“Love of Country”: The consultant, culture, and what we spend money on

My phone was buzzing off the hook last week. Following the revelations of the new Minister of Tourism in the House of Assembly, when he mentioned that there was a consultant in his ministry who had been engaged at the cost of some $33,000 a month or $400,000 a year and the country went wild, and following the further revelations from the former Minister of Tourism outside the House of Assembly, who named names and woffled on about “value for money”, and following further revelations from the consultant himself, Ian Poitier, who released his own statement: people seemed to want to know what I had to say about it.

Why me? For those of you who are too young to remember (and there are many of you), I served as Director of Cultural Affairs for the government of The Bahamas in a time that was very much like this time—at the beginning of the first Perry Christie administration, when a “fresh wind” began to blow, when Bahamians began to find voices, and when ideas and vision shifted from roads and docks and concrete, hard man-things to the inner sides of Bahamian life: what we believed in, what we dreamed about, what we imagined, and what we needed.

For the first time since the independence era (it appeared), culture and cultural activity were considered to be important—important enough, at least, to cause the the government—the “not our fathers’ PLP” government—to do three things:

  1. re-establish the ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, which the previous Ingraham administration had abolished;
  2. create a National Commission on Cultural Development to advise on the way forward for Bahamian culture;
  3. attempt to place The Bahamas on the regional stage with regard for culture by offering to host the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA).

To do these things, the government needed a person to spearhead them. In good Christie-administration fashion, they found three: Winston Saunders, lawyer, playwright, patriot and actor; Charles Carter (now Sir Charles), broadcaster, former PLP MP, former cabinet minister; and me—writer, college professor, holder of a PhD from Cambridge University in anthropology. Saunders and Carter were engaged to be co-chairs of the Cultural Commission. I was recruited from COB to join the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture to head the Cultural Affairs Department.

I do not know if or what Sir Charles was paid to do his job. I know Mr. Saunders was paid but do not know how much. I do know how much I was paid, though, and I know what my budget was for the cultural stewardship of the entire nation. My salary started at $41,000 a year.  My entire operational budget when I began at the ministry  was about $520,000 a year, of which Junkanoo took $400,000 (my budget subsequently jumped to $1.2 million a year, of which Junkanoo was allotted $1 million). The salaries of my staff ranged from $14,000 a year to $34,000 a year.

The year in question was 2003.

Fast forward to 2017, the minister’s revelations; the discussion, informed by little beyond political vitriol and speculation, of whether the Bahamian government was right to pay anyone $400,000 a year for cultural activity; and my buzzing phone. I didn’t answer it because, well, what was the point? I have had the discussion too many times before. The minute any Bahamian stands up in a public place using words like “value” and “culture”, I turn the other way. There is nothing to be said.

There is nothing to be said because almost every time, the person who questions the value of culture, who challenges the right of anyone involved in culture or the arts to receive payment for what they do, is a person who is receiving a paycheck that they deposit to the bank on a regular basis. And no one questions their right to receive payment for what they do. Just consider the way in which the minister disparaged the $400,000 a year contract: seven times what a cabinet minister makes. The implication is clear—that the cultural consultant was not doing work that was worth it (and, conversely, cabinet ministers are worth what they are paid).

Answer me this, though—in this country, how can we possibly know what is or isn’t worth it in the cultural field? It isn’t as though many people in this country, from government on down, have any idea what is acceptable to pay for Bahamian culture. As a people, we just don’t pay for it.

Let me be honest here. I was scandalized when I heard the minister reveal the $400k figure. I was scandalized because locally based Bahamians who work in the cultural arena never make that kind of money—and, unless we all change our attitudes to ourselves and the collective value of our creative output, they probably never will.

As a nation, we do not believe that Bahamians who work in the cultural arena should be paid.

We believe—or behave as though we believe—that people who work in the cultural arena are a species of happy idiots who enjoy what they do so much that they do not need to be paid to do it. We believe that—get this—they should do it for love of country.

Watch this. Whenever we Bahamians plan an event, we’ll budget for all of the following:

  1. the venue, the space, the chairs, the tent, whatever. We will budget for and pay for the space;
  2. the clothing, the makeup, the hair, the teeth. We will budget and pay for everything cosmetic;
  3. the transportation. We will budget and pay for getting to and from the event;
  4. the lights and sound. We will budget and pay for the lights and the sound for the event;
  5. the food and the drinks. Of course. We will budget and pay for the food and drinks;
  6. the service. We might even budget and pay for the service.

See anything missing in that list? Oh, right. The performers. The people whose talent, expertise, and training make the event worth attending.

The cultural workers whom we believe have been slighted by the Poitier consultancy are all too often the last things on our event list. The prices of the performers are considered negotiable, if they are considered at all. We expect to pay for them only after we have secured all of the trappings above. And of course, by that time we’ve run out of funds. By the time we come to book those cultural workers, we come to them with our outta-money faces and look for a break. Do me a favour. You’s ma boy/you’s ma gal. Just this once.

Or the biggie: do it for love of country.

Love of country? This country, which does not love me?

Understand this. In this, the second decade of the twenty-first century, the century which runs on culture and cultural industries, there are dangerously few cultural workers in The Bahamas who make a living doing what God made them to do. Oddly enough, even though the population of New Providence has more than doubled over the past forty years, the real number of people who are willing to pay performers to perform has more than halved. Creative artists, especially those who do not produce anything tangible, who do not create paintings or artwork that people can hang on their walls, those of us whose value lies in our transforming collective moments from mundane to memorable, just do not get hired in The Bahamas.

This shameful fact puts us not only on the wrong side of history—our cultural economy should have grown and expanded along with our tourist arrivals over the past forty years, not the other way round—but it also puts us at a very real global disadvantage, given the fact that the cultural and creative industries fuel the global economy.

So on what possible basis can we judge Ian Poitier’s value? We have no working idea what culture actually costs in the real world out there beyond the Bahamian flag.

Let me cut to the chase here. For those people who wonder what I think about the consultancy, who would like me to comment on the consultancy, or believe that by being awarded the consultancy, Ian Poitier has somehow disadvantaged me or mine or all of us, let me say this: I am absolutely convinced that Poitier’s contract offers value for money. I’ve read just one of the policy documents that Poitier produced as part of the terms of his consultancy, and as an author of policy documents myself, I can say unequivocally:

It’s worth every penny. 

Here’s the truth. It is not Ian Poitier’s fault that locals do not earn what he has been able to negotiate for himself. It isn’t his fault that the contract that he was offered by the Christie administration is ten times the amount of money that any government is willing to pay the most senior cultural officer in the Bahamian civil service. It is ours. It is ours because we do not believe that Bahamian culture is worth paying money for. And it will remain ours until this is no longer true.

The reason why I am writing this today, and the reason why I am stating firmly, even while I am furious that there are too few Bahamians who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of excellence in the arts because no one will pay them anywhere near the kind of wage that will allow them to own a car, rent a home, and pay their utility bills, much less $400,000 a year, is that the consultancy for which Poitier was engaged was a consultancy whose purpose was to change this state of affairs.

His remit was to develop a strategic plan for the development of the cultural industries in The Bahamas—to lay the ground to change our country from one in which culture is consumed for less than it is worth into one in which culture becomes an engine of the economy. And the one document of his that I have read—the blueprint for the development of the Bahamian cultural industries—if followed, will make it possible at long last for a Bahamian cultural class to exist by engaging full time in their cultural activities.

But it isn’t up to him to see it happen. It is up to our government to adopt the strategy, and to put the structures in place that will make his vision a reality, and it’s up to us to bring pressure to bear on them.

Until then, don’t blame the consultant.

Blame us. For our devaluation of our own culture, for what we spend money on, and for ever asking any artist to do what God made them to do for love of country.

*

Link to the policy document.

21 thoughts on ““Love of Country”: The consultant, culture, and what we spend money on

  1. There is so much in this but let me summarize and agree that we have no measure of the value of our culture and that it is up to government to implement the strategies which will realize that value.

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  2. Wow .
    Excellent . One of your best ‘pieces ‘
    What an amazing treatise backed by experience , facts, thoughtfulness , heart and intelligent opnion and direction .

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  3. Thanks for putting this controversy into some form of context, Nico. It’s telling that the policy document produced by Poitier, of which you spoke, was not mentioned by the minister as a constructive and meaningful attempt toward redefining and reframing our approach to the cultural development and cultural advancement of this country. This is unfortunate. It would be an absolute travesty and 100 steps in the wrong direction to discard this pertinent and significant framework, for the mere purpose of humiliating and discrediting the previous administration. I am also left wondering whether there were further constructive contributions made by Poitier that should be recognized and considered, but will be discounted for the same reason. My hope is that “we” have the political maturity to put country over party.

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    1. Really not sure that he can appreciate, or is able to comprehend what is before him.

      I suspect he is ignorant of the elements that comprise culture (academically or otherwise) nor has he had the time to study or be apprised/familarized as to what culture is and its relation to the work commissioned or the work of the ‘ministry’ of culture.

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  4. Where can we obtain a copy of Mr. Poitier’s report? In order to move beyond the rhetoric and the political emotionalism of numbers we would need to be able to consider the work and what is being proposed. Is it publicly available?

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  5. On point, with so much for us to think deeply about here! The heart of what should be our shame is that we are willing to pay doctors and lawyers and preachers and such bushels of money for minutes of their consultations (and rightly so); but “we”, including those same professionals that we choose to dominate our leadership, are willing to spend only a pittance of time, mental, and financial resources on our bloodline: our culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nicolette, thank you for your article. You said so much that was absolutely on point. You were, however, debating on a point of principle and not on the reality. Is investment in culture worth more?
    Absolutely. Was that particular consultant delivering $400,000 worth of contribution to the advancement of Bahamian culture? I don’t think so. No matter what there still has to be value for money. You still have to be able to show where that consultant’s contribution was worth the investment. I would have been happy to know that you had received that kind of money for your contribution to our country.

    Since 2013 when we first pitched Festival RumBahamas to our Ministry of Tourism and advocated for the support of all kinds of Bahamian culture, entertainment, historical perspectives and so on, we received barely a nod of acknowledgment from that particular minister. In those 5 years, we received a total of $375,000 – every single dollar that we received went to showcasing Bahamian culture. We pleaded for support, presented our vision, watched our ideas stolen for Carnival and yet we continued on, working for free….and we keep working because we, like you, believe in the bigger picture.

    Friends, lovers and family – that was the point that was being made. It was not saying that culture is or should be devalued…..and you know that.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nicolette, thank you so much for this article as it is both balanced and refreshing, giving us a clear look at a part of what has happened in the past culturally as well as some excellent points as on how to move forward for the good and future development of our collective Bahamian souls…our culture. Yes, artistic cultural development, like many other nation building strategies, is costly but it seems to me that any movement or thing that has as it ultimate goal the illumination and translation of the soul of a people…the best of a people, is simply, worth it!

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  8. Bethel, you making sense. Many of us don’t know who we are because of this matter of culture . We place no real value on it and we don’t the worth of our people ,like your example we budget,plan and pay for everything except the people, the performers, the expertise, the human beings involved. Help us Lord. Hopefully one day we will get there.Until continue to keep up the excellent work, I am soo glad that you wrote this article, please please continue to let your voice be heard. The Bahamas needs you. God bless you, press on and be encouraged.

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  9. Thanks for your article. It puts the specific case of the Poitier consultancy in context and unfortunately, it is no surprise that the minister’s choice of approach was criticism without critique. (Cultural knee jerk, you think?)
    I will share your article with some of the Caribbean performers known to us both because everything you have said so resonates. It speaks eloquently to our region.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks fot this, Nico. You described a region-wide problem. I hope that the plan produced for the Bahamas, by the consultant is properly implemented. Based on what I have experienced around the region and in Cayman I have grave doubts. Governments seem to know that artists are driven people and will produce art despite the systems working against them so, why pay them? Their idea is for us to commodify everything to the point of vulgarity and nonentity. Look what has jst happened in St. Lucia with Walcott House. It has been closed. Not cold in his grave as yet and this stinging slap.

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  11. Henry, thank you. I am horrified to hear about Walcott House. What possible reason could there be to close it? How can we mobilize across the region to raise our voices to make our governments take us seriously?

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