On Merit

Connections, they say, are everything in The Bahamas. They tell you who you are, where you stand in society, what you can do, how high you can climb. The person with connections is rich indeed. The person without --Well, let's say they better have a Green Card.There are many people who believe that a society built on connections is a corrupt society, one in which social ties lead to success. When who you know is more important to your positioning than what you know and how well you know it, a society cannot grow, cannot change. It's a sad truth, these people claim, but it's a truth anyway. The society built on connections is one that's bound to fail.Well, I wouldn't go quite that far. I'm an anthropologist after all, and we never begin by assuming that some human activity is unique to any one group of people until we've looked at the facts. And when we look, we realize that connections are equally important elsewhere in the world. In the US, using connections, pulling strings, is known as "networking", and it's well-recognized as being necessary to success. In more traditional societies, such as the African ones which bequeathed to us many of our habits, everyone is related or connected in some way; using one's connections wisely and well is a marker of one's social savvy. In neither place, can pulling strings be considered corrupt; it's the way things are done.There's after all the concept of six degrees of separation, which suggests that everyone in the world is connected within six other people to everyone else in the world. There's even a game that you can play, called "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", in which players are challenged to find the connection between the actor Kevin Bacon and any other actor people name. The easiest way to do it is by matching movies and their casts. (You can play this game with anybody -- and I'll bet if you do it in The Bahamas in the wake of After the Sunset and Into the Blue you'll find many ordinary Bahamians who are connected to Kevin Bacon in six degrees or less.) Connections are the natural way of life in a society as small and interconnected as ours is, and one is almost stupidly idealistic if one doesn't use the connections one has.But here's the thing.A society isn't built on connections alone. It isn't enough to make contact with our mummy-sister-husband-co'n-boss, who is looking for someone to fill the very vacant post we were looking to fill; once we get there, those connections should melt into the background. Mummy-sister-husband-co'n-boss can't to the job for us; we have to deliver.And that's why it's important for us to talk about merit. It's true we live in a society of connections, and it's true that connections are very important in getting one places in this nation. What's also true, though, is that very often connections are simply barter exchanges. The politician seeking votes doles out favours like candy, and the pastor in search of a greater congregation does the same. What falls by the wayside is the fundamental question of whether the party being served can actually deliver.All too often, you see, the exchange is something that rests on the surface of reality. Men of influence pull strings to get choice positions for their friends and supporters simply because they are friends or supporters or affiliates, acquaintances, constituents, or the children of constituents. Once the string has been pulled the transaction is over. Whether the recipient of the favour can perform in the position is irrelevant; what matters is that the favour has been granted.But societies don’t grow like that.Societies that make no room for merit, that run on connections alone, without any alternative or backup, are indeed liable to fail.You see, men (and women) of influence have one major hurdle to climb, and it's this. Influential people tend to be surrounded by people who are extremely good at using connections, so much so that they have not developed those gifts at the expense of all others. After all, they don't need any other abilities; they have their connections. Thus the people who meet influential men and women on a daily basis are all too often the most destitute, the least innovative, the most dependent, or (perhaps) the most loyal people in the country.They are rarely the best.The best, you must understand are too busy working to make themselves better to need the influence of the great.The sum total of this state of affairs is that if you are capable and hardworking and innovative and creative, you're hardly likely to be considered for the jobs and the projects that people of influence have the ability to offer. If you're good at everything you do but bad at blowing your own horn and worse at allowing other people to blow it for you, you are very likely to slide through the choppy waters of Bahamian society without people noticing you until you're gone. You may never get to speak with a person of influence, because you don't need them. And, sadly enough, they may not learn until too late just how much they need you.And so. Connections are all very well. They're natural, and they're cultural, and they are not limited to The Bahamas. But connections without merit are not enough, especially in a growing society. If the only way a person of ability can get ahead in The Bahamas is by pulling a string or touching their forelock to a VIP, then we are bound to lose many of our best people, who will emigrate, seeking a chance to prove themselves, an objective recognition of their ability, and -- yes -- in all probability, a Green Card.