Sunday, February 17, 2013

Protection versus Education

There are several earlier posts on this blog criticising education in Cayman – Indentured Servitude in January 2011, Bamboozled and Tribal Jostling the next month, and others later. They deplored the failure of the British FCO and its local agents to educate enough native Caymanians to the point where they could compete on equal terms with expats. Regrettably, nothing has changed.

When it first set up the Cayman tax-haven, did the FCO deliberately keep the locals under-educated and under-developed, in Britain’s national interests? Why did Caymanians never demand a decent education system? Why did they prefer to rely on protectionism, which trapped so many of them below the glass ceilings of their office workplaces?

The Caymanian Protection Law of 1973 may indeed have been well-intentioned, on Britain’s part. When the FCO first planned to move its regional intelligence headquarters from Nassau to Cayman, an Offshore tax-haven was reckoned to be essential camouflage. A basic Offshore tax-haven – which Cayman was, in the beginning – doesn’t need hordes of professional experts; but it does need hordes of office clerks who are literate and educated.

The natives comprised a community of fisher-folk and dirt-farmers, plus a few small-island shopkeepers, and sailors employed on American cargo ships. Except for the sailors, very few of the 8000 Caymanians had any exposure to the world beyond Cayman’s isolated shores, or to the self-discipline required by non-Caymanian employers.

The Law was ostensibly intended to protect the Islanders from exploitation by the foreign employers whom the tax-haven would attract, and to keep the locals “in the loop” until a network of government schools could make good the educational deficiencies. As the skills-deficit shrank, the need for protection would shrink. Within a generation, surely, Caymanians would be able to compete on equal terms with expats in all aspects of commerce. It didn’t quite work out like that.

Employers were obliged (by the Law) to hire Caymanians ahead of expats, and to advance the careers of all Caymanians on their payroll. Well, that was the theory. In practice, the employers and government enforcers all cheated – as noted in Everybody’s Cheating in December 2010. The issuance of indentures for each migrant worker was the responsibility of a Caymanian Protection Board, whose members were appointed by the local politicians. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what happened next.

In the schools, generic curriculums were adopted that made no allowance for the absence of an underlying culture of education. Native-born children went off to school woefully ill-equipped to absorb the lessons – and with not the slightest incentive to absorb them. After all, Caymanians were a protected species, now, guaranteed first dibs on all jobs for which their Protection Board deemed them qualified. Why did they need to do the homework assigned to them? Huh!

Exposure to overseas experience and the Western work-ethic were dismissed by the Protection Board as worthless. A blog-post of mine in November 2010 compared the resulting attitude to an indigenous cargo-cult that Linda & I encountered during our years in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific.

Filled with Island pride and awash with revenue from the tax-haven, an assertive and expansionist government appointed itself the employer of last resort for Caymanians. For those with even the most trivial and basic of diplomas, government was the employer of first resort. In effect, the FCO in 1973 offered Caymanians a choice between protection and education.

In effect, the Caymanian politicians chose protection and allowed education to wither on the vine. Today, forty years later, the educational standards of the average native Caymanian are dire, according to our local newspaper headlines. Unless the original choice is revisited, they will still be dire forty years from now.