Saturday, December 28, 2013

Let them eat mud-cakes

They say charity begins at home. Families and communities should care for their own, before other families and communities. We all tend to do that, both individually and as a community.

From cans on shop counters collecting coins for sick children in hospitals in Miami, to excessively generous medical coverage for Civil Servants and their families, Caymanians in particular are extraordinarily well cared for.

Nobody goes hungry in Cayman for more than a day. Schoolchildren receive free hot breakfasts and lunches, if their parents can’t afford to feed them, or can’t be bothered. Nobody goes homeless, even when their homes are destroyed. Then, the destroyed homes are repaired or replaced free of charge.

Families are not as diligent as they once were, in looking after their poor; but that’s a worldwide phenomenon. Sometimes, individuals who have done well from Cayman’s boom turn their backs on their less fortunate relatives, and let charities pick up the slack.

Because Cayman is a rich little place, what we regard as life’s necessities are luxuries in other places. We tend to overlook just how lucky we are, and how unlucky much of the rest of the world is. Collectively, we don’t like to see pictures of extreme poverty, and don’t want to hear about it or even know about it. We are much more comfortable with charity that begins and ends at home.

Most of Cayman’s businesses have annual budgets for donations, and many of us individuals have too. But all the budgets are overwhelmingly in favour of domestic charities, with very little set aside for anywhere beyond our shores. Foreigners in dire poverty? Huh. Let them eat mud-cakes!

The poorest of our Caribbean neighbours do eat mud-cakes, actually. Mud-cakes don’t keep children alive, but they do keep them from feeling hunger. Many children in Haiti starve to death with full stomachs, while we collect money for our local athletes to play games overseas, and for school trips up north, and for local church-building, etc.

It’s natural to favour local charities, and we shouldn’t despise it. It’s a basic tribal instinct, and we are all captives of our instincts. Caymanians support Caymanian charities; Britons support British charities. That’s how the world works. Rich Haitians support Haitian charities, up to a point.

It would be a noble thing, if we as a community were to cut back our donations to local charities and divert as much as we can to needier folk overseas. But it’s not going to happen, and it’s not realistic to expect that it will. It’s not realistic to expect that we will increase our personal charity budgets, either.

However, what we could do is withhold some of our donations from some of the less essential local “good causes”, and support some of the more serious good causes outside Cayman.

We could go a bit lighter on school trips to Disneyworld and a bit heavier on clothes and medicines for Jamaica and Haiti. A bit lighter on Christmas presents for mildly deprived local children and a bit heavier on food for desperately poor foreign children who have nothing to eat but mud.

The Haitians aren’t going anywhere; they won’t suddenly stop starving, after two hundred years of it. By next Christmas they will still be in trouble even without another earthquake or hurricane. But they are our Caribbean brothers, and we are supposed to be our brothers’ keepers.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Going green

Here in Cayman, a few years ago, our supermarkets imposed a five-cents charge on plastic bags. The advertised purpose was to help save the world from plastic. Some of the cynics amongst us raised our eyebrows at the explanation – but, what can you do?

Cutting down on plastic bags is good for our souls, I guess. Self-denial of that kind is a tribute to the virtues of simpler times. It’s like after local hurricanes, when we all do without electricity and town water & sewage for a while. Forgoing our beloved plastic shopping bags doesn’t make heroes of us, but it won’t do us any harm. Indeed, logic demands that the supermarkets not stop with the shopping bags.

I bought a memory-stick for my computer last week. It was the size of my little finger, and came in a tough plastic package as big as a book. That package used more plastic than 200 shopping bags, and the plastic would stop a bullet. If the Police budget doesn’t run to Kevlar vests for everybody, they could keep a few of those plastic packages in stock to shove under their shirts when things get rough.

In fact, rather than sell us the bags for five cents apiece, why don’t the supermarkets simply divert shipments of new bags directly to Haiti, our poorest neighbour? Earth Day gimmicks aren’t a top priority in Haiti. Most of the victims of the last earthquake are still living in gutters and dying in pain. Plastic shopping bags are all that most Haitians have to keep them dry from the rain above and the filthy drains they sleep beside.

Plastic bags are all they have to keep their food safe, when they have food. When the only food they have is mud cakes, plastic shopping bags help to keep clean mud separated from mud mixed with faeces. We would be doing them a big favour by sending them all the bags we don’t use.

Anyway, we in Cayman are too few in number to make any noticeable difference to the world’s consumption of plastic. If our bag-usage is typical of our region, there must be ten billion bags a year doing the rounds throughout the Caribbean region. Why bother?

News reports tell of a gigantic floating pile of plastic and other rubbish in the ocean up between Japan and Canada, labelled The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Nobody knows for certain how big it is, but its area may well be thousands of times the area of Grand Cayman and its volume, billions of times the volume of the town dump we call “Mount Trashmore”.

Even Mount Trashmore is too big for us to do anything about. At least, it’s too big for our public sector to do anything about. There are enough engineers and other experts among Cayman’s retirees to fix it – if they could fend off the dead hand of state bureaucracy, which they can’t!

For the moment, we must settle for dealing with just the plastic shopping bags – a drop in the ocean, so to speak. Is it a futile gesture? Of course; but sometimes the world needs a futile gesture.

We are told that plastic shopping bags never disintegrate. Scientists (well, “scientists”...) tell us that they take somewhere between 400 and 1000 years to degrade. Hmph. I don’t know how anybody could know that. If you throw plastic bags on a fire they shrivel right up. Even left out in the sun they disintegrate in a lot fewer than 400-to-1000 years. Keep it real, people! That’s how “man-made global warming” scientists screwed up their act, by mixing lies with truths.

The thick plastic that can fend off bullets, though – that might last 400 years, with care. It might be a positive thing if we sent it to the Haitians. It could be that long before they become rich enough to classify it as a nuisance.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More trouble in Paradise

Government’s financial mess has us all worried, who care what happens to Cayman. Certainly there are many, many more worried long-term immigrants than there used to be. Whenever two or three of us are gathered together, the mood is sombre. Collectively, we aren’t feeling as comfortable as we used to do about the economic future.

Of course I can’t speak for the whole community of veteran expats, or for the current community of tax-haven expats; but it’s no secret that there is a general loss of confidence in the ability of our local rulers to fix the mess. The FCO probably has the ability, but does it have the will? Its attention tends to wander, where its colonies’ internal affairs are concerned.

The loss of confidence among long-term expats may soon reach critical mass. The endemic xenophobia of a large portion of the ethnic Caymanian community is a large factor. It is oppressive, and there are no signs of its abatement. Despite some reformist mumbling in the six months since the last general election, nothing has changed. Political interference with the private sector’s independence will continue as far ahead as we can see. So will the anti-expat sentiment that drives our Islands’ immigration policy.

Let’s be honest about it. Public-sector employment will not be reduced: its heavy hand will not be lifted. State-owned enterprises will not be sold to private investors; state-operated services will not be outsourced. Corruption will not be curtailed; cronyism and nepotism will not be suppressed. The Public Debt will not be paid down to any significant degree; unfunded government pensions and medical expenses will stay unfunded. The rollover policy will come and go according to the whim of the moment.

Last month, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in Bermuda, when a local independent Commission on “Spending And Government Efficiency” (SAGE) reported its findings. Huh. They must lead sheltered lives up in Bermuda, for the findings wouldn’t have surprised anybody in Cayman. It’s an interesting read, though. Google SAGE Report Bermuda for the Report and its Executive Summary.

The FCO may well decide on a similar Commission for Cayman – although ours would NOT be truly independent. ALL our existing Commissions are overseen by a shrewdly appointed “safe pair of hands”. Our politicians and senior Civil Servants are highly skilled in the suppression of independent opinions. My own experiences on our Human Rights Committee and Vision-2008 exercise can testify to that. Actually, a perusal of SAGE Bermuda’s Executive Summary shows many similarities with Vision-2008, whose reports and recommendations have been gathering dust since January 1999.

If a SAGE Cayman Commission were to be appointed, its first job should be to substitute Cayman for Bermuda throughout the entire Bermuda report. Nine tenths of the work would thereby be done. For the remaining tenth, it could simply dust off all the relevant Vision-2008 Reports and Minutes and slot them in where appropriate.

(The Minutes recorded what was agreed and what not, at least on the two committees I composed the Minutes for. The final Reports were subjected to skulduggery, and did not always reflect what had been agreed in the Meetings.)

Sigh. I wonder whether the FCO clerks would be prepared for all the shenanigans that would lie in wait for them. Almost certainly, not. The existing waste-of-space Commissions – on Corruption, Human Rights, and Standards in Public Life – have bamboozled our colonial masters successfully; small chance that a fourth one would be any different.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Holding hands in a movie show...

Early next month it will be 47 years since we married in Toronto, our mothers checking in by phone from Australia. The longevity has been a triumph of stubbornness, as much as anything. We were both brought up to honour our word, and that included marriage-vows.

Our child (1975) added an extra dimension to the marriage – an amendment to the contract, if you like. Even when both contracting parties positively like the prospect of such an amendment, the reality can be a nasty shock. As I blogged last September [A young man’s car], “Where two had been company, three was a crowd”.

We were children of the 1950s, when divorce was not readily granted by the state or condoned by one’s family and community. Simple incompatibility was insufficient grounds to break a sworn contract. Marriage was for life. Battered wives were not excused, unless their small children were also battered – and even child-abuse didn’t warrant a divorce in the eyes of pious Christians.

In the crowd I hung around with before I left on my travels, promiscuity was rare. A Frank Sinatra song captured the innocence of the era:
Holding hands in a movie show, when all the lights are low,  
May not be new. 
But I like it – how about you? 

London in The Swinging Sixties opened my eyes to a whole new world. Wow. My (our) son’s generation inherited that world, and built on it. It would have been a factor in their collective decision to defer marriage beyond what used to be the standard age – and sometimes indefinitely.

When he and I had “The Talk”, it was about marriage, not about sex. He was probably rattling his pots and pans plenty in his late teens, and here in the West Indies the advice of peers carries far more weight than that of parents.

Today, I fret about my granddaughters, who are just beginning to discover boys. Fortunately or not, they live in pretty much the same blithe innocence as Linda and I did at their ages. Their home and school are at some physical remove from urban pressure, and their peers are (generally) equally innocent. Will they think that holding hands in a movie show is a big deal, or will they want to join the trail a bit further along? When neither Mum nor Dad has ever bothered with marriage, will the girls be equally wary of long-term commitment? Very likely.

Do they wish their parents had stayed together? Possibly not, you know. After all, there is more variety in their lives when there are two parental homes. In a spirit of objective enquiry they once asked Ross why he had so many ladies in his life. (They used the Norwegian word that translates as “ladies”, not the word for “women”!) More recently, they marvelled – to me, in English – at how many official and unofficial grandparents they had, who loved them. They showed no regret or wistfulness, just a wholehearted contentment with the way things were. They were counting their blessings.

Linda and I spend four weeks each year in their company – two there and two here – and would like to spend more. However, more time with us might cause scheduling difficulties during school vacations. All the Norskies would not easily give up any of their share of the pie.