“The poor are punished.” This was a statement used to depict the ghastly effects that Hurricane Dorian had on the small outlying islands of Abaco in The Bahamas in September 2019. Inhabitants of a local shanty town ‘The Mudd’ described the scene as if a bomb had been detonated, with cars overturned and homes laying dispiritingly in rubble. What used to be a town full of joy and happiness, was now a wasteland of debris. A 40 minute plane journey away and you would be on the island of the capital city, Nassau. Serenaded at the airport by a group playing tropical music, tourists march through with childlike grins thinking to themselves: “This must be paradise”. But who knew that for one to have paradise, others must suffer.
The Bahamas is an archipelago of some 700 islands lying just off the southern tip of Florida. For centuries it was under British rule but since 1973 has enjoyed the freedom of being a sovereign state. Unfortunately, it now has the highest inequality in the entire Caribbean. According to a recent study undertaken for a project on development trajectories in the area by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Bahamas has the highest level with a Gini coefficient of 0.57. Comparing this with the UK which only has a Gini coefficient of 0.37, we can evidently see the high levels of inequality that The Bahamas must be experiencing. It is for this reason that I wanted to look into the effects that natural disasters and post colonial views have had on inequality in The Bahamas.
The main inhabitants of Abaco are Haitians. Haitians have lived in The Bahamas for generations after migrating from their own country in search of work and a better life. However, they still face poverty and prejudice. Looked down at as unequal, the Haitians were those that were most gravely affected by Hurricane Dorian. They are often exploited in illegal labour, and have been stricken with poverty for decades. Never once has the Government intervened with real action to aid them, which allows their vicious exploitation to continue. Considering the importance of tourism, accounting for about 50% of GDP, to the Bahamas, it seems rather short-sighted to neglect those (the Haitians) on whom you rely to maintain the high levels of tourism propping up the economy. Yet the Bahamian government continues to demonstrate their poor governing skills which has resulted in the high levels of inequality they now experience across all of their islands.
Despite the fact that natural disasters don’t discriminate in their approach of attack, the differing effects are evident. For the rich, better and stronger housing often withstands the most severe effects of the storms. On the other hand, the Haitians and the poor had to watch their poorly built homes and all earthly possessions being swept away with ease right before their eyes. Those affected commented on how many of the individuals for whom they had worked were not willing to help them in their most dire moment of need. The effects were, and continue to be, truly life changing. Those who had very little, now have nothing, while those who had a lot, remained relatively unscathed. Approaching the third year since the hurricane it is still very difficult to measure the full effect that it had on the levels of inequality but we do know that inequality in The Bahamas is still on the rise as a result.
When the Europeans arrived in The Bahamas in 1492, they committed many atrocities to the indigenous peoples that lived there. The Caribbean was rapidly turned into a site of exploitation of goods and slaves. Between the 16th and 19th century, it is estimated that 5 million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Caribbean, with the vast majority of them ending up in British territories, including The Bahamas.
Colonisation shapes what we see today among the descendants of those who were enslaved. While slavery was abolished in the Caribbean territories during the 1830s, the majority of the descendants of these slaves remained in poverty and were forced to undertake low-wage agricultural and manual labour for absentee landowners, most of whom were white. This inequality became institutionalised in the colonies, and today remains largely in place within the Bahamian society.
This level of inequality that arises from natural disasters and post colonial views affects many different aspects of Bahamian life. Firstly, for those families stricken by poverty it is often not viable to allow your son or daughter to get an education as they are required to work to support the family. For those who do attend government provided education, many cannot afford the essential equipment that they need such as pens, notebooks and textbooks. This causes them to fall behind their better off counterparts who are being educated in private schools. Access to healthcare is another aspect that is affected by inequality. The poor have to rely on government provided healthcare whose resources are often stretched beyond capacity. More often than not, vital medication is not even available which results in many preventable deaths. By contrast, the more affluent have the capability to seek medical help through the private sector and more frequently than not, by taking a flight to secure treatment in the United States.
Overall, the effects that natural disasters and post colonial views have had on inequality in the Bahamas is significant. Those descended from slaves are stuck in a never ending poverty trap, unable to claw their way out. They fall behind their better off counterparts and every time it seems that some progress is made to bridge the gap, natural disasters such as Hurricane Dorian occur which restarts the entire rebuilding process. In light of this, it is evident that drastic government intervention is required to resolve the issue, however, with a current government budget deficit of 42%, it seems impossible that any significant spending is forthcoming.