August 11, 2016
Arguing that The Bahamas must "stop doing the same old things" throughout the economy and in the formulation of economic policy, Long Island MP Loretta Butler-Turner spoke to what she termed the "structural economic challenges and strategic opportunities offered by The Bahamas", laying out a case for creative entrepreneurship as a cure for the economic malaise afflicting the country.
Butler-Turner serves in the Free National Movement's shadow Cabinet as shadow minister of labor and social development, and spoke yesterday at the Rotary Club of West Nassau about economic crisis and opportunity.
In terms of areas into which the country could diversify, Butler-Turner asserted that The Bahamas should incentivize foreign firms creating centers on various Family Islands, where longstanding or start-up tech firms from North America could fly in their executives and employees for creativity, recreation, business and strategy meetings.
"These centers can have many spinoff effects including the potential for young Bahamians interested in various technologies and industries," she said.
She added that employment challenges facing the country will require more Bahamians to work for themselves in all manner of start-ups, including in the creative economy.
"We need even more entrepreneurs designing and producing jewelry, crafts and souvenirs; visual and recording artists; masseuses and those producing healing oils and scents; clothes and leisure wear designers and manufacturers; heritage tourism providers and others.
"You may have seen designers using straw work to produce clothing, footwear, handbags and other goods. Let us use more home-grown material to create home-grown entrepreneurs," she said.
According to Butler-Turner, there is a need for a new generation of smallholding farmers producing vegetables, herbs and spices as well as organic foods, meats and poultry, adding that Bahamians are now growing turmeric which has various medicinal benefits.
"We can grow our economy by helping Bahamians with the training, capital, mentoring, business skills and marketing skills they need to develop talents and to grow and reach new markets for their products and services.
"We can both boost employment in agriculture while ensuring greater food security and safety.
"We can launch a new era in niche agriculture and fisheries, growing things like dilly for foreign markets and fishing for lionfish which we can also sell overseas. The Bahamian imagination is overflowing with creativity and new possibilities," she said.
Butler-Turner also addressed the issue of skills, and put the matter in the broad context of structural reform of the economy. She said addressing the economic challenges will require genuine diversification within key sectors in the economy, including in tourism and the maritime sector.
"We urgently require a broad strategy to diversify our economy in other areas, with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and computer and information technology. One of the gravest economic challenges we face is a dire skills gap. Even with high unemployment, many businesses are astounded that they cannot find individuals with basic skills.
"When it comes to higher level skills the situation is dramatically worse.
"As a country we cannot leverage our strategic assets, including that of geography and of proximity to North America, if most of the students from our public education system have not mastered the basic skills of literacy, oracy and numeracy," Butler-Turner said.
She said The Bahamas is wasting a vast amount of Bahamian talent and squandering domestic and global opportunities by failing to educate and train Bahamians in the analytical skills, programming skills, critical thinking and other skills required in today's world.
"Indeed, the only true path to strong growth for The Bahamas and to expanding the middle class is through education, training and pathways to entrepreneurship... To boost growth and wealth in the country will mean education and training Bahamians to be creators and innovators who can add value to products and services, whether in financial services, software development, biotechnology, computer-assisted design, entertainment and other industries.
"More of the world will come to our shores if we offer an educated and trained populace with the basic and advanced skills required in a global market," she said, calling for an ambitious skills development and education strategy that prioritizes the development and training of Bahamian talent and skills.
According to Butler-Turner, The Bahamas is in a deep and structural economic crisis that will not be overcome by "glib ideas or by keeping our heads buried in the sand, pretending that recovery is just around the corner".
"Even if Baha Mar opened tomorrow, we will still be beset by structural and longstanding challenges such as a failing government-operated school system and the need for inexpensive and reliable sources of energy...The economic crisis of which I speak is not simply about the collapse of Baha Mar or the possible further downgrade of our credit worthiness.
"Nor am I simply talking about the decline in GDP (gross domestic product) and the recessionary period that continues to haunt us, though I note here that we have not done as well as other countries in the region, even in terms of modest growth following the Great Recession of 2008.
"Our grave economic crisis is mostly one of imagination, of vision and of willpower," she said.
Butler-Turner asserted that countries and companies which fail to innovate and to change, die a slow death like the proverbial frog in a cauldron of increasingly hot water, that did not understand his predicament until it was too late.
"Generations of political leaders rested on their laurels, believing that if we did more of the same that we could significantly increase our gains in various industries... Take for example our limited growth in the more lucrative market of stopover visitors. While we have increased our number of cruise ship passengers, we have barely increased the number of stopover visitors," she said.
She pointed out that in 1968 The Bahamas reached the one million visitor mark, with 1.2 million visitors -- very few of them cruise passengers -- the next year.
"By 2015, nearly 50 years or half a century later, we have only approximately 1.5 million stopover visitors. This is relatively paltry growth for a Bahamas that was once a regional leader in tourism. Today we are lagging behind even as one senior official says that the competition should be watching what he's doing not the other way around. It is an empty brag unsubstantiated by reality.
"I have been advised by a number of tourism experts that we can significantly increase tourists from Europe if we had the right strategy and interest in marketing and airlift in various European markets. Many of these stopover tourists would significantly boost many Family Islands from Cat Island to Long Island to Exuma and other destinations," she said.
She added that she was not seeking to knock the value of cruise ship passengers for a certain segment of the economy.
"What I am saying is that the relatively low growth in stopover visitors tells me that we are not doing something right, and perhaps are doing a number of things quite wrong.
"Indeed, my broader argument is that we have to stop doing the same old things throughout our economy and in the formulation of economic policy," she said.
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