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Affirmative action: our one and only chance to get this right

If a tree falls in the Amazon but there is no one there to hear, does it make a sound? This weighty philosophical question has bedevilled philosophers for years. However, in the context of this piece, there is no need to weigh this question.

Because in relation to the first affirmative action programme to be introduced by a Bermuda Government, the falling of the proverbial tree not only made a sound, but it is a sound that was heard and confirmed by both the Government and the Opposition during the recent Budget debate — another example of growing bipartisanship across the political divide.

For those of us — us being the Eva Hodgsons, the Renée Webbs, the Cordell Rileys, John Barritt and organisations such as Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda — who have been waiting for this to happen for decades, the Government's decision at the policy level to implement an affirmative action-style programme tied to the procurement budget is long overdue.

By mandating, as occurred, in the recently published “Code of Practice for Project Management and Procurement” that the identified categories of race, disability and gender must be taken into consideration by the Office of Project Management and Procurement when weighing the decision to award procurement contracts for the provision of goods and services, this government has reaffirmed its commitment in a big way to social and economic justice for Bermudians.

Since 1998, when the Progressive Labour Party first became the government, two things have been a constant. First, over the past two decades, the Bermuda Government has spent out of the Consolidated Fund between $150 million and $200 million on goods and services on an annual basis.

These goods and services, largely sourced locally, have ranged from the hundreds of kilograms of copying paper purchased every fiscal year, to repairs and maintenance, computers, software, and so much more.

Second, an overwhelming amount of that expenditure has routinely gone to white, male-dominated firms or businesses.

The itemised expenditures under consideration can be found in the chart below.

Consolidated Fund Expenditure by type 2017-18

(in $millions)

Training: 3.304

Transport: 5.153

Travel: 3.01

Communications: 7.097

Advertising and Promotions: 2.389

Professional Services: 49.985

Rentals: 12.755

Repair and Maintenance: 19.411

Insurance: 9.121

Energy: 16.608

Clothing, Uniforms, Laundry: 1.146

Materials and Supplies: 23.928

Equipment Purchases: 0.563

Total: 157.172

(Source: Bermuda Government)

I still remember former government minister Renée Webb, who was a big proponent of implementing under the law a “black economic empowerment” initiative during the early 2000s, saying that just over 90 per cent of the businesses that benefited from procurement contracts from the Government were white-owned businesses.

She was of the view, as I was, that only a race-based remedy — either implemented at the policy level or one that was legislated statutorily, and which remains our preference — could begin to redress the decades-long impact that disadvantaged black Bermudian-owned businesses.

These businesses generally lacked the capital and experience, or legacy advantage, in competing with Bermuda's white-owned businesses in pursuit of a piece of the procurement pie and in the broader private-sector markets.

What's more, this one obvious example of racial inequality was taking place in a country where black Bermudians comprised a little more than two thirds of Bermuda's status population. Moreover, it is also a place where women are in the majority.

It is also a country like the United States and Canada, where rigid racial hierarchies were the norm and where white privilege and advantage were perpetuated right up until the present period.

This multi-century state of affairs will take many years to unpack.

Of course, at this point, I am supposed to advance the cliché that so much has been done over the past five-plus decades. And that is true. But many Bermudians, especially black Bermudians, will assert that not enough has been done; and the pace of progressive reform around these types of issues has at times been glacially slow.

This initiative, if implemented correctly, can make a significant and valuable contribution along with other policies in continuing the deconstruction of a status quo that left too many out in the economic cold.

Regrettably, not much has changed over the past 18 years since Ms Webb made her announcement, although I have heard anecdotally that white-owned businesses may now have seen their share of the procurement dollars decline to between 82 per cent and 85 per cent of the total.

Affirmative-action policies of one sort or another have been in existence for decades throughout the world. The most notable example has been in the US, where they played a critical role in the growth of the African-American middle class, beginning in the late 1960s.

But from South Africa to Brazil, Canada, India and in other countries in Asia, affirmative-action policies have been used to respond to the same destructive social deficits, characterised by longstanding, racial, ethnic-based or gender discrimination.

Bermuda's move in this direction is neither novel nor precedent-setting globally. This government initiative is designed to do two things:

• Redress past injustice that disadvantaged the identifiable groups

• To promote diversity

In the US, for example, what many people may not realise is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative-action policies over the preceding years have been white American women.

That was because Richard Nixon insisted at the last minute before signing off on the proposed federal policy mandate in the early 1970s that it include gender as an identifiable category, as is occurring here, along with the enlightened mandate with respect to “disability”.

On the floor of the House of Assembly during the general debate, I noted that the Opposition supports this valuable policy tool because this is the right thing for Bermuda and Bermudians.

In fact, the Opposition went even farther with its leader, Jeanne Atherden, in her statement to the House, recommending that the same affirmative action-style criteria be applied to the expenditures on the “capital projects” side of the Budget.

For 2017-18, those expenditures totalled a little more than $47 million. On this front, there is already a requirement that at least 20 per cent of that budget be reserved for a small to medium-sized business that was first adopted by the previous government.

As to implementation, the Ministry of Government Reform is developing a matrix that will include criteria to be applied when bids and/or proposals are evaluated.

Each evaluation exercise will consider criteria relative to race, disability and gender. The objective is to use public procurement to stimulate entrepreneurial and general business activity by companies and firms owned by those in the identified categories of persons.

This presents an extraordinary, real-world opportunity that can bring about historic, transformational change for Bermuda. We will have only one chance to get it right, but I am optimistic that we can do it. The expression of bipartisan support around this issue certainly represents a very good first start.

Some Bermudians, mostly white but not exclusively so, are fond of saying when the issue of racism and racial justice rears its head in the public domain that we need to put all of that behind us and simply move on.

Well, I agree. But the way to accomplish that is by adopting and implementing public policies just like this.

Rolfe Commissiong is the government MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21)

Former Cabinet minister Renée Webb has been among those who long campaigned for programmes that identified race, disability and gender

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Published March 21, 2018 at 9:00 am (Updated March 21, 2018 at 10:49 am)

Affirmative action: our one and only chance to get this right

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