To mark A Day of Absense on February 11 I interviewed the creator of this day of remembrance and protest in honour of culture workers in the Bahamas and the world, old friend Dr Nicolette Bethel. I wanted a clearer understanding of the true state of cultural affairs in this country from her perspective, having just completed five years of service as Director of Culture. The problems, obstacles, complications and inadequacies she faced were multitudinous yet she and her noble, self-sacrificing staff rose to the challenges, putting on five National Arts Festivals and sending contingents to two Carifesta Arts Festivals during her service. Its a long interiew but I urge you to read to the end where Nicolette speaks about the hard work and dedication of the culture workers on staff at Cultural Affairs who keep on keeping on in spite of too much red tape, not enough money, as well as unfairly bearing the brunt of the public's blame for what may be lacking. I'm especially grateful for the way Nicolette sets the record straight regarding their service to the Bahamian people. They are the folks we especially need to be grateful for on the Day of Absense.
Womanish Words: How much money was allocated in the budget for cultural affairs in 2008? (And how much was actually given?)
Nicolette Bethel: This is a complicated answer. Over the five years I served as Director the amount grew in monetary terms. What is more, the way in which government spending is managed is such that the ability of the Cultural Affairs Division to spend the money allocated was limited. And we were limited in the ways in which we could spend the money as well (the kind of money we were given was limited to a certain category of spending). So let me answer you in several ways.
a) The budgetary allocation, which took the form of a single line item under Recurrent Expenditure, for 2008-2009 (budget years go from July-June of each year) was $2.026 million dollars ($2,026,000.00). This does not include salaries.
b) This was $500,000.00 more than I had the year before, when the budgetary allocation was roughly $1.7 million dollars, and this was $500,000 more than the year before that, when the budgetary allocation was roughly $1.2 million dollars.
c) The increase in half-million increments can be said to occur because of actual expenditure. The odd thing about government funding is that, no matter what the theory is, in fact the real way in which you get increased funding is if you overspend your budget allocation. In most circumstances people in culture cannot get permission to do that; however, there are some things on which some civil servants and politicians will agree to increase spending. These are Junkanoo; the National Arts Festival; and CARIFESTA. The increase in half-million increments is primarily the result of our having attended CARIFESTA in 2006 and 2008, and represents the cost of those trips.
WW: In a perfect world what is the amount you want allocated and what should we create with it? (Dream big!) (And what do you think would your dad want created?)
NB: Lynn, I can’t even imagine a perfect world. Let me just say that in 1986 when the UNESCO report on Bahamian cultural development was submitted to my father, the recommended allocation of monies to culture and cultural development was $5 million dollars. That was twenty-two years ago, and it was the result of an in-depth, standardized review of cultural needs in the country.
Given the fact that such development did not occur, I’m going to put forth a number that would be realistic to run the Cultural Affairs Division and to maintain ONLY the programmes that currently exist at a level that would make a difference. These programmes are Junkanoo (throughout the entire Bahamas), Junior Junkanoo (throughout the entire Bahamas), the E. Clement Bethel National Arts Festival, the National Junkanoo Museum, the National Dance School, and the so-called National Centre for the Performing Arts, and the establishment and staffing of a CARIFESTA Secretariat (this WOULD NOT INCLUDE the cost of CARIFESTA or of capital expenditure to prepare for CARIFESTA or investment in the current cultural industries or creating, staffing and maintaining training institutions or granting programmes). The realistic figure for what we are expected to do would be closer to $9.5 million. This would include roughly $2 million in salaries.
WW: I'm imagining A Day of Absense growing into a grassroots movement among artists and cultural workers where we organize and pledge to only vote for candidates who make serious funding for the Arts a major part of their platform. What do you think?
NB: Absolutely. That is the idea. Stealing shamelessly from Obama, of course. I would go a step further, and establish an Artists’ Foundation to begin the process of putting our vision into place, and beginning a fundraising drive of concerts, etc, that can raise awareness and raise money for our cause.
WW: What kind of response are you receiving re the Day of Absense?
NB: Good. I half-expected the kind of response the idea is getting, but I didn’t really know how many people would be willing to go on the record/out on a limb to make their support public. I deliberately didn’t want to organize something too radical or one-dimensional because I think it’s important for people to be able to show solidarity with the cause in a myriad different ways. Blogging and calling in to talk shows and writing stuff and getting press coverage are good ways to begin. The other ways involve everything from true behind-the-scenes activity (one person I know is taking a personal day in honour of his cultural commitment) to real in-your-face activity (there’s talk of a demonstration in Rawson Square, but I don’t know whether it’ll come off). And in the meantime, between Days of Absence, we need to do some concrete work together. Like completing the Cultural Policy and reviewing the draft legislation that the government has been playing with for far too long. Like conducting surveys and doing serious research into cultural activity in The Bahamas and publishing the results. Like working hard to document and educate the public so we can get a swell of support.
WW: Now that you are no longer in government service what is the one thing you want to say now that you couldn't have said during your time as Director? (be outrageous!)
NB: You know, there isn’t much I didn’t say – though I said it behind closed doors, to any official who would listen. What I would do, though, is educate the public on the obstacles that I encountered in my attempts to make a difference in cultural development and cultural activity. The vast majority of the population have no idea how the governmental system works, or what difficulties agencies have in making things happen. Since I left, I have run into many people who bitterly castigate “the government” and “cultural affairs” (or the Ministry of Culture, or whatever title they decide to allocate to that arm of government in which I held the title of “Director”) without having the first clue about what can and cannot be done in the government service.
The basic information that I would provide would be:
a) There is no such thing as a Ministry of Culture or a Department of Culture in the Bahamas government. Those are fancy titles for something that does not exist. This is what does exist: a Cultural Affairs Division, which consists only of technical and clerical officers, headed by a Director. In the government structure, a Division is one of the lowest things that can exist (the only things lower are Units, Sections, and Desks). Divisions, Units and Desks cannot operate without the administrative structure of a larger entity. Normally this entity is a Ministry. Divisions are constellations of experts in a particular field who work together to design, recommend and implement programmes. The support staff attached to Divisions are usually very junior, and serve in minor clerical and other areas. However, the only staff attached to Divisions that can be considered inseparable from the Divisions are the so-called technical staff – people whose qualifications or job titles tie them to the area of government where they are located, and who cannot easily be moved from section or section of government. Divisions do not have the following: separate administration of human resources; separate accounting; separate registries/filing systems; separate supplies and procurement; the ability to seek or be awarded capital development; the ability to seek or be awarded human resources; the ability to promote or discipline employees; the ability to approve expenditure, even of budgeted funds; or even, apparently, the ability to maintain and operate petty cash. Divisions certainly do not have the ability to collect or spend government revenue. Nothing can occur within a Division in the absence of approval from a Permanent Secretary or the Cabinet of The Bahamas.
b) All decisions about budgets, staffing, and even deployment of non-technical personnel are made beyond the Division. The only thing the Director of Culture can do is make recommendations. Staffing (hires, fires, disciplinary measures, promotions, etc) are dealt with first by the Human Resources Department of whatever Ministry is in charge of the Division and then by the Ministry of Public Personnel. Budgets are dealt with first by the Accounts Division of the Ministry, but must be approved in the next instance by the Permanent Secretary (the CFO of any Ministry), and then in the final instance by the Ministry of Finance. The only way I have seen our budget increase was by (a) a Minister making a petition to the Minister of Finance and (b) overspending our allocation and having to seek supplementary funding (2006-2007, 2007-2008). However, the latter can also give you a bad name in the government service, so it’s a double edged sword.
c) The Director of Culture (technical name: Director of Cultural Affairs) has no authority whatsoever within the Government service, though the position bears a number of responsibilities. As the most senior technical official in the government on culture (everyone else is a representative – Ministers are political officials and cannot make things happen in the civil service without the written approval of senior civil servants), the Director of Culture represents the country internationally in areas relating to culture, and is responsible for the development of policy. But the Director of Culture cannot get that policy implemented, which is a political process. All the Director can do is submit reports to Permanent Secretaries and Ministers in the hopes of getting them approved.
d) The so-called Department of Culture has a shrinking staff (there are officers to cover music, drama and art only). Only music has any hope of being adequately covered. The Drama officer is overworked and under-rewarded, having reached the top of her scale and being ineligible for any further promotions (the fault of the system, which has no higher posts than Senior Cultural Affairs Officer, not of hers. She runs the entire National Arts Festival by herself. The Department was without a visual arts officer for four years and the only one we have had to be transferred in from Education (and may be called back). There is no one to cover drama adequately, or to address film, literature, or the folk arts. Dance might be considered to be addressed by the two teachers and the one manager of the National Dance School, but I don’t think so. Junkanoo has a lot of people working in its unit, but not one of them is adequately compensated. There is no one to oversee grants, or policy development (other than the director), or training, or public relations, or education, or publications, or any myriad other things Culture should be doing but can’t.
e) The salaries in the Department cannot attract young, vibrant, talented and qualified persons. The highest salary in culture (the top of the scale that is awarded to the Director) is $2000 p.a. less than I am currently making as an assistant professor. The salaries in Cultural Affairs are not even on par with other cultural workers in government, such as those people working for the National Art Gallery or the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation, or the Archives, whose equivalent posts earn up to $6,500 more per annum than cultural affairs employees. They cannot even begin to match what is available in the private sector, or even at COB; my salary at COB, as an assistant professor towards the lower middle end of my scale, is more than I could ever have made as Director. No credit is given for a PhD (I was never paid for mine). Seniority in the Service is calculated on salary, not on qualifications, expertise, or experience. Merit is rarely rewarded; it appeared more likely for mediocrity to earn people promotions. Because seniority is calculated on one’s salary scale (the higher the scale, the more senior the employee), the Directors of the Archives, Antiquities, and the Art Gallery, whose salaries fell into scales with grades above mine, were all technically my seniors, as were almost every other Director in the service and even some Deputy Directors as well. Every senior administrative officer (from Under Secretaries on up) were technically my seniors. I would have maxed out my salary by the age of 47, and would conceivably remained in the same position, with no increments, for up to 18 years thereafter — and this for no tangible recognition, reward, or lasting achievement.
f) There is nowhere for cultural workers to move. Even with stellar performances, there is no cultural career path. A senior cultural affairs officer has no higher office available to him or her, with the result that people like Pat Bazard and Keva Cartwright have been at the top of their scales (getting no increment) for far far more than the 5 years that outrages the union. Eddison Dames has not been given an increment for more than 20 years. Vola Francis is making no more than an untrained, junior teacher in Education because his experience in junkanoo is not considered valid as a qualification for promotion or reclassification. There is no recognition of cultural qualifications or experience; the only qualifications accepted are academic and largely obsolete, with the result that these persons cannot even be reclassified to receive their just reward.
g) There is no building for succession in the department. The average age of the department is about 50, with a very top-heavy staff – 5 of the 8 officers and administrators in the Division will be retiring within 10 years, with 3 of them going in 5. Though there are three young officers, there is no guarantee that any of them will stay with the department long enough to be able to take over the programmes that are being run by these officers – Junkanoo, Junior Junkanoo, and the National Arts Festival. In 5 years’ time, therefore, there will be no staff in the Division to run major national programmes.
h) Culture has no permanent office space. Everything is borrowed or rented. The buildings that are attached to culture (Junkanoo Museum and Shirley Street Theatre) are rundown and poorly staffed because there is no budget to attend to them, and no personnel who is trained to operate them.
i) Culture has no permanent portfolio assignment. The politicians who make the decisions have no good idea where to put it. So Culture has been attached to: Youth and Sports, Education, Public Personnel, Labour, and the Office of the Prime Minister – to name but a few places.
j) In the 5 years I was Director, the Department’s portfolio was reassigned 4 times – from Youth, Sports and Culture to Office of the Prime Minister, from OPM to Education, Youth, Sports and Culture, from Education to Youth, Sports and Culture.
k) In the same 5 years, the Department moved physically 3 times – and if you count the fact that I took up my appointment on the day after the Department had moved, that could be considered 4 times.
l) With each move, something is lost. In every case, the department lost capital, supplies, personnel and office space (except for the move post-election, when we gained personnel. But most of those have since been reassigned).
m) And yet, Lynn, the people who work for culture, the technical officers, continue to go to work day in, day out, are often the last people to leave their offices, work on the weekends and on holidays and give up their Christmases and New Years and Independences and almost every other public holiday — not to party but to work. They get up when it’s still dark to catch flights to the Family Islands for adjudications, come back after a full day’s work, go home, sleep, turn round and do it again the next day, with no compensation for their parking fees at the airport or for the gas they burn on their journey to and from the airport and often not enough money to meet all their expenses. They go into their own pockets to get the job done, work at all hours of the night, give their all to their jobs (because they love what they do and they believe in their calling) and do not complain, with the result that nothing has happened for them. Most of them do not qualify for overtime. Most of them have had applications for honoraria for their service above and beyond the call of duty turned down again and again. All of them have been denied promotion again and again and again. They are denied promotion in the face of annual evaluations and recommendations by people who are convinced that what they are doing is worth nothing.
I do not know who these people are who refuse to recognize the work of our cultural officers. I only know that every time we moved to a new agency I had to fight the same prejudices — that my officers were lazy, that they slacked off, that they produced no work, that they were just taking up space. This is in the government service where the norm is to produce nothing at all and get promoted for it — mostly because you complained loudly enough. My officers rarely complained; they just got on with the work. Nothing happened in the five years I was there — five years of both brands of government — just as nothing had happened for them the ten, twenty, thirty-plus years before my time of their faithful service to their country.
And still they serve.
It is in large part their dedication that inspired me to come up with Day of Absence. I have worked with them and I have seen them work. No one can criticize those officers until they have worked with them and watched them deliver. The way they were treated drove home to me the profundity of the contempt we Bahamians hold for culture and cultural workers. The idea came to me back in July 2008 after the fourth annual refusal to recognize the work that they had done, to build into the budget room for promotions, or even to consider a new method of promoting people based on their experience and expertise as well as their academic achievement. Day of Absence is as much for them as for anyone else.