might approach, or is approaching, public policy, and the economic path that he wishes to chart for the country. The speech itself is rich with hints and flavours of this, and I would recommend a re-examination - possibly after taking some time to become acquainted with the rudiments of Economic Dignity.

Economic Dignity

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr, speaking at the uprising of sanitation workers in Memphis, said: “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.” Advocating for the best interests of these black men, he underlined the value of their work to humanity. Their work has dignity, he said.

Contextually, King was saying that where work benefits others, the effort should also benefit the worker in such a way that they can live with dignity. During the protest associated with that speech, protestors carried signs that simply read: “I AM A MAN”.

You may be asking what a speech from Martin Luther King Jr has to do with economics. Nothing much, except for the fact that Gene Sperling, former director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy under Presidents Clinton and Obama, had him firmly in his rear view mirror as he championed his philosophy of Economic Dignity.

That Martin Luther King Jr emerges as a reference point for Sperling is highly instructive, and should instinctively clue observers in on the fundamental leanings of his thinking. Like Martin Luther King Jr’s work and advocacy, the concept of Economic Dignity is deeply rooted in the welfare of the people, the masses, the ordinary man.

The concept is grounded in the idea of arresting the plight of vulnerable people and disadvantaged persons. The concept is inconsistent with, and disruptive to, status quo thinking and is likely to meet opposition (or at least meet with ambivalence) in mainstream economic thinking.

Economic Dignity is built on three core pillars. These pillars argue for “the ability to care for family without economic deprivation or desperation denying us the most meaningful moments and joys in our most important loving relationships; the capacity to pursue potential and a sense of purpose and meaning; and the ability to contribute and participate in the economy with respect, free from domination or humiliation”.

These were all clearly delineated in the Prime Minister’s lecture. I am sure there are persons who will outright disagree with this argument, or at least be tentative in aligning with it. However, when a prime minister in a nationally-important lecture focused on national development quotes a Gene Sperling, and takes seeks to unpack the economic history of the country, interesting clues start to emerge as to the influences on economic thinking and, more importantly, the likely desired outcomes of public policy. Is there an emerging philosophical stance with potential for spillover into the wider region?

NB: Hubert Edwards is the principal of Next Level Solutions (NLS), a management consultancy firm. He can be reached at info@nlsolustionsbahamas.com. He specialises in governance, risk and compliance (GRC), accounting and finance. NLS provides services in the areas of enterprise risk management, internal audit and policy and procedures development, regulatory consulting, anti-money laundering, accounting and strategic planning. Hubert also chairs the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) Economic Development Committee. This and other articles are available at www.nlsolutionsbahamas. com.


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