In the wider world, the Cayman Islands are synonymous with wealth. However, stark financial realities impair the country’s ability to pursue projects both ambitious and fundamental in scope.
Participants in late November’s Future of Cayman Forum repeatedly referenced a lack of funds as a primary factor limiting progress in multiple fields, ranging from education to infrastructure. The financial constraints are not just on government, but on the private sector as well.
During a panel on education performance featuring four members of the Ministry of Education, officials looked back on improvements in test results over the past few years, mentioned the launch of the new five-year strategic education plan, and talked about difficulties facing public schools. As in many matters, often the most cost-effective approaches to address systemic problems are proactive measures – in education, for example, by helping students before they get into trouble, and by preparing young children before they enter school. However those measures of course require continuing investment.
BEST programme coordinator Michael Myles said his programme, which provides services to at-risk children, had identified some 500 Caymanian public school students as being vulnerable. That’s more than 10 per cent of the roughly 4,900 students in government schools, according to 2011 statistics.
Myles said his group’s extended after-school programmes now include more than 1,400 children. Although the programme receives support from government and community sponsors, Myles said it needs more support in order to continue and grow.
“The challenge with this: Funding. And I’m here really to appear as well as a provider of information, to insure that I can partner with everyone in this room to insure that we don’t lose this programme,” he said.
Senior policy advisor Julie Madgwick pointed to the government’s initiative to provide training and curriculum materials to preschool staff, in order to better prepare children who will enter primary school. Like Myles, Madgwick also said that programme needs financial support from the community in order to grow.
In a regional context, Cayman’s economic clout is relatively minor. While the country is one of the wealthiest on a per-capita basis, Cayman’s small population limits its potential buying power, as seen by international companies picking and choosing investment opportunities.
For perspective, Cayman’s population of 56,000 ranks 19 of 24 Caribbean countries and represents 0.14 per cent of the region’s population of 41.6 million, according to United Nations estimates. Including Central America’s population of 155.9 million, Cayman’s share of the population drops to 0.03 per cent.
Those numbers come into play when companies are weighing expensive capital projects against returns on their investments, such as, for example, telecommunications companies.
Cayman is currently served by two submarine cable systems, the MAYA-1 Cable System and Cayman-Jamaica Fibre System. The MAYA-1 system goes north and south out of Cayman. The first point south is Panama. The Cayman-Jamaica system goes directly to Jamaica.
During a Future of Cayman Forum panel on data and communications infrastructure, panellists generally agreed that the two existing systems are more than adequate to serve Cayman’s data needs in the immediate future. While laying a third cable would provide greater stability to Cayman’s data infrastructure, it would be a very expensive undertaking.
Digicel Cayman CEO Chris Hayman said the cost of laying submarine cables has remained the same over the past 10 years, while the market price for bandwidth has dropped by 90 per cent. He estimated that the cost to install a submarine cable is about $50,000 per kilometre. “We are well past the days of speculative cable building,” he said, adding that Digicel has a history of stepping up to meet infrastructure needs if no one else is willing or able to do it (such as in Haiti).
In early December, news broke that a consortium (including LIME’s parent company Cable & Wireless Communications) is building a submarine cable system running 6,000 kilometres from Florida to Ecuador, with landing stations in the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Aruba, Curacao, Colombia and Panama.
Locally, the single largest project is WestStar TV’s installation of an optical fibre network. LIME general manager Anthony Ritch said the increased competition should mean lower prices for customers.
Ritch said it’s an ongoing challenge to improve Cayman’s level of service as quickly as companies are able to do in the US, which has about 311.5 million people. He said it seems that just as they had turned the last screw on Cayman’s HSPA+ mobile network, when people started asking about LTE technology.
Finite budgets aren’t just a Caymanian or Caribbean problem. The United Kingdom put together its National Infrastructure Plan 2011, identifying and prioritising hundreds of infrastructure projects across the nation, and outlining how to fund those needs. The plan places an emphasis on public-private partnerships between government and companies in order to realise major projects.
That strategy is also being pursued in Cayman, through the For Cayman Investment Alliance between government and the Dart Group. While the UK’s Framework for Fiscal Responsibility sets guidelines on government spending and borrowing, Gov. Duncan Taylor has said the fiscal framework agreement would not necessarily hold up the Dart-government plans.
That’s because UK officials tend to view the plan as being different from a traditional “procurement process”, since Dart and government are considering swapping assets each now controls.
The ForCayman negotiations include closing the George Town landfill, opening a new waste management facility in Bodden Town, closing a section of West Bay Road and extending the Esterley Tibbetts Highway to West Bay. Although the overall agreement isn’t yet finalised, the roads portion of it has been signed, and work on the roads is rapidly nearing completion.
The unsightly and environmentally hazardous George Town dump has been a source of consternation for years. While other proposals have been explored, including expanding the current site and/or introducing a waste-to-energy system, those have been deemed as being far too expensive compared to closing the site and starting a new landfill elsewhere.