Taxes, spokespeople, politicians & the press

The Nassau Guardian, continuing its expose on the value-added tax coordinator, reports on the latest statement made by the Leader of the Opposition about the Prime Minister.

I don't really see why.

For me the story does not lie in the statement of the Leader of the Opposition, or in the Prime Minister's response. Both men are transient; but the issues are permanent, and will affect us all for quite a while. For me the story lies in the absurdity of the defence of a person who clearly is not managing his own finances as the main spokesperson for financial reform. Forget what the PM or the LO had to say; focus on the issue at hand. The government has no money because it has not kept up with the changes in the global economy and has not managed its finances as it should. The government, in an attempt to manage those national finances, has appointed a person who appears unable or unwilling to manage his own personal finances. This is, to put it kindly, illogical; to put it unkindly, it's absurd.

It's absurd.It's disrespectful to the citizenry who is being asked to pay more taxes, and new ones.It is, very fundamentally, part of the problem. People not paying taxes that already exist is a large reason why the government has a shortage of revenue. To have someone who does not pay taxes—or even his mortgage, if reports are to be believed—as the spokesperson who is asking us to pay more taxes is quite possibly the worst strategy that one could ever employ.

Harvard, sustainability, Exuma, and COB

Yesterday morning, Facebook posts notwithstanding, I was in Long Island waiting to board a plane to Georgetown, Exuma, as part of a ten-day long ethnographic study of Exuma, Long Island and Cat Island.

The study is part of a longer-term project whose ultimate goal is to create a plan for the sustainable development of Exuma and its cays, a plan which, it's hoped, can provide a blueprint for the development of other islands. This year, as part of the project, seven Bahamian students doing Field Experience at the College of The Bahamas have teamed up with 16 students from the Harvard Department of Anthropology and the Graduate School of Design to carry out ethnographic field studies. There are several teams of students, most of them in Great Exuma and the Cays, but also in Cat Island and Long Island.

Since Friday, I've been travelling with the professor of the Harvard course to the different locations where the students are deployed, meeting with them and talking to them about their personal projects, helping to troubleshoot (where possible or necessary). On Friday and Saturday we were in Long Island, helping the students there settle in. Yesterday we moved on to Georgetown, where several events intertwine: for me, the main one is working with my students, but there are workshops and meetings between the people in Georgetown and the people from Harvard. What's exciting about it is that we're working together on a piece of ethnography that is put together like a mosaic. Ethnography, the in-depth study of a single community at a single point in time, is traditionally done by a single anthropologist who goes to a different society from her own and lives there for an extended period—at least fifteen months—they used to specify in Cambridge, which allowed the researcher to observe a full year of activity and also gave a three-month cushion to permit a working level of acclimatisation.

What's happening in this case is something a little different. Researchers from Harvard have been working since 2012 on different elements, and the project will continue through 2015—a five-year span that will incorporate perspectives from a wide range of researchers. Some are student researchers, and some are working on doctorates and post-doctorates. Some are established researchers as well. Some are students of design, some are anthropologists. It's the mosaic approach to ethnography, and now, in 2014, the voices of Bahamian students of the College of The Bahamas have been added.The project has murky connections, to be sure. In 2010-2011, the Bahamas National Trust and the Free National Movement government came under heavy fire after the revelation that the Aga Khan had been given permission to create a marina for Bell Island, his private island in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. The process required dredging of the sea bed and the conversion of an inland pond, and there was strong opposition to the development. (That opposition, according to more recent reports, has abated somewhat, as the PLP is now the government in power; the current narrative seems to be that far less damage was done to the environment than those in opposition feared. Be that as it may. The permissions were given, the development has taken place, and we must all, especially those of us who are the citizens and stewards of this remarkable country, move on.It's probably no coincidence at all that the Aga Khan has established a gift and grants to research and plan for the sustainable development of Exuma and the Cays. Cynics like me will have the tendency to regard this largesse as a payoff for being allowed to do in the Exuma Land and Sea Park far more than Bahamians who have been living on the communities within that park for over two hundred years. There is certainly more than a whiff of inequity about the permissions given to the über-rich to develop private islands in the Exuma Cays, even within the Park, while locals are prevented from using the resources which have provided them with subsistence for generations. But the reality is that the permissions have been given, the inequities are being enforced, and all that we are left with is the prospect of amelioration.

And here's where we come in,  the students of the College of The Bahamas and myself. The gift and grants are being administered by Harvard University, the Aga Khan's alma mater, and since 2012 students and faculty from Harvard University have been visiting Exuma, conducting research to contribute to the island's development. In 2013, the College of The Bahamas was approached in various capacities to join the project. One of those capacities involved linking up with the fieldwork that would be carried out this spring in Exuma. I happen to teach a Field Experience course this spring, and the students in that course are required to conduct field research somewhere, at some time. The project's challenges notwithstanding, this element offers potential for that amelioration. Here's where the potential lies. One of the most fundamental flaws we have in our governmental system is the fatal disconnect between the Family Islands (I refuse to call them "Out") and New Providence, where officials sit in air-conditioned offices, meet with high-faluting investors, and carve up our archipelago for finite, quickly-spent pocketsful of cash. The way in which we administer our nation is akin to the Europeans dividing up Africa with a table, maps and a ruler during the nineteenth century, or  the Allied generals of the First World War deploying their troops to die among the barbed wire and trenches of the European front. The decisions made by our leaders are cavalier, ill-informed, greedy, and destructive. Bahamian patrimony is being disposed of for sums that spin the heads of politicians and civil servants but that carry with them heavy doses of nothingness: they mean almost nothing to the investors who offer them, and they mean less than nothing to the people who are most directly affected—the Family Islands, our fellow citizens, who are daily being deprived of their traditions, their communal means of survival, their ways of life, and their sustainability. My students, the students who attend COB, are potentially the politicians and civil servants of the future. The experience they are being offered by their involvement in the project is my hope of contributing to long-term and future change—of creating a sense of respect and understanding for the different ways of life of our archipelago, for the wealth and beauty of our environment. There's another far more pragmatic, element as well. The studies being led by Harvard are generating data about our islands, data that can and may be crucial to the future well-being of our nation. This project will end in 2015, and that end will be accompanied by a set of reports and plans which will be touted and bound and, if past experience is anything to go by, shelved. But the data itself, the raw material that is being generated in the process, will be the property of Harvard University, not of The Bahamas—unless the College of The Bahamas is involved at the base level of the research. We have missed a year of this already, but the fact that Bahamian students are now involved in the ethnographic process is one way of ensuring some access to the intellectual riches that are now being generated. And that is my ultimate goal here.

Long blog post. Big, big deal. From here on in I will be blogging, as internet permits, about the things we are discovering on our journey. Watch this space. And, my fellow Bahamians, prepare for action if needed. This is the only Bahamas we've got.

Taxing the way forward

Earlier this week, the Nassau Guardian featured the following in its business section:‘Accelerated push’ to collect real property taxes

WWW.THENASSAUGUARDIAN.COMThe government will mount an “accelerated push” this year to collect the more than $500 million owed in real property taxes and eliminate the policy discrepancies which lead to taxpayer “frustration”, Financial Secretary John Rolle said yesterday.

The Nassau Guardian: Accelerated Push.

I read the article with a mixture of hope and scepticism. The article, and the fundamental statement it reported, only barely address the critical need for reform in the government agencies that are responsible for revenue collection in this country. For over half a century we have subsisted—even flourished—with a state revenue collection scheme that was, in its own peculiar way, streamlined and relatively easy to administer. When you tax consumption over everything else, and collect that tax at the border, it's pretty easy to keep track. Our supplemental revenue streams (like real property tax) have been far less successful, with the result that, despite some six years of administrative bleating about collecting outstanding taxes, the general toothlessness of the exercise has made it very difficult for the government to show any real gains. And to a large extent, the problem is systemic.

Let me give you a personal example.

Three years ago, my mother died. In my immediate family, she was the last of her generation to do so. As a result, I became the owner of real property that I do not inhabit. This certainly did not happen overnight (the process of probating estates is far slower than that), but it did take place without overt intention on my part. It changed my status as a taxpayer in this nation.

I have to confess that I am still unclear about how that status changed. My obligations as a taxpayer quite simply passed me by; until the probate of my mother's estate, I didn't qualify as someone who had to pay real property tax, not being the owner of any potential income property, and in the year or so since that situation changed, I have had no notification about my new obligation to pay taxes on the property I have inherited. Even though the change in my property-owning status occurred just at the time that the government was in dire need of increasing its revenue, no one and nothing has been done to make it any clearer just what my obligations are in this regard.

I have to confess, I did not think that I needed to do very much to find out how my status was changing. After all, the process of probating the estate took a long enough time, with the documents in question passing through various government departments, and requiring a kind of assessment that, I imagined, would result in the end with a notice from some government agency informing me that I was now obliged to pay real property tax. Ideally, I imagined that the notice would come along with specifics: that this piece of property was liable to pay this amount of tax, and that one was liable to this amount. I imagined it because all through the period the estate was being probated I was hearing noises about the government's tax collection policies, the amnesty on real property, etc. I assumed, clearly naïvely, that somewhere, somehow, the real property office would have had something to do with the probate, would have noted that the property I was inheriting had changed hands, and would have made up the notice that I was imagining I might receive.

No notice came with the probate.

No notice came after it.

I have slowly come to the realization that it is entirely up to me as a new landowner, as the new possessor of property that is not owner-occupied to find out about, register, call for the assessment of, and pay taxes on the property I have inherited.

Something in me rises up in indignation about that. After all, it's not me who needs the money; it's the government whose bottom line is affected, and the government who should be making the effort at least to alert me that my status has changed, to make it easier for me to pay the tax I owe. I'm not saying that I want to withhold the taxes. On the contrary; I am one of those individuals whose salary is heavily subsidized by the taxpayers' money, and so it's in my own best interest to make sure taxes are paid. But I don't think that it should all be left up to me as the potential taxpayer to go to a government office to sign up to pay taxes. What sense does that make?

Am I wrong to raise this question? Should I be so very patriotic that I go out of my way, even pay a substantial sum out of my own pocket, to get the land surveyed so that I can produce the documents that, according to what I've looked up online,  I have to submit with the registration form that I have to pick up or print out and deliver to the Real Property Tax Office? Something about this seems counterintuitive, especially as we live in a society where very few people go out of their way to pay for what they don't have to. Compare this state of affairs to that which obtained when I lived in Canada, where the government was the principal actor when it came to taxpaying, where the government made it its business to see that revenue was collected. There, I paid up front, and had to put effort in to get my rebates back. Here, it seems, it's the other way round.

Now consider this. I am the member of a generation that may be among the first large group of people who inherits the kind of real property that can be taxed. Our parents, who benefitted from Majority Rule in ways that were tangible and financial, became the first large group of private property owners. Their generation is slowly dying off, and we, their children, are inheriting their assets. We too are beneficiaries of the prosperity that followed Majority Rule, and so many of us are living in homes that belong to us. Some of us are fortunate enough to be living in homes that are above the tax threshold, but some of us are exempt. But as we inherit our parents' land, our status is changing too; we are becoming  taxpayers. But too many of them, of us, are effectively "tax dodgers" because the system requires us to make the effort to find out what we owe, pay for the assessment on what we own, and begin to pay our property taxes. This in a climate where there is no clear avenue to finding out what we owe and when. This is a climate where there too little thought has been given to making it easy for those of us who are well-intentioned to meet our obligations. The government needs the money but the government is making very little legitimate effort to collect it.It's not as though this moment was unforeseeable. Indeed, this is a time when the government, if properly staffed and equipped by enough vision, should have been able to predict a spike in government revenue for the very reasons I outlined above. My generation, I realize now, should have been being prepared for this moment, the moment when we would begin to inherit non-owner-occupied property--or to begin to sell that property, converting it perhaps to ownership that falls into more lucrative tax brackets. But no; despite the bleating about amnesties and the rest of it, I have had to go to a non-governmental website to find out what exactly my personal obligations are. I remain unclear about them even now.

So it's no surprise to me that there are many people in positions of authority who are delinquent on paying their real property tax. I'm not talking about those who are deliberately avoiding their obligation; I'm not talking about the faceless, corrupt them who take, take, take and never give to our society. I'm talking about well-intentioned Bahamians, people who work hard to pay their bills, people who make their national insurance contributions for themselves and the people who work for them, people who pay down on their mortgages and their credit card debts and their electricity bills, people who pay their customs duties when they bring in merchandise that exceeds the allowable exemption. I'm talking about the working Bahamian middle class, the people who keep the economy going because they do pay their way in our society. These people, like me, may well intend to pay their real property tax, but may equally be daunted by the amount of effort that is required to begin to do so.There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that requires honest people to have to engage in detective work to find out what taxes to pay and how to pay them. And so I trust that this "accelerated push" announced this week will be far more than lip service. Because lip service is not what is needed now. What is needed, direly so, is the reform of a system that is unwilling to prosecute the dishonest and makes crooks even of the well-intentioned.

Reparations Part II: A Lecture by Prof. Hilary Beckles

[easy-media med="3125"]The lecture is not short. Watch it at your own leisure. You may well not agree with it, all of it or some of it or a little of it. But if you have anything at all to say about the question of reparations, you will have no ground on which to stand unless you engage with the ideas he puts forth.Here is a taste:

When the world sits down, the western world, the European world, when they sit down to discuss the Caribbean, Africa, when they look at their past and the enslavement of our peoples, the victimization of our peoples, the destruction of Africans' potential, and the consequences that followed slavery, the apartheid that was put in place in the Caribbean after slavery, they speak about [the idea that] the time has come to move on.And they discuss moving on in the context of certain key words. These are the words that they use: Let's be progressive. Let's move on. Let's have progress. Let's have equity. Let's have democracy, equality, time for healing, time for atonement. We must have redemption, and forgiveness. The time has come for reconciliation ... Justice.These are the key words [around which] the conversation takes place about the legacies of slavery. But if you look at these words very carefully—and these are all very important words because these are the key words in western civilizations that speak to human progress—but there's a word that is missing from there. There is a word that is missing from the dialogue. And that word is what we call the elephant in the room. There's an elephant in the room. There's a word that nobody wants to say in the western world. There's a word that they do not want to use. But without that word, all of the precious words of hollow. Without that word, the justice, the forgiveness, the atonement, the equality, the progress, the reconciliation—without that word all of those other words are hollow. And that word of course is reparations.

thebahamasweekly.com - Bahamas 2013: A Year in Review with Nicolette Bethel

The highlight, for me--the part I spent the most time on:

5) 2013 may have been one of the worst years ever for crime in The Bahamas. What are your thoughts and suggestions?I’m not sure I buy the popular semi-hysteria about crime. As a social scientist I tend to stand back and look at local situations as objectively as possible. Here are the facts that strike me about The Bahamas in 2013.1) We have a population problem. It’s not a problem of overpopulation; far from it. It’s a problem of population distribution. Almost a quarter of a million people live in eighty square miles of land. The population density that results—3,125 people per square mile—places intolerable pressure on all of us. But it’s unnecessary pressure, because the whole territory of The Bahamas totals approximately 5400 square miles, and our whole population totals 354,000; the population density of our whole nation is a mere 66 people per square mile. To me, it’s a no-brainer; we HAVE to create and encourage the development of centres of population around our archipelago and establish means of encouraging Nassauvians to move there. End of story. But:2) We have an economic problem. For the last twenty years if not more, our governments have placed more emphasis on the attraction of foreign direct investment in various forms than on any single local developmental initiative. The result is that we all today confuse the construction of huge resorts with actual development, and we castigate our leaders for spending pretty well any money on Bahamians at all, put by the fact that such spending is an investment in the Bahamian nation. The landscape that has been produced is a landscape in which the fabulously wealthy of the world live behind illegally high walls in gated communities five driving minutes away from areas of high population density and virtually no amenities. We have allowed our educational services to stagnate, so that we are still providing the majority of our citizens with the kind of education that was appropriate for the first ten years of our independence, but with a deterioration in its quality.We quibble about whether we can “afford” a university but have no problems in assigning more money from our national budget to “assist” the latest multimillion dollar resort complex in its development than we assign to the College of The Bahamas. In other words, our country, which is still the wealthiest in CARICOM, has real economic problems when it comes to how it spends its money, and on what. Rather than investing in the means to develop the whole of this large, land-rich, stunningly beautiful, strategically significant nation, we waste far too much on projects that harm the general population without generating any return.In this scenario, crime is inevitable, and the violent crime that we have come to fear this year is depressingly predictable. I have been convinced for most of my adult life, from the moment I set foot in a classroom to teach the younger brothers of young men who had struck it rich working for major and minor drug lords, that some of the best minds in The Bahamas go into crime. The young men who are killing themselves and others in the process are part of our national resource, and we have worked hard to discard them like paper. They are turning their minds to making space for themselves because no one has made any room for them. We want them to work as construction workers at the bottom of a hierarchy that still places whiteness and riches at its top, and we expect them to be grateful. At the same time, we live in a society with open borders and a general resistance to spending the kind of money and time needed to police those borders adequately, and we also live on the edge of the most schizophrenic society that ever lived—a society that says that all men are equal of one side of its mouth, and out of the other side says that all people are equally good targets for bullets. The absurd American Arm the Good Guy scenario does not work, because which individual really believes he’s the bad guy? And so:violent crime, criminals with automatic weapons, and sensational headlines that sell newspapers but really do very little to present the problem sensibly.To sum up: I don’t buy the “worst year” idea in terms of crime. I’m not sure that 2013 was the worst year; I tend to divide what I read in Bahamian discourse on these sorts of things by four and digest the result. We have the crime that we should expect for the population size and density that we have on New Providence. It is not at all surprising. It’s frightening, yes, but that’s because our city is too small to absorb it. The solutions are there. It’s a mathematical problem whose solution can be simple. We need to act to make it happen.via thebahamasweekly.com - Bahamas 2013: A Year in Review with Nicolette Bethel.

Will Western Europe Pay Out to Slave Descendants? | VICE

The answer is yes. Perhaps not in my lifetime. But if we are all human beings (and we are) the arguments against reparations will fade in the light of the brokenness of the world the slavery built. It's a brokenness that 50 years cannot begin to fix (answer to the "independence" argument) without some global restructuring of wealth. And it's not something that can be relegated to the past. The acts may be past but the violence of those acts lives on. If reparations are never paid, Western Europe will be enshrining the fiction it created to justify the enslavement and indentureship of people whose skins were not white & particularly of Africans, and demonstrating that, unlike the Jews, the Maori, and, critically, the white slaveowners, the Africans who were enslaved and their children who were enslaved by their accident of birth are not as human as everyone else. To resist this symbolic action is to perpetuate an institution of hate.

When I spoke to Esther Stanford of PARCOE UK, she argued that “reparations is as much about the battle of ideas and ideologies” as it is about money—and she faults the governments involved for not working with civil society groups to raise “reparations consciousness.” Stanford “It’s not an African name; it’s an enslaved person’s name that I carry to this day” is a lawyer and reparations activist who is currently completing a PhD in the history of the reparations movement. She has called CARICOM’s effort “far too limited, far too myopic.”via Will Western Europe Pay Out to Slave Descendants? | VICE.

The new colonialism, or Things Fall Apart: S&P: downgrade if no tax ‘follow through’ | The Tribune

The Bahamas will suffer another credit rating downgrade within the next six-nine months unless it “follows through” on Value-Added Tax (VAT) or some other structural revenue reform following the 2014-2015 Budget.Dr Lisa Schineller, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) senior country analyst for the Bahamas, yesterday told Tribune Business that the upcoming May Budget had to include the Government’s plans for generating medium and long-term “revenue buoyancy”.Suggesting that the national debate over VAT, and whether this is the best tax reform option, needed to be concluded relatively swiftly, Dr Schineller said S&P needed to “see something move on the revenue side this [fiscal] year”.via S&P: downgrade if no tax ‘follow through’ | The Tribune.

Don't get me wrong. I am not one of those who is fundamentally anti-VAT or who believes that there is absolutely no need to reform the Bahamian tax regime. I am not a knee-jerk no-taxes person; indeed, I believe that taxes are critical to maintain a contemporary society, where all citizens have access to the basic services that are necessary for twenty-first century life, and I also believe that to do away with taxation is to create a society that will resemble the world on which the Americas was built--a profoundly unequal world, where profit and wealth for a few rested on the backs of many who were underpaid (or not paid at all), under-fed, ill, poorly housed, abused.But.I do not see that much good can come out of any agency who stands far away, has nothing invested in the society, and who simply goes around the world, peering into people's business and recommending solutions that have been developed for other social realities with other challenges. The approach seems to be both cavalier and dismissive, and the goals are unrealistic. While I would be the first person to agree that government spending is in dire need of adjustment, I am also part of an institution, the College-soon-to-be-university of The Bahamas, which is under real threat from indiscriminate cuts in government spending. It is institutions like the College on which future revenue streams, future real economic changes will be built, if the government invests in those institutions; but the pressure being applied by companies like S&P and others is having the opposite effect. What The Bahamas needs are not more experts from the outside who come along with solutions that treat us as though we are cookies cut from some other reality, as though the unique challenges posed by being a large sprawling, unevenly developed postcolonial archipelago can be solved with plans developed in post-war France or approved by the OECD under the terms of the WTO. I don't need to watch films like Life and Debt to guess what might happen next.Once again, don't get me wrong. I am not arguing that changes do not need to be made. I am not making any case whatsoever that the system we have at the moment is working. What I am suggesting is that the carrot-and-stick approach being used by those who pay too much attention international credit ratings agencies--who are not gods, even though they behave as though they are, and even though they have the power to affect our economic fortunes as we let them--is too reminiscent of the indiscriminate tactics of the plantation and of the colonial settlement, where the bottom line is more important than the damage involved in getting there for my liking.I can only refer people to Achebe's classic work, Things Fall Apart for one of the best illustrations of what can happen to a society where necessary change is imposed from the outside, rather than developed internally. It's a story that has been repeated again and again over the last five hundred years in our part of the world, especially with regard to societies made up of people whose skin colours once marked them out as less-than. There is a hollowness that attends on these kinds of changes, most of which spring out of a deeply entrenched sense that--contrary to the evidence of history--people from the developed world know what's best for people in the developing world. We need to beware the White Man's Burden, which remains alive and well in the twenty-first century global economy; that burden has a bad habit of being dropped and breaking everything that's inside.

Approaching VAT: "There are WAY too many breaks for the poor" ?!

Concerning Reparations for Slavery: Part One

This past October, a tiny tempest-in-a-teacup erupted in the wake of a fairly routine report on a decision taken by CARICOM to sue the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands for reparations for slavery. Following the report, which headlined, somewhat misleadingly, as "BAHAMAS SUING UK OVER SLAVERY", was a flurry of communications on both sides of the debate, along with a quick opinion poll by the Tribune which suggested that one-third of the people who took it were in support of the lawsuit, two-thirds against. The matter has since seemed to go away, sinking into the mire of superficialities which passes for public debate in our nation. But I want to suggest that what CARICOM has initiated is something that will eventually occur, and which may, when it does happen, change the future of the region if we let it. Whatever the noise in the market, the matter of reparations for New World slavery will not go away. A great wrong was committed against millions of human beings in the name of nothing more than global domination and profit, and that is a debt that will one day be paid.Here's why I say that. It seems to me that the resistance against the idea of reparations for slavery takes one of several forms. The first is the idea expressed by the UK government representative contacted by the Tribune to respond to CARICOM's lawsuit: that "governments today cannot take responsibility for what happened 200 years ago". The second is subtly connected to the first, but it shifts the focus from the enslaving nations to the nations founded on slavery, and argues that as the ills of the present cannot be solved by placing the blame on past wrongs, the past should be buried and the future considered. There is a third: that the debt has already been paid with independence, and that the political freedom of the people who were once enslaved is all that is necessary to right the wrong. A fourth argues that instead of focussing on the slavery of the past, the continuing enslavement and exploitation of people today is more a more pressing matter to consider. And there are countless other objections to the idea.What all of these objections have in common is that they deflect the idea of reparations from the principle on which the idea rests to the practicalities of the issue. In so doing, they inadvertently make the case, at least to me, for the very thing they oppose. What not one of these objections admits is that the institution of transatlantic slavery was a crime against humanity of such magnitude that makes it nearly impossible for us to deal with even two centuries after the beginning of its abolition. What they all do, instead, is continue to perpetuate the crime that lies at the heart of the reparations movement: that the enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the process of founding the so-called "New" World depended upon the fundamental dehumanization of those enslaved, and was accompanied by the very different dehumanization of the enslavers which occurred in the process.What these objections do is focus on the people enslaved, on the practical difficulties in addressing the wrong, on the pragmatics of the issue, which affect so many things about our current existence that it is almost impossible to conceive of living any other way. What not one of them does is address the idea that the crime for which restitution is being sought is not a crime against the person; it is a crime against the very idea of humanity and the concept of human beings. And it does not address the idea that until we begin to think about reparations from this perspective, we will continue to commit that crime.In case I'm not making myself clear, let me say it this way.For me, reparations for the transatlantic exercise of slavery (which is the specific offence that is being addressed in the CARICOM lawsuit) are not being sought for some past wrong that ended two hundred years ago. They are being sought for the continued dehumanization of the people who were enslaved, the people who enslaved them, and the people (us) who have inherited the world that rose up to maintain the slave system. It is a world whose structures, certainly in The Bahamas, remain very much intact, thus giving life to, enabling, the narrative that suggests that the past can be buried. But the past is not yet dead. It lives on in the very discourse that we use to discuss--or to dismiss--the call for reparations, and it is this which needs healing.This meditation is only a beginning of an exploration of the topic, and the start of my personal attempt to make sense of the issue, and to explain why first, I support the call for reparations; why second, I am convinced that no amount of ridicule and dismissal will make the call for reparations disappear; why third, I am certain that the arguments being brought against the call will eventually dissolve and peter out, and why the call for reparations will swell until restitution is paid; and why last, I am convinced that one day reparations of some kind will be paid by European governments (or by the EU itself) for their part in the system of transatlantic slavery.If you doubt me, consider this move, initiated this past May in France, pushing Europe to do what it has already done: to declare slavery a crime against humanity. And consider the language that accompanied it:

Written declaration, under Rule 123 of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure, on establishing a European day in recognition of the victims of European colonisation and colonial slavery1
  1. European colonisation not only caused political submission and the economic plunder of the colonised territories and population, but also the extermination of native peoples and the deportation and reduction to slavery of millions;
  2. Under Article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, enslavement is recognised as a crime against humanity;
  3. Colonisation had among its effects that of depriving the colonised territories of their lifeblood, impacting negatively on their development capacity;
  4. The political, economic, demographic and psychological consequences of European colonisation are still resonating;
  5. The Commission is hence called upon to support the establishment of a European day in recognition of the victims of European colonisation and colonial slavery;
  6. The Council is also encouraged to take ownership of the initiative by supporting it at European level;
  7. This declaration, together with the names of the signatories, is forwarded to the Council and the Commission.
It's a beginning. It is a small step, true, and principally symbolic, as it was accompanied by no restitution; but it is a turn in the direction of rightness.I'm going to return to this topic over the next month or so.You're warned.

Noam Chomsky: America hates its poor - Salon.com

Worth thinking about as we embark on the process of changing our tax structure while at the same time we continue with the not-so-productive policy we've instituted of development-by-proxy, especially as many of the proxy holders tend to be very wealthy and fairly American.

The enormous benefits given to the very wealthy, the privileges for the very wealthy here, are way beyond those of other comparable societies and are part of the ongoing class war. Take a look at CEO salaries. CEOs are no more productive or brilliant here than they are in Europe, but the pay, bonuses, and enormous power they get here are out of sight. They’re probably a drain on the economy, and they become even more powerful when they are able to gain control of policy decisions.via Noam Chomsky: America hates its poor - Salon.com

Happy Independence, Bahamas!

I am greeting this day with profoundly mixed feelings.On the one hand, of course, I am proud of this day, proud that at forty we have not suffered any of the calamities that pundits have predicted, proud that we have indeed made a nation out of these "barren" rocks and cays, islands which were not important enough to our colonial masters for them to interfere very much with, but which we, the inhabitants, have made important in our region.I am proud, too, of the contribution that Bahamians have made to history here and around the world, that we have been making for over a century. Those of you who follow such things on Facebook can probably name some of them: W. E. B. DuBoisJames Weldon Johnson, Joseph Love, Bert Williams, Albert ForsytheJoseph Spence, and Sidney Poitier are just a start, not to mention the stellar performance of our more contemporary athletes, artists, and intellectuals.And I'm proud that on the surface, we Bahamians created a society that stood for equality for all races without bloodshed. This is a remarkable achievement, and one which served as inspiration for a man no less remarkable than Nelson Mandela after his release from prison; when he was about to set up his own nation, whose racist legacy was far deeper, more egregious and legally supported than our own, he visited us to see how we had made the change.At the same time, though, I am profoundly uneasy about this moment. Part of the unease comes from our addiction to superficiality. There will be much talk today, all over the airwaves and in cyberspace, about the self-same things I have mentioned above. Elders will call up names from their memories, as I have done, and talk about why they are proud, and they (we) will expect their pride to communicate itself, somehow by osmosis, to the majority of the Bahamian people, the average age of whom is 29. And yet still, still, we have not invested anything substantial or lasting to ensure that these reasons to be proud make it into the bloodstream of the Bahamian nation.I am profoundly uneasy because, at forty, here is what this nation (of which I am proud) does not have:

  • a national library whose job it is to collect the publications and other documents and keep them in a safe place that is open to all members of the public where even the poorest among us can go to find out the things that elders will shout about today;
  • a national broadcasting station whose job it is to produce programming that, round the clock, provides Bahamians with reasons to be proud of themselves;
  • a national curriculum that determines which things young Bahamians should know by the time they become adults, and sets about teaching them;
  • a national centre that celebrates, encourages and nurtures the innate creativity that we have to have inherited from those of our forefathers who made these rocks in the ocean into islands on which we can thrive
  • a national philosophy that provides for Bahamian citizens some ideal or goal to which to aspire, something that we can stand for wherever we go, and which does not change when the political party in power changes.

And all this occurs in a climate where less than 1% of the national budget is invested in tertiary level education—in creating the kinds of institutions where research can be ongoing and more to be proud of uncovered, written about, and shared.So happy independence, Bahamas. We're forty, and the world is not standing still. I challenge the generation coming after mine to rectify the mistakes we have made, and to do more than believe in Bahamians: invest in us too.

Under the Almond Tree | a Bahamian blog by Stephen B. Aranha

During the so-called Arab Spring, mass media pundits were quick to dub these movements Facebook or Twitter Revolutions. However, academic researchers have since shown that, while these platforms played an important role in getting information about these events to the outside world, more confidential and easily accessible communication channels, such as text messaging, were far more important in coordinating the protests inside affected Arab countries. The trend to credit social media with fuelling protest movements in the Islamic world can currently be witnessed again in Turkey, however, unlike in the countries of northern Africa, Internet access is widespread in Turkey, and 81% of Turkish Internet users have at least one social media account.In the Bahamas, compared to most of the Arab world, Internet access is comparatively affordable and readily available, and fear of criminal prosecution for voicing one’s opinion is far less prevalent, albeit growing. Can social media, in such a setting, widen the base of participants in the political process and deepen democracy?

via Under the Almond Tree | a Bahamian blog by Stephen B. Aranha.

On his blog, Stephen Aranha writes about the impact of social media on Bahamian politics. Check it out.

Intellectual property, slavery & reparations

imageThis morning I spent three-plus hours in a workshop on intellectual property. I have to thank the Ministry of Financial Services for it, but the information that we received was sobering, frightening, even. The amount of traditional knowledge that is stolen from our region on a daily basis is staggering. And the legal situation is dismal; retroactive applications of legislation is difficult, almost impossible. Attempting to reclaim our knowledge on an individual basis appears futile.But there is one debt that the developed world, the former imperial world, owed our region that remains unpaid. It is a debt that may be unpayable, but that is none the less real. It is the debt for three hundred years of forced labour on which the developed world developed. And since 2007 disscussions about reparations for the enslavement of our ancestors are tentative.Perhaps, though, this is where our recourse for present situation lies. Reparations are owed. Our ancestors' sweat, their toil, their bladderwater, have yet to be paid for. The slaveowners received compensation for the loss of their "property" at emancipation, but the slaves and their ancestors have never been paid for the generations of their labour.Their labour should be paid for.Our traditional knowledge should be paid for.Is there a linkage between the two?Is it perhaps time we begin to collect everything that you owe me?

Bahamas@40 Envisioning our (underwater) Future:

Climate ChangeI've already blogged briefly about last week's conference, and how stimulating it was, how worthwhile. I want to take some time now to talk about the things that stayed with me, things that changed me. We're a nation that doesn't talk much, or even think much, about how ideas, how thinking itself, can change people. We tend to spend a lot of time talking about feelings (if you don't believe me, just pay attention to the next time someone with a grievance is interviewed on TV and count how many time they use the term "I feel" and compare it with the number of times they use "I think") and even more time clamouring about the (re)actions those feelings produce, like the slap heard round the Bahamas (and discussed in more glowing terms, with less reflection and more vigour than any physical violence has the right to be) or the lawsuit about, of all things, the "right" of students to have a graduation ceremony.The talk that impacted me the most, I think, the one that made me think differently about myself, about my country and its future was last Wednesday evening's plenary on sustainable living. The two talks were very different in focus, but the message of them both was the same: we are at the mercy of decision-makers who do not take our needs into consideration, who play at running this archipelago of islands with more than local significance without really taking the time to understand what it is they are making decisions about. Margo Blackwell's talk about climate change, Andros and our Bahamian future ("I seriously have to ask," she said (I'm paraphrasing), "whether we will be here forty years from now") pushed me to think about just that—whether The Bahamas will be around one hundred years hence. The sea levels of the world are rising. Coasts are eroding. Our nation is among the top ten countries in the world most at risk of disappearing beneath the ocean, but for the past twenty years the philosophy of our governments has been to abdicate all responsibility for sensible development and civic duty in favour of 1980s policies of liberalization, commodification of Bahamian land, and greed.The second half of the evening, the talk given by Richard Stoffle on sustainable development, how it's expensive and time-consuming but really the only way to ensure the best outcome for the changes we want or need to see in our nation, was more familiar territory for me, but was no less life-changing. He revealed, for instance, how the Four Seasons development in Exuma was environmentally devastating to that most beautiful of all our islands: how the demands of the two golf courses broke the freshwater lens that provided Exumians with potable water and how people now have to buy all their drinking water, the way we do in Nassau; how the garbage produced by the resort has nowhere to accommodate it and so how it is simply being dumped in a blue hole, and how, had the government taken the time to involve the Exumians themselves in discussions about development, jobs and the rest, a very different scenario might have resulted, one that might have a chance of long-term success (no offence to Sandals, but how many people really believe that the Four Seasons experiment is going to survive?).The podcast of that evening is here.If you listen to it, remember that this talk, which has changed the way I think about us and our life, was ignored because on that very same day one MP slapped another and every talk show discussed that event, so fleeting, so symbolic and reinforcing of all that is wrong with our nation, and ignored this conversation that might help us think more constructively and urgently about what we need to do right.

Bahamas@40: the College of The Bahamas' Fortieth Anniversary Conference

It happened last week. From Wednesday to Friday, a modest number of Bahamians attended the Bahamas@40 Conference mounted by the School of Social Sciences. The full title of the conference wasThe Bahamas at Forty: Reflecting on the Past, Envisioning the Futureand the three days of sessions did just that.First of all, put aside your preconceptions and prejudices about our local university. Never mind that our governments (none of them) haven't yet seen fit to recognize and enshrine our university's status, or that your perception of the college is of a glorified high school, or that you haven't been on campus either since you graduated (whether that was graduating from GHS pre 1975 or graduating from COB pre 2000). Never mind that you might still have stuck in your head that this is a place where people go to do A levels or Pitman exams or their Associates' Degrees. Do me a favour as you read this post and assume just for a moment that the College of The Bahamas is a university—because it is.Second, bookmark this site, because I'm going to use it to share some of the sessions. If you didn't get to the conference, I'm sorry, but several of the sessions were broadcast live over the internet and several of them are available as podcasts.Third, check out this link for the full outline of the sessions:Bahamas@Forty ScheduleAnd check back later for more discussion.Yes, I'm always running to go somewhere.  

The College of The Bahamas, COBUS, and a crisis of vision

Over the past several weeks, the College of The Bahamas Union of Students has worked tirelessly to resist the college's proposal to raise fees in response to proposed government cutbacks in subvention.

Their work has included attempts to meet or speak with senior administration, with the college council, with the minister of education, and with the minister of state for finance. Their most recent press release may be found here; I encourage those people who may be quick to dismiss the students for their passion to read it, as it will show you another side of them, and may encourage us to treat them with the respect that is due to adults who are legitimately questioning their rights to participate in our democracy and their place in our society.

To Pay or Not to Pay Tuition

I will be the first person to say that, given the fact that our society has decided that the only education offered freely to its citizens is that which stops at the secondary level, I am not opposed to the principle of raising tuition. Here are my reasons.

A powerpoint presentation recently uploaded to the COB website provides a history of tuition increases over the college's 39 years of existence. In the beginning, the government was the primary subsidizer of tertiary-level education. Fees were never non-existent, but until 1998, they were a mere $25 per credit hour. The result was the persistent underfunding of the institution, as until 1995 that money was released through the Ministry of Education, presumably through Budget Head 39, which can be viewed here. In 1998, recognizing the move to university and the development of bachelor's degree courses, the college raised tuition over the course of three years from the $25 per credit hour to the present $100 per credit hour for lower-level (100-200) courses, and $150 per credit hour for upper-level (300-400) courses.

No other increases in tuition have been applied since 2000. Students today still study for the same cost as students in 2000, but the purchasing power of the Bahamian dollar today is worth only 80¢ of the 2000 dollar. The tuition increase originally proposed by the college administration (from $100 to $120 per credit hour) can be seen as merely making up for that lost revenue. But that is not all. Not only does the 2013 Bahamian dollar buy 20% less than the 2000 dollar, what students get for that price is considerably more than what students got in 2000. Tuition for the college has not increased in that time, but what is provided to the students has consistently been expanded over the past 13 years. Improvements include (but aren't limited to, as they're off top of my head):

  • The acquisition and renovation of the Michael Eldon Building

  • The creation of Chapter One Bookstore

  • The renovation of the Performing Arts Centre

  • The construction of the Bandshell

  • The construction of the Wellness Centre and gym

  • The construction of the HCM library

  • The installation of WIFI (at least at the Oakes Field campus)

  • The installation of multimedia in the majority of the classrooms

  • The air-conditioning of classrooms

  • The acquisition of the property earmarked for the Wilson Business Centre

  • The construction and building of the Northern Bahamas Campus

  • The introduction of BA programmes in every faculty of the college

  • The introduction of master's degrees offerings

  • The expansion of course offerings across the board

  • The installation of PowerCampus/Self-Service to improve registration woes

  • The refurbishment of the existing dorms

  • The hiring of PhDs

  • The granting of study leave to faculty to pursue doctorates

  • Faculty reclassification and salary increases

  • The conducting of and the investment in ongoing Bahamian research

  • The establishment of college varsity teams and athletic scholarships

  • The establishment of the Small Island Sustainability programme

Given the fact that these improvements have taken place while the fee structure has remained exactly the same, that recurrent costs across the board have increased along with these improvements, and that students in 2013 are getting considerably more for their credit dollar than the students did in 2000, I can see the rationale behind the increase. All things being equal, I would even support it, even though I am theoretically persuaded by arguments that tertiary level education is worth being fully subsidised by our government. My pragmatic perspective in this country at this point in time recognizes that our culture, so heavily influenced by the USA, tends to devalue those things that we do not pay for; on the contrary, the more we pay for something here in The Bahamas, the more we tend to respect it.

To Pay or Not to Pay Incidental Fees

That said, however, I do not support the principle of raising incidental fees in an attempt to recover costs.

In the first place, student amenities at the college are sub-standard, even with all the improvements; in the same period of time, although the investment in tuition and the quality of education has improved, changes in student life have been mixed. Students have lost their access to much of the Student Union Building, some of which has been repurposed as offices; there is no on-campus cafeteria and students have to purchase their food from the fast food franchises that flourish around the campus; while the dorms have been upgraded, they have not been expanded; there are no student lounges or interior spaces in which people can gather and relax or rejuvenate; communications with the student body is difficult, as student emails are so unreliable that virtually none of the students use them and there is no central congregating place where notices can be shared and discussions held. In all, the approach to student life at COB is still far more in keeping with that of a fancy high school than that of a university.

In the second place, the pervading attitude towards students on campus appears to be that they are a necessary evil—or, to use more gentle language, that they are simply overgrown, misbehaving high-schoolers who should be seen and not heard, and who should be deferential to their elders, accepting of whatever treatment is meted out to them, unquestioning of inefficiencies, and uncritical of mediocrity. Unlike the quality of the education provided at the College (which is, against all odds, high—and some of the best value for money in the hemisphere), the quality of student (and faculty) life is low. To ask students to pay additional fees without addressing these shortcomings is asking a bit much.

Higher Education and the Bahamian Nation

I said above that all things being equal, I would support an increase in tuition fees. For example, if that increase was linked to the College's full and legal transition to university status, I would have no quarrel with the proposal. But it is not. It is a desperate move on the part of a college administration faced with drastic and untenable cuts to its subvention to find ways to maintain the services currently being offered.

So to me, the real question is whether or not The Bahamas as a whole, and its representative, the government, sees any real value in Bahamian tertiary-level education. As with most other things, the lip-service is certainly paid. In his mid-year budget communication to Parliament this year, the Minister of Education reiterated his ministry's "commitment" to COB's university status:

The transition of the College of The Bahamas to University status is a national imperative. This remains an important and fundamental objective of my Ministry and by extension the Government of The Bahamas. We share the collective belief that we cannot have any expectations for a progressive nation if we do not provide the means for higher learning and scholarship reflective of successful, progressive and first world countries.

But these are just words. I should like at least to raise the question of our nation's investment—or lack thereof—in higher education on the whole. As many have said before me, there is something fundamentally visionless and absurd about the government's proposed reduction of the COB subvention. While the government itself is faced with the need to reduce its own expenditure by the 25%-over-two-years that it is passing onto its agencies, it is not making those cuts across the board; certain agencies have been deemed to be exempt. That the College of The Bahamas, poised by promise on the verge of the university status that the government has yet to grant it, is not also exempt speaks volumes to the place of the intellect in Bahamian society, and to the real commitment of the government to Bahamian university education.

Consider the following facts.

  • The government's subvention to the College stands at just under $25,000,000 for 2012-2013 ($24,994,543, to be exact). There are 4884 students enrolled.

    • This is approximately $5100 per student.

    • This is approximately $70 per capita.

    • The government's budget for the prison is just over $23,000,000 for 2012-2013 ($23,036,978, to be exact). There are 1,550 inmates.

      • This is approximately $14,863 per inmate.

      • This is approximately $64 per capita.

      • The government's total expenditure on education (including the Department of Education, the Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute, the Ministry of Education and the College of The Bahamas) is $281,503,462.

      • According to both the World Bank and the IDB, the greatest single obstacle to doing business in The Bahamas is the lack of an educated workforce. Worse yet, businesses in The Bahamas were almost 3 times as likely to make that observation than other nations in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Given the fact that 61.8% of the Bahamian population has a high school education, the problem is at the tertiary level.

      • COB's budget subvention of $24,994,543 is 8.9% of the government's overall budget for education. If we add in BTVI's $5,641,622, this brings the percentage spent on local tertiary level education by the Bahamas government to 11%.

        • Barbados spends 41% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

          • Jamaica spends 20% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

          • Trinidad and Tobago spends 22% of its annual education budget on tertiary level education.

These facts, together with the relative lack of outrage about the government's proposal to cut COB's subvention, suggest that the Bahamian government, together with the society that supports it, does not in fact take the idea of Bahamian higher education seriously at all. What the College of The Bahamas is being asked to do, at the same time as it is being moved to university status, is to cut just under $6.25 million from its current budget over the next 2 years. This is to be done "without any reduction in quality and level of services to the public". Now consider this.

  • 70%, or some $35 million, of COB's current budget goes to pay personal emoluments. (Contrary to popular belief, the College employs more than just faculty; this percentage covers all the people who work at the college.)

  • This leaves $8.75 million (assuming salaries remain exactly the same as they are today--i.e. no promotions, no increments, no further investment in PhDs, etc) to provide what is currently costing the college $15 million to provide.

Sleight of hand and double-speak aside, what the government has just demanded the college do is carry water in a sieve. Do I object to the raising of fees for tertiary education? In principle, no. But when this is the only way in which the services currently provided can hope to be maintained, I am left with grave and serious questions about the proposal indeed.

Abaco Islands

We remember islands by memories and photographs.  After a lifetime of driving by car on the Abaco Islands in the Northern Bahamas, I have begun to erase old memories and photographs of beaches and water, for stories of dusty roads and lonely towns.  Today, I remember the Abaco Islands by their interiors.

Abaco Islands.

The narrative is interesting though not wholly accurate (i.e. children of illegal Haitian immigrants are not Bahamian citizens, as one of the meditations suggests) but the images and the perspective are worth checking out. Found the essay via StumbleUpon, a webresource I don't use nearly enough, but which I plan to use more often.

A little bit from the Bahamian diaspora

Bahamians in the recent past are not famous for leaving their homeland. We tend to think of ourselves as a nation who has to put up with immigrants, but which does not have to worry much about emigration.

This is certainly changing. While we are by no means able to compare ourselves with the diasporic tendencies of our Caribbean neighbours, young Bahamians are choosing more and more to emigrate to other lands. A lot of it has to do with a lack of opportunity at home, with a lack of space to be different, to be innovative, to be young. Let's admit it: our society stifles difference.

We tend to forget, though, that when we study our history, Bahamians have been migrants in the past. If we study the twentieth century alone, we will realize that Miami was built by Bahamians, Key West is the "Conch Republic" because it, too was settled by Abaconians and Eleutherians, and Bahamians travelled for work to Panama, Cuba, South Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

I was reminded forcefully of that just over two weeks ago, when I received the following email:

Dear Dr.Bethel,

My name is Tom Quirk. For the past few years I have been researching civil rights incidents in my old hometown of Scarsdale, New York. For the past few months, I have been researching the story of The Cockburn Trial, which took place in 1937.

I was wondering if there was any chance that you were related to Pauline Cockburn. Her maiden name was Bethel. Her father was named Ernest Bethel. Her husband was Joshua Cockburn, a ship's Master who was the first Captain on Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line ship The Yarmouth, which was rechristened The Frederick Douglass.

Whether you are or not related to Pauline Cockburn I have attached my most recent draft of my article in case you have time to read it. If you are too busy, sorry to bother you. I obtained your email from your blog.I am a high school teacher in Lexington, Massachusetts. I have posted three articles about civil rights incidents that occurred in or near my hometown between the years 1937-1963 on my website: Thomas-Quirk.com.

Sincerely,

Tom Quirk

Now I've never heard of Pauline Bethel or Ernest Bethel, but I do know a little bit about Joshua Cockburn. He was, as Tom Quirk observes, one of the captains on Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line—though not, apparently, the best ally for Garvey to have. I was fascinated to know more about him (and about his wife too), so I corresponded with Tom Quirk.

It turns out that Tom has done considerable research into the Cockburns, who eventually emigrated to the USA, where they became residents of Scarsdale, New York. I offered to share that research on this blog. Watch this space.