Our Bahamaland: Assessing the state of affairs
Published: Feb 17, 2017
On Friday, February 3, 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Uriah McPhee Primary School. As I entered the school’s welcome area, a picture of Uriah McPhee was on the wall.
It reminded me of the days when I walked through the same doors as a student. On the morning of my visit, it was the start of the school’s activities for literacy month. Sitting in the assembly hall were many little smiling and eager faces, all dressed in T-shirts and jeans. On the T-shirts was written- “Reading takes you around the world”, which reminds us that primary school-goers must gain an appreciation that reading opens one’s mind to all possibilities and allows one to dream.
I wondered, how could the students dream when the school does not have a library? That day’s event shared the joys and the innocence of the nation’s future; there were many smiling faces participating in an interactive learning process with no immediate discerning fears.
As I sat enjoying the presentations I began to think of my three young children, as they are the ages of the students sitting in the assembly hall. As I listened to the guest speaker, I dazed into the future of The Bahamas in 20 years, wondering what will be the state of the nation when these primary school-goers are beginning to start their life’s work as adults. I must confess that I was frightened. It seemed that we did not pass to them a solid foundation for the advancement of the nation-state. There were too many dashed dreams and forgotten promises and far too many were saddled below the poverty line. In the midst of the darkness there were signs of optimism in the spirits of some who were willing to demand a better future; the demands were comprehensive, progressive and pragmatic, yet the political directorate was coldly silent.
Truth is, the current political landscape shows a lack of understanding that the decisions made today have serious consequences for the future. No decision is in a vacuum, and no matter what is perceived to be the short-term gain and benefit, there are always long-term effects that must be weighed in the balance. Take for instance the national education policy. It is devoid of any long-term strategic plan and there is no obvious sign of any new methodologies that are currently being introduced to best address the chronic challenges of low literacy and numeracy skills. We bemoan the annual D average, but have yet to design a national strategy to arrest the failing state of the system. With the reality of the constant failures of the educational product, it signals that we are not educating our children to be productive citizens in a new Bahamas.
No matter how successful we deem our nation, there are still far too many persons who are below the poverty line. This is a reality brought on as a direct result of the failed educational policy. For many of us, we can still lament that education was our ticket from the welfare lines. Yet, no serious consideration is given to the shortcomings of a system that has bred young Bahamians who lack socialization, are prone to violence and social dislocation and who see a nation that failed them and their dreams. The categoric correlation between poverty and the attainment of a good education is obvious in our country. One only needs to read the report of the Department of Statistics in its examination of Household Expenditure in its 2013 survey.
In part the survey notes: “The incidence of poverty at the national level is 12.5 percent. In other words, one out of eight residents was living in poverty in 2013. The Family Islands region had the highest poverty rate: 17.2 percent of this population had a level of per capita consumption that is lower than the total poverty line. In New Providence, the poverty rate was almost 12.4 percent, same as the national rate, while in the Grand Bahama region the incidence of poverty was lower than in the other two regions (9.4 percent). Even though the poverty rate is higher in the Family Island region than in the other two regions, the majority of the poor (71.5 percent) are to be found on New Providence, where most of the country’s population is located. Although women comprised the majority of the poor (51.8 percent), poverty rates were higher for males (13.2 percent) than for females (12.4 percent). People younger than 20 years were over represented among the poor: while their population share was 33.7 percent, almost half of the poor (49.7 percent) belong to this age group. More specifically, there were only two age groups with poverty rates that were higher than the national rate: children aged zero to nine (18.2 percent) and those aged 10 to 19 (19.3 percent). The 20 to 29 year old group was the one with the poverty rate (13 percent) most similar to the national rate, while the remaining groups were underrepresented among the poor population. The 60 to 69 year old group was the age group with the lowest poverty rate: only 6.5 percent of the people belonging to this group lived in poverty.”
It is unacceptable that we have such a high rate of poverty in a country of less than 500,000. It is even more intolerable that it is hardly ever discussed or debated by politicians. What is even more startling and distressing, is that the rate of poverty is high in the age group of those who are at their most productive years, 15-24 and 25-44. The evidence suggests that there is a strong correlation between poverty and educational advancement and scholarship.
There must be a recognition that the current trend is setting a bad recipe for the future. With the economy continuing to show a youth unemployment rate of 30 percent, this suggests that there will be a higher incidence of poverty in the next 20 years. This coupled with some other social indicators – 35 percent of the population three years plus has no access to the Internet; females of 20 years and younger are responsible for 10 percent of total births in the country – are not the right ingredients if we desire as our collective outcome a productive nation in 20 years and beyond.
The evidence is overwhelming that we need a radical change in our national affairs – not a symbolic change of political leaders, for that is only likely to amount to a blind continuation of the old and very tired party-political warfare ushered in the 1950s. What our nation requires is bold, transformative, progressive, broad-based leadership. Men and women who will bring their diverse talents and energies to fixing decades’ old problems that have caused our country to fall into a deep, nauseating rot. Citizens whose global experiences can serve as the basis to transform a system of government that is old, tired and dysfunctional. A system that demands a major overhaul, due to its failures to deliver timely and necessary services. We need to abandon the decencies of the colonial past and resort to the best that our experiences have taught us to foster change. Change came about in our nation when we demanded more and agitated for the best for our people. It was never a by-product of maintaining the status quo.
In order to ensure that the little eager faces at Uriah McPhee Primary do not fall in the poverty gap demands an education revolution. We must change the course of our country. We must take sensible and well-thought-out risks. We must try new approaches to how we govern our affairs and we must not be afraid to think boldly.
As a start, our national goals for education must be clear. They should be focused on the introduction of the best conditions for the development of our children’s personalities and identities, and must simultaneously promote, enhance and encourage the development of our economic and political life, the preservation of our cultural identity, the respect for minorities and those with disabilities, and must at its core teach the values of citizenship. At the center of the push must be an enduring commitment to foster, develop and augment a national tradition of lifelong learning.
Education is something that all successful nations must manage well. Asian nations are leading all major international measurement tools. The lessons are clear that exceptional education requires a government to place priority on the value that education bears to national life. Ultimately, our commitment must be to create the best school system ever; one that understands how best to reach our students, highlighting the best of our culture and people instead of focusing solely on international competitiveness.
There too must be a national commitment to present a national educational product that raises the bar of standards and that rewards high achievement. We must be demanding of the best, and to do so means that we must recognize that education must be free for all from kindergarten to tertiary level, and that every child at the age of three years must have free access to a computer and the Internet. Our schools must have environs that foster a 21st century learning mentality, focusing on new-age technology and instruction. There must be no excuse for a school to not have at its center a library where reading and comprehension occur at regular intervals during the course of the school experience.
To create a better and more prosperous society demands that we build and define the linkages between education, the economy and the success of our nation. We should commit on average 15 percent of our national GDP to education by a national program of measured results. In defining the new education policy, Andros should be developed to be the technology mecca through international private sector partnerships. And we must rebuild the social capital by effective engagement of all partners to address anti-social behavior and crime and their scourges.
All of us have similar or different ideas as to how our country can serve our children better. We must share our ideas to advance the national conversation of how best to move our country from its lethargic state to a beaming city of citizens basking in the joys of prosperity and a noble heritage. If we continue to fail the young eager faces, we fail our nation. And failure is not an option.
No matter where you are in your journey, one thing is certain, we cannot continue on the present course.
• Raynard Rigby is an attorney and former chairman of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).