Bodden: For whom are we developing?

J.A. Roy Bodden

While I can see how the information in two recent articles [‘Number of foreign workers hits all-time high’ and ‘The changing face of Cayman’s workforce’, 17 May] may lead some persons to awe and glorification, serious observers of Caymanian society such as myself find the articles cause for some concern.

As one of the foremost intellectual commentators on Caymanian society, I have from as early as 1978 posed the question, “For whom are we developing?”

Reading the above-mentioned articles reinforces the relevance and timeliness of my question, which still begs an answer.

I wrote at that time and reiterate now that we are “measuring our progress on a faulty Report Card”. This observation is based on some obvious and inconvenient truths. For example, there is no scientific evidence to show that in the face of competition from expatriate workers, Caymanians are not deprived of opportunities for employment. One has only to listen to the radio talk shows to hear the litany of complaints from Caymanians who complain of discrimination and unfairness in the workplace. Such a practice would be alarming enough were it confined to the private sector. When the behaviour creeps into the civil service, however, the matter becomes at once more serious.

I wish to be placed on record as stating that the pace and scope of development which your articles describe are unsustainable and bring no long-term benefits to the proverbial ‘little man’ in Caymanian society. There can be no more obvious example of this than the observation of a source quoted in one of your articles with regards to housing. This is one area in which there is a glaring lack of opportunity for Caymanians, especially young married couples who desire to share in the so-called ‘Caymanian miracle’. Inflation, an increasingly high cost of living and ‘demand loans’ which banks pass as mortgages leave no room for impreciseness. This is especially sobering when it is realized that the Cayman Islands have, per capita, one of the highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the world.

Andrew Morris Gerrard, Commissioner (Governor) of these islands from 1953 to 1957?, warned us of the predicament in which we now find ourselves: “The growth on a large-scale, of the Dependency as a tourist resort, will make some Caymanians very rich indeed, and it will certainly make all Caymanians a good deal better off, in the material sense, than they are now. But unless we watch our step, I doubt if it will make anyone any happier. The way to watch one’s step, if I may put it so inelegantly, is to accept that controlled development is necessary … I put it to you therefore, Gentlemen, that if you are not to sell your birthright for a mess of pottage, now is the time to do something about it – to go in for planned development, to strengthen the legislation with regard to immigration and aliens, to strengthen the administration of the Dependency which in its personnel each year is growing more overburdened, older, more tired and more discouraged.”

Gerrard, it seems, foresaw what would happen when Caymanians sold absolute titles to their land to outsiders (or ‘aliens’) as he described them, who had a different notion of private property from Caymanians.

Later (in 1974), another commentator, the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz, posed the following questions:

“What happens in the long run to a successful tourist economy? When Caymanians have sold all that land which is attractive to outsiders and when their men have built the houses which the new owners want, what will they do next? What jobs will be open to Caymanians in the long run? Will they become a proletariat of beach hustlers, bartenders and hotel maids, with a few entrepreneurs in those crevasses in the local economy left unattended by foreign business and foreign capital?”

I have added my own more modern observations on the existing state of affairs. Writing in my most recent publication I have posited that: “National salvation it seems, regrettably emanates from superhighways, five-star hotels in which Caymanians are neither guests nor employees, an increasing number of motorcars and the development of exclusive and exotic enclaves, none of which bring any lasting economic advantage to the common man or any hope for our youth, especially black youth whom it seems are increasingly hooked on drugs, guns and violence.”

The situation reminds me of a passage from James Baldwin’s 1963 best-seller ‘The Fire Next Time’. In the passage, Baldwin related a conversation in which the informant stated that “the most dangerous creation in any society is those persons who have nothing to lose”.

Too many Caymanians appear to fall in the category of having nothing to lose. Given this situation, it is sound practice, while there is time, for us to adjust our development model to one which is more inclusive.

It seems patently fallacious to measure prosperity on rising work permit numbers when daily Caymanians are falling through the cracks, largely caused by income inequality, disenfranchisement and discrimination in the workplace. One has only to review the growing numbers registering at the NAU to realise that our development model is flawed.

And so, as I asked in 1978, I ask again, “For whom are we developing?”

J.A. Roy Bodden is president emeritus of the University College of the Cayman Islands and the author of six books.