Jon Thiele
International Development

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A Direction for the Bahamian Island of Eleuthera

I've led community-based local economic development programs in three countries. This essay is about the one that didn't work. It was written for investors on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera as an introduction to how it should work but it didn't raise much enthusiasm. My work in Bosnia was far more successful, and when I have the time I'll write a bit about it.

While the investors certainly have resources and a demonstrated commitment to the place, they are just not interested in hearing that their retirement paradise has any room for improvement. "It's just a business cycle." one told me, "When the US economy picks up, the local jobs will return." That's easy for him to say.

The thought of taking on the challenge of local economic development by yourself, as ordinary citizens, sounds like a difficult undertaking, maybe even intimidating. After all, influencing the course of the island's economy seems like a herculean task, and whoever liked economics anyway? Well, the economy is really no more than the way we try to meet our needs and wants, and when we talk about development, we mean an improvement in the general welfare of the island's residents.

What we are talking about is activity that will improve the economic health of the community. Everybody wants that, but of course, but this improvement won't just happen by itself. It will require thought, planning, and effort.

Harbor Scene

At first, this might not seem all that necessary, but while the quiet detachment from the pace and fury of the outside world has attracted many of us to Eleuthera, it is that same remoteness which brings a lack of awareness of the need for planning and effort.

Only when a resort closes or when an airline cuts back service, do we notice that action is needed to restore the economic and social health of the community.

The fundamental goal of local economic development is to improve the quality of life in a community.

Simply stated, this is done by increasing the injections of resources into the community, such as tourist dollars, and decreasing leakages like imports. Put in terms of business development, a community needs to retain or expand existing businesses and attract a few new ones.(1)

This is no small task, but it has been accomplished successfully in countless communities around the world. How?

"There is an iron-clad 'lesson' to be seen in every successful small place: small jurisdictions must assume responsibility and leadership for the development and carrying through of their own program of economic change. Indeed, there is no dignified alternative, as dependency is a recipe for decay and demoralization....

"All of the examples of economic success in smaller jurisdictions show that the transition from economic weakness to strength comes about when communities actually face the challenge of self-reliance, and decide, often in very different ways, how to move their economy and society forward. This collective stock-taking and reappraisal often take place against a backdrop of economic and political uncertainty when the promise of success and the threat of failure can be very real....

"At the heart of all of these strategies... lies a profound recognition that their most important resource lies in the people themselves acting collectively under their own jurisdiction. It is this consciousness of a community being a real actor in the determination of its own fate that seems to make the most decisive difference. Taking a role as an active agent in one's own economic and political development presupposes two things: confidence in a community that its own actions can make a difference..., and a determination to put those resources to work on behalf of the community....

"Yet the primal condition is essentially psychological. There are no real 'resources' at hand, even in a community invested with considerable powers to act for itself, unless and until these are understood and are ready to be acted upon by a self-conscious and confident community. This is a profound lesson to be learned from the record of the most successful communities. It is a reality that strikes any visitor to these thriving smaller communities, just as its absence is so often readily apparent in more depressing, divided places, in the post-Soviet territories, in the third world, and beyond...." (2)

What could the Eleuthera community do?

There are many, many things we can do. Indeed, there will be as many or more ideas as there are people involved. For example, I like scuba diving, and there is a dive that "combines the sensations of scuba and skydiving. Divers willing to take on the six- to 10-knot currents are dropped off at one end of the passage between North Eleuthera and Current Island. They ride the tide past walls of coral about 75 yards apart, often accompanied by schools of jacks, groupers and stingrays." (3) It is considered to be the best drift dive in the world.

But when I read about diving in the Bahamas, all I see is article after article about the shark dives at Grand Bahama. That's what tourists read too, so that's where they go to spend their money.

One local economic development activity could be a publicity effort to attract dive tourists to Eleuthera. Divers find information in "Scuba Diving" and "Skin Diver" magazines, so the magazines' editors are always looking for good articles, and they build value into their websites by linking to destinations, tour operators, and dive shops. They and others would love to have well prepared information and reliable partners as much as Eleuthera would love to have the tourist revenue.

Others involved will have other ideas. "We could help the airlines in the same way. They fly where the traffic is and don't have the time to build up a route. American Eagle cut the number of flights here, and uses a smaller plane too, because no one buys tickets. We can help them with the promotion they can't bother with."

"Wait, wait." another says. "They cut flights because Club Med closed. We've got to do something about that. The sooner that place gets bought, the sooner the flights will resume. I sold real estate in the US for years, and I don't want to go back to work, but I do know that if we could find a buyer for the place, Club Med would be glad to pay a nice finders' fee we could use for all sorts of development stuff. Between us and our organizations, we must know a thousand people who've already invested in this island, maybe we can scare up a buyer. I'd be glad to talk to the agent about it."

"Oh, come on now," a fourth begins, "you're just reinventing the wheel. The local government has a tourism and development office. We could just as easy work with them. You know, take their material and distribute it, or maybe join in one of their programs. They plan so much but don't have the money to do any of it. We're already voluntering here, so why don't we put our efforts into one of their programs?"

We would soon have more ideas than we can handle.

But maybe this is getting a bit ahead of things. Who's "we"?

Local development begins with a core of interested and capable people who form a team. The participants would be leaders in the community, decision-makers in business, elected and appointed government officials, respected members of the community, and people who have involved themselves in important public decisions.

These individuals will each have a personal interest or stake in the economic development, be affected by development activities, be informed and knowledgeable about problems related to development, be committed to informing other community members about development efforts, be willing to commit themselves to working with an organized development program, be positive and enthusiastic and able to work with others, and be open to change if change is necessary. (4)

They can be recruited in many ways. It can be a campaign to build interest and support through the press releases and newspaper articles, or it can begin through personal contacts, networking, and recruiting begun by a few concerned individuals.

In any case, this team of 5-10 people assumes leadership of the process.

They will recruit a more members and lead them through a process to generate ideas for community economic renewal, evaluate those ideas intelligently and without bias, select and plan the most viable of them, and then implement them.

This group will feel empowered to make changes, and they will take action to bring about improvement and growth.

Their first task will be to agree on a common vision. They must develop a clear view of the task at hand, of the challenge. This sort of activity is an on-going process-- it is not a short, one-time thing. This vision must be agreed upon and accepted by all. It will say what the team intends to do and why. It is a statement of where the team intends to go, of what they see in the future.

They will focus on Eleuthera; we're not trying to change the Bahamas, we can't. They might identify economic growth specifically or they might not; some say economic development and community development are the same thing, but some don't.

In any event, there must be a clear sense of mission and an understood, well communicated set of goals.

From there, the team will need information. They will conduct an assessment to gather data about the current situation. Without information "local economic problems are invisible to development planners". (5)

This is data: The growth of real GDP for the Bahamas was 2.4% from 1994-98. (6) Information, on the other hand, will tell us what this number means. This growth rate is only a fraction below the rate for Caribbean as a whole, 2.6%, so that's not too bad, but what was the growth rate for Eleuthera during that period? We suspect it was less than for the Bahamas as a whole, and if so, that is bad news, and it will influence our choice of strategies.

In development efforts, accumulating data and processing it into information follows a rather well known approach similar to business planning with its SWOT analysis in which you identify your organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and the threats you might face. It is a useful way to organize information. In the context of development, we would start by asking where Eleutherea is now, where our analysis puts the state of the island's economy (its strengths and weaknesses); external trends and forces (its opportunities and threats); partners for economic development; and resources for economic development. (6)

Since our vision statement tells us where we want to be, what is left is how to get there. In development planning, that means we need strategies (carefully selected approaches that focus the team's resources) and activities (actions proposed within the strategies). (7)

It can be overwhelming to consider the strategic possiblilities-- job creation, moderating vulnerability to cyclical trends, limiting the risk of business closures, promoting industrial diversification, or enhancing productivity (8). We could try to enhance local assets, stop leakages from the island, build a base of export business, share services regionally, or target high-value products (9). The list goes on and on.

Here is a short, workable list of some options:

If our analysis shows us that it is wise to grow small, new firms, then we could consider:

    Business training and technical assistance programs
    Revolving loan funds
    Business incubators
    Microenterprise support
    Import substitution

If our analysis shows us that it is wise to retain and expand existing businesses, then we could consider:

    Business training and technical assistance
    Business lending for both debt and venture capital
    Market development and export assistance
    Commercial area revitalization
    Flexible business networks
    Enhanced Chambers of Commerce or Merchants' Associations

If our analysis shows us that it is wise to recruit business and industry, then we could consider:

    Industrial development, even "spec" or "shell" buildings
    Infrastructure development, like roads, transportation options, water, sewer
    Promotional efforts selling location, workforce, low costs of doing businesses
    Seeking employers paying a good wage and benefits in a probusiness climate

If our analysis shows us that it is wise to attract tourists or retirees, then we could consider:

    Developing new tourism opportunities, "eco-tourism" and heritage tourism
    Investing in quality of life amenities, such as attractive neighborhoods, parks, and cultural events

If our analysis shows us that it is wise to address income and wealth disparities, then we could consider:

    Job training, job access, and education programs
    Community development lending, banks, and credit unions
    Individual development accounts

If our analysis shows us that it is wise to build community capacity, then we could consider:

    Leadership development programs
    Civic participation campaigns
    Community based planning activities (10)

As you can see, not all of these local economic development activities require funding. Many can be done by simply redirecting existing efforts toward a more coherent goal.

And they don't all focus on making money either. Remember, the fundamental goal of local economic development is to improve the quality of life for people in the community. That is not to say that life is not good in Eleuthera now. Rather, we want to sustain what we have, continue to prosper, and move forward.

All that's really needed is the intiative to get started. Once underway, a good local development effort is sustained by its own successes. The community effort builds momentum, and the team continues its work as new members join and older members move on.

And the people of Eleuthera enjoy the increased quality of life we all want, increasing property values, and long term security.


(1) Sean Bevin, Napier City Council, New Zealand Society of Local Government, 1999.
(2) David Milne, "Ten Lessons for Economic Development in Small Jurisdictions: the European Perspective", 2000.
(3) Keith Phillips, "Bahamas Dive & Travel Guide".
(4) Gary Hansen, "A Guide to community Economic Renewal", 2000.
(5) John Elerbee, "Promoting Economic Development on South Africa's Wild Coast", 2000.
(6) US Department of Commerce, "Moving Beyond the Overall Economic Development Program: Resources for Practitioners".
(7) ibid.
(8) US Department of Agriculture, "Economic Development: Principles for High Performance Strategies".
(9) US Department of Agriculture, "Development Strategies for Remote or Declining Rural Communities".
(10) US Department of Commerce, "Moving Beyond the Overall Economic Development Program: Resources for Practitioners".