The following scene is familiar to any of our readers who frequent our local grocery stores: Near the entrance to the store, a long table is set up. People are sitting behind the table, smiling and looking hopefully at everyone who walks by. On the table is a large container filled with coins and paper bills. Taped to the front of the table is a sign, displaying the name or logo of a cause or an organization.
Don’t be misled by the sign: In many instances, it doesn’t matter what the sign says — the ultimate beneficiary is, in fact, the Cayman Islands Government.
On an individual level, we have nothing but admiration for the tireless volunteers and generous donors who power the nonprofit sector in the Cayman Islands. Their intentions are noble, their causes are just and their community spirit is inspirational. In fact, Pinnacle Media and many of our staff are regular contributors to and sponsors of these organizations.
However, as evidenced in a story that ran in Tuesday’s Compass, far too often, when altruistic people step up to contribute to the greater good, what they oftentimes provide is an excuse to government to shift its public sector responsibilities to the private sector.
As we reported Tuesday, the Ministry of Community Affairs cut some $300,000 from the government’s school lunches and uniforms budget, citing a decreased level of need “due to the diligent work of community organizations.”
Although this news might seem to be an immediate cause for celebration, it is anything but. While Minister Osbourne Bodden rightfully recognizes the efforts of charitable groups, there are dangers inherent in the public sector relying on the private sector to fulfill the basic needs of citizens. For example, there is no built-in structure of accountability for private charitable organizations. (Apart from the general maxim of, “Caveat donor.”)
The private sector is far more flexible than the public sector, which is good, but it can also be far more whimsical. A charity might be delivering a smorgasbord of hot lunches to schoolchildren today, but if an economic recession hits, a major benefactor withdraws support, or if organizers begin feuding with politicians in power — those lunches could be yanked right out of the oven.
It is true that in many other societies, the work of charities is absolutely necessary to bridge gaps between what the government can afford to provide and what the most unfortunate people need to survive and thrive. (A government’s dependence on charities and foreign aid can be considered a hallmark of a modern “third world” country.)
With a population of a mere 60,000 people and public sector revenue approaching a billion dollars per year, Cayman’s government does not have a problem with available resources. Our government should easily be able to afford basic items and services such as feeding children, caring for the elderly, animal control, obtaining vital healthcare equipment and building roads.
Instead, aided by financial crutches donated from the charitable community, our government officials choose to spend “their” (actually, “our”) money elsewhere.
Remember, when government officials are adopting their budget, the allocation of each dollar is a choice — in Cayman’s case, between funding for programs such as social assistance, education and public safety … obligations such as salaries and pensions for civil servants … and providing subsidies to businesses such as Cayman Airways and the Cayman Turtle Centre.
It is useful to think of it in this way: Every dollar the government doesn’t use for school lunches has instead been allocated to turtle lunches — that is, before those turtles, in turn, become lunch for someone else.