Developing democracy in The Bahamas

A year and a half ago, I had the privilege of attending a weeklong faculty seminar in Maryland. The topic: globalization and democracy. The Wye Faculty Seminar was established to bring faculty from all over the USA together to think deeply about democracy, particularly, though not exclusively, the democracy practised by the United States of America.It was the first time I'd studied for any real length of time in the US. OK, so it was only a week, but it was long enough for me to realize several things. One, that watching US TV and living on the edges of the country is not the same as being there. You learn a lot when you're the fringes -- more on that later, maybe -- but it's not the same as being immersed -- being surrounded by, eating with, talking to, US citizens. And in this case, reading excerpts from the founding documents of the USA and discussing those ideas with the others who had been chosen to attend the retreat.The result: a series of sparks of ideas in my head. In The Bahamas, on what is our concept of democracy founded? Do we have a concept of democracy? Our constitution, such as it is, is an adaptation from a boilerplate supplied to us by an anti-imperial Britain at the tail end of the colonial era. Is democracy important to us at all?Today, I had at the almost equal privilege of finding an answer. Two thirds of the way through a class, I realized I was part of a classroom debate whose focus was hope and agency in the globalizing Bahamas. That wasn't what we thought we were talking about at first. The discussion had grown out of our long-term study on the economics of Junkanoo, in which the members of this particular class participated; but before we knew it, we were discussing Bahamians' constitutional rights and the conviction that too many young men on the streets of Nassau have that they have no rights at all -- that the only people they have to depend upon are themselves. And one of my students was outlining the only concept that makes sense today: that we need to imagine a different way of living, that we need to create a philosophy of citizenship, that we need to build what he calls an illusion of our own.The "illusion" that drives American democracy, that sets the standard, for better or worse, whether we like it or not, of democracy in the world, are the principles on which the American nation is founded. What we need today, perhaps forty years too late but not a moment too soon, are our own democratic principles. We need a movement that gives us our own "illusion" -- Bahamian ideals by which our actions, collective and individual, may be measured.Ever since last year's sojourn in Maryland, I've been thinking about the ideals in which we believe. We need them more than ever today. We need them to give us the impetus, for instance, when politics lead to absurdity, to call our politicians out. We need them to judge our own actions, and those of our society at large, and adjust our behaviour accordingly. I suspect they're similar to, but not entirely the same as, American ideals; they're strengthened by our history of freedom and republicanism and tempered by our close encounter with racial apartheid. They need to be written down in a place where we can all find them when we need them.It's time to build our own declaration of democracy. I'm ready to start working.

Strong institutions, not strong men

"Africa doesn't need strong men -- it needs strong institutions." -- President Barack Obama, Address to Ghanaian Parliament, July 11, 2009

It's been two years now, and there's been all kind of noise in the public sphere about Bahamian party politics and who bears responsibility for the difficult times we have faced for most of that time, and who will deal most effectively with the difficult times we will face. Most of the time I leave the discussions and the debates about personalities (which is most of what the discussion addresses, even now, mid-term) and political party up to politicized pundits. There's enough noise out there, and it really hasn't done us any good.

And it seems to me that every moment we spend focussing on small tings -- like which colour tie the majority of the members of parliament wear, or which initials we can attach to the administration (and what is the difference, anyway, in real terms?), or whether Perry Christie or Hubert Ingraham is better cut out to lead The Bahamas through the twenty-first century (the answer, of course, is neither -- both men were shaped irretrievably by the third quarter of the twentieth and neither has demonstrated the ability to recognize the current environment we face and find ways that are relevant to today to meet its challenges) -- is time wasted. Our whole political campaign in 2007 was an exercise in time-wasting; because I believe with all my heart that, like Africa, what The Bahamas needs is not strong men, but strong institutions.

Yesterday was independence day here in The Bahamas. Normally I write that title with capital letters, like a proper noun; but today I'm not capitalizing the first letter of the date because I don't think we truly understand the challenges and responsibilities of being independent. Too many of our leaders, no matter what party to which they apparently pledge allegiance (which, for too many of them, changes with a dizzying flourish anyway), do not value our independence, but prefer rather to wait for strong men from elsewhere to solve our difficult problems. Development by dependence is the model they appear to prefer. It's so much easier, after all, isn't it, to allow a monolithic investor to come in and provide short-term happiness. But the hollowness that results in our own society hurts us all. For instance, while Atlantis was employing thousands in the 1990s and early 2000s, our own institutions were growing weaker and weaker and more and more irrelevant, and no strong-man leader had the guts (or the vision) to tackle that fact. The result? We have, if we're lucky, perhaps five more years of functionality within our public entities. We're already beginning to see the crumbling of public services -- from our inability to handle the renewal of passports to the apparent impossibility, despite hundreds of millions being spent in borrowed money on road improvements, to keep our traffic lights working. And the answer does not easily lie in privatization; governments have responsibilities to all their citizens, and one of those responsibilities is to ensure that the smallest and weakest of their citizens is not placed in a position of vulnerability to rapacious private enterprises which have no allegiance to their clients beyond the amount of money they make from them.

Our problem? Like Africa and many other post-colonial regions of the world, our focus has for far too long been on electing strong men instead of demanding strong institutions for ourselves. We have not built our nation in any way that can be guaranteed to last into the future. And our debate continues to ignore that fact.

So my hat's off to Barack Obama today. Let us take heed from those countries around us who have invested in strong men at the cost of building strong institutions. Let us learn from those nations where for years and years good government continued even when the leaders of those countries were people whose names have been easily and quickly forgotten because the institutions that governed those nations were stronger than the individual weaknesses. And let us recognize that there is value in creating and maintaining the institutions that we need.