I have an uncle who was once Bishop of Nassau, The Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. When I was a child, he was Father Eldon, priest of West End, Grand Bahama. I never saw him. He came to Nassau on one or two occasions a year only, because he was living and working and teaching and building in the West End community. He left West End to be made Bishop in 1972, and what he did from there Anglicans other than myself will be able to say better.
The point is this. West End, Grand Bahama, was the first place outside of Nassau I heard of as a child, because my uncle lived there. And he loved it with a passion others reserve for the places their navel strings are buried.
I had the opportunity to go to West End for the first time at the end of the 1980s, where I visited a school friend from Freeport and where we drove out to the settlements that had been part of my imagination since I could think for myself, Eight Mile Rock and West End. The drive, as many drives in Grand Bahama were and remained until the flooding of that island during the hurricanes, was long and wooded: pines and their companion palms (mostly the favoured silvertop, the best material for our straw industry) for miles and miles and miles. It wasnâ€™t the most auspicious or beautiful scenery, but it was ours. Not mine, specifically, but Bahamian, Grand Bahamian, and â€“ by extension â€“ my uncleâ€™s.
All that land. Just waiting to be developed.
Well, development has come to West End. Itâ€™s developed every tree away from the South Side of the settlement, and, Iâ€™m told, itâ€™s hungering for more.
Now lest it seem that Iâ€™m standing in the way of Progress, let me step back a moment. (In truth, I actually donâ€™t believe in Progress; but thatâ€™s another story, for a later date.) Iâ€™m not going to say that developments shouldnâ€™t take place, that they shouldnâ€™t happen; they do, and they should indeed. Iâ€™m not even going to say that clear-cutting of trees is wrong and shouldnâ€™t take place; some things ought to be evident. What I am going to say is that if we believe that we can hand off our responsibility to determine what form that development should take place, we are making a fundamental mistake.
And thereâ€™s more. The development in West End is not only foreign investment, itâ€™s an investment that the people who are most affected have the least involvement in. While we can celebrate and publicize the size and the magnitude of the project, we need to consider very carefully the impact of the investment on the nearest community. The entire south side of a deeply-rooted settlement with a richer history than Freeport itself is going to be turned into second homes for non-Bahamians â€“ for people for whom the richness of West Endâ€™s history will have very little relevance indeed. Like the ancient Freed African settlement of Delaporte or the fragmentation of the Fox Hill Creek, in five yearsâ€™ time West End may become the bedroom community for people who may be hired as servants and gardeners for the super-wealthy and the over-privileged.
And really, the problem doesnâ€™t lie with the developers. Itâ€™s easy to blame them, because they are often interlopers, foreign, and rich. But really, itâ€™s our problem. If we are going to pursue an economic policy that relies on external investment to take care of some of our infrastructural and employment needs, we have to understand both the benefits and the challenges of that policy. We have to look beyond the material and the economic, and understand the full implications of the thing.
For instance, we need to recognize that while The Bahamas is economically sound all by itself (foreign investment or no, The Bahamas has been, and remained the third richest independent nation in the entire Western Hemisphere in purely economic terms; our per capita GDP places us ahead of every other country in the region except Canada and the USA), our quality of life is nowhere near so illustrious. We live in a high-crime society where many of our fellow-citizens feel displaced and unimportant, and consider that they have nothing to lose by responding violently to minor actions. We pay too much for basic necessities, our cities are congested (while Freeport may be an exception, Marsh Harbourâ€™s traffic is growing, and George Town is laid out in such a way that its increased population has already placed challenges on the settlement that have yet to be resolved), we have no sensible means of dealing with waste, our environment is both beautiful but ecologically fragile, and our cultural identity is insecure.
While unchecked foreign investment may yield high dividends to the Government in real and imagined financial gains, it does little to address the problems listed above. In fact, it exacerbates every one of them â€” with the possible exception of the traffic problem (which is solved in several cases, such as the West End case, by the application for, and approval of, the building of alternative ports of entry, thereby creating colonial-style enclaves of non-Bahamians in our very midst).
And I am not so sure that I believe in half the dreams that are presented, in maps or publications or ads. We live in a global economy, after all, and we must not be carried away by the idea that Bahamian real estate is irresistible in its own right. We are simply an extension of an America land boom, which is rife with speculation and which is selling ideas and concepts, not development. Our desire for quick fixes is likely to end in more disappointment than achievement in the long run.
What am I calling for here? A clarification and a firming up of the policy that governs our foreign investments. While it may have been wise a decade ago to invite all and sundry to consider The Bahamas as a good place to do business, we are no longer in a position to have to offer the kinds of concessions that brought the investors back. Foreign investment cannot remain an end in itself. Now that we are on the map, we need to remember what can only be the real purpose of that investment â€” the development, advancement and integrity of the Bahamian nation and its people.