HUBERT EDWARDS: Missing the mark on our economic dignity


Hubert Edwards

From a regional perspective, the mission of getting Caribbean countries to a position of economic sustainability and resilience will demand national innovation, productive creativity and a herculean effort on prudent fiscal management. It will also require an unfailing commitment to delivering value across the broadest socio-economic divides that these countries have ever experienced, and a radical cultural shift at multiple levels.

This is in part because the region is experiencing the most challenging economic crisis in modern history. Consequently, there are increased pressures on the vulnerable population segments. The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that there has been a level of social and economic inertia across the region that has effectively arrested generations of the same families and groups in a cycle of perennial economic and social struggle. This often harkens as far back as the pre-independence era, indicating that many have yet to fully appreciate the true benefits of self-determination.

This highlights an urgent need for economic intervention that is sufficient to change the fortunes of these people, offering greater social and economic facilitation and second (even multiple) chances to persons who have failed or are failing.

There is an urgent need for a system that does not care about past failings,socio-economic origin, social status, connections and associations. Available resources and wealth must be targeted at facilitating opportunities for growth and development among the widest swaths of citizens possible. The chances of success should not depend as heavily on certain associations as they do today, while the possibility of failure should not hinge on the lack of connections.

Knowledge of the Caribbean will cause reasonable persons to readily agree that this is a major obstacle to national development. Too many persons are left behind because of who they are or, more profoundly, who they are not and what they do not possess.

Paradoxically, in the grander scheme of global economics, this is exactly what has happened to Caribbean countries.They have been left behind by the harsh withdrawal, and deprivation of the means of economic development, by former colonisers without an effective economic replacement model.

At a time when the world was leveraging industrialisation, the Caribbean was largely plunges into an existence of labour-intensive commerce. Our national historical experiences of being disadvantaged have failed to inform a better approach in lifting people from poverty or disenfranchisement. The fervour which developed from that experience, igniting the desire for independence, has been displaced in that many, generationally speaking, have yet to truly feel the warmth of economic advancement and deep social enfranchisement.

The Bahamian Experience

Analysis will show that historical and prevailing approaches to governance and economic empowerment, built largely on the concept of “trickle-down economics” in The Bahamas, have not proven effective in creating the type of seismic shifts needed to facilitate broad-based economic equity. There is a need for greater benefits to accrue to non-traditional and vulnerable groupings. There is a need for the sentiments that drive the idea of “the American Dream” to become endemic in the psyche of this country and others in the Caribbean. Fundamentally, there is a need for greater social and economic equity, and there is a sense that public policy has a significant role to play in this becoming a reality.

This reality comes from my understanding of the oft-mentioned term in the Prime Minister’s lectures, “economic dignity”. This is a bold proposition designed to strike at the very heart of unequal opportunity and generational disenfranchisement. This is solely my conclusion and, to some extent, speculation. However, a reasonable inquiring mind must wonder whether there is more to this and how it might be currently informing policy, even if not explicitly stated.

The Prime Minister was, in my mind, intending to deliver this substantial idea. The message I believe can be summarised as follows: “Economic dignity is the central foundation on which I will pursue economic empowerment for the people and, in contrast, here is how, up to now, it was not achieved and why.” In The Bahamas, as in other countries, discussions such as these are always going to be met with natural tensions.

To make the point, listeners to or readers of the speech will recall the historical expose in the lecture. This was intended, in my opinion, to show how approaches to economic development over the years have missed the mark of achieving what the concept of “economic dignity” espouses.

It, however, came across as an endorsement of one-party and dismissed the efforts of another, with some qualifications based on who the leader might have been at any point in time. The fact is, if one approaches the lecture in the purist manner with which Gene Sperling argues the concept, you are likely to better appreciate that the lecture might have been signalling the perceived shortcomings of all administrations to date vis-à-vis that idea at the core of “economic dignity”- empowerment of the masses.

It is easy to argue that The Bahamas has achieved notable economic success. However, there is always the risk of realising “national success” without broad-based impact on the general population, while also experiencing a continued and dangerous narrowing of the middle class and an even more debilitating broadening of populations living at or below the poverty line.

This is the antithesis of the ideas promulgated by Gene Sperling. He argues for a “Dignity Net” as opposed to the traditional “safety net” where individuals, regardless of disadvantages, including debilitating physical or mental abilities, are able to contribute, thrive and pursue purpose. He argues for broad-based economic equity where, despite their background, more persons are able to enjoy the country’s patrimony. This is essentially an environment where individuals have a more dignified experience - one that is akin to the black sanitation workers of the Martin Luther King Jr civil rights era being accepted as men.

For The Bahamas and the region, this type of balanced achievement will demand an acute understanding of the challenges the ordinary citizen faces, and transformative governance undergirded by a sound philosophy and committed leadership.

Public pronouncements by leaders are significant, and provide important clues as to personal convictions that may influence public policy. From the Prime Minister’s lecture, one might conclude that economics and the economy are not top priorities. One might instead believe that matters such as education and human development are. The issue, though, might be a circular argument that recognises the latter elements are important facilitators of the broad-based level of human dignity and achievement realised from the economy’s output. This is part of the essence of “economic dignity”. The question is: Are there leaders who have the conviction to act in this direction.

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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