Congratulations are indeed in order…Fortis! Fortis! Fortis! I am also still celebrating from the winnings of last week’s special event in Portland and so I did not hesitate to represent my fellow colleague Minister Holness here this afternoon as I like to identify with the winning team at all times.
Better still, I like the celebrations that follow and therefore, I have no intention of keeping you longer than is absolutely necessary to get back to champs to continue the winning streak.
The story of Kingston College need not be repeated here but the very the foundation principles that fuel your tradition of excellence in both academia and sports make for inspiring and interesting stories for our society today…Last night’s performance by the Schools’ Challenge quiz team only serves to confirm this.
This occasion is therefore ripe for me to seize the moment to highlight some efforts of the Government towards a culture of good governance, capacity building in our public institutions including our schools as well as demonstrating care for the less fortunate among us while we seek to engender a kinder and gentler society for our children and generations to come.
These values I will bear out in two (2) main Programmes of Government which are lessons of life that I hope will impact your sense of philanthropy and generosity. They are:
Local Government Reform in our Local Authorities and the Indigent Housing Programme Initiative
Kingston College did not get to where it is today as one of the top achieving high schools in Jamaica without the vision, hard work and tenacity of pioneers such as Father Gibbs and the bastion of support from your alumni association.
You are beneficiaries of a product – a good product – and it is heartening to know that you have coalesced around the value of giving. You saw a need to reach out and care for and preserve the legacy of that great institution in order to help sustain this institution and the products which are the students. The lessons learnt in the classrooms certainly weren’t confined to the classrooms at North Street.
You have inculcated the values taught and turn them into life’s lessons even beyond the shores of Jamaica.
Ladies and gentlemen, Kingston College Old Boys Association with Chapters, in New York, Florida and Atlanta has been a key contributor to the remittance inflows into the island. Dr. Fraser reminded me that every cent that you get through fundraising efforts and dues are sent back to assist the institution.
It is this deep level of caring that I want to elicit from you towards a fledgling initiative but worthy venture of this government. It is the Indigent Housing Programme. It is a programme in which I am seeking to have both voluntary and monetary support towards rehabilitating a registered poor or government-declared indigent’s house in any parish across the island.
My friends we are winners and I am sure you want to continue the winning streak in almost every sphere of life that you can. This is one area that greatly needs your support in cash or kind.
I am often reminded that most of us are only a pay cheque away from poverty and this statement is even more poignant today in light of the severe economic crisis that we are faced with. My friends can you imagine the situation of our registered poor at this time?
Not every business executive would jostle to get the opportunity to invest in people who will never be able to show any return on the investment, to put it bluntly. You have come because you are different. If you believe this is just insincere flattery, just think with me. Of all the causes which are supported by philanthropic activities, how many involve the elderly? And further, how many involve the absolutely destitute, the indigent, and the abandoned elderly? How many involve people way into the sunset of their lives?
We knew that while it is politically correct to pay lip service to the elderly, the bald fact is that the elderly, particularly the elderly poor, are not a priority.
I certainly understand why, in the context of limited and carefully rationed resources, our children would naturally assume priority. Our children are, indeed, our future and we must invest in them and we must ensure that they be given every opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.
Corporate giving to children’s projects and child development is certainly laudable. May it continue and grow.
I understand, especially in the context of our serious and stubborn social problems, why we must invest in our youth and why corporate Jamaica must support youth projects and youth empowerment. Indeed, this is not just ennobling; it is pragmatic and represents enlightened self-interest for if we don’t invest in our youth, their energies will be turned against us. I applaud corporate Jamaica for the increasing levels of philanthropy which have been going to our youth. Schools’ challenge is a major beneficiary of corporate Jamaica and I am not knocking it.
Our women, for so long neglected and marginalised, deserve every bit of support which they receive from corporate Jamaica. We don’t have enough projects and programmes to help empower our women, especially our young women. It is the women who share the heaviest responsibility for our children and young people, as a large proportion of our homes are female-headed. We need more, not fewer, project dollars from the private sector for our women1
Corporate contributions to sports and cultural activities; to museums, to the arts in general is critically important. I am happy that our physically challenged community is getting more help from corporate Jamaica and is finally coming in from the cold. Corporate projects in health, education, culture are all to be saluted and encouraged. Let me add my cheers.
But ladies and gentlemen, I have had a particular burden on my heart for a certain segment of the society; a segment that does not have many public advocates. Their finest and most eloquent advocate is here with us today. I refer to of Dr. Denise Eldemire Shearer, a tireless champion on behalf of our elderly.
I have had a burden for this group which is truly voiceless and who seem to be at the bottom of everybody’s list. And I tell you that while I have been exposed to the plight of this segment of our society, I have never been so gripped by a sense of urgency about their condition as I have been since assuming this portfolio.
As have travelled around the country and visited with this segment of our population -our elderly, indigent and wretched poor – my heartstrings have been tugged very deeply and my tear ducts squeezed as I have seen their conditions. I have never been the same. I have not been able to shake off a sense of obligation to this group; indeed a sense of calling to cry aloud and to be a voice in the wilderness.
I was so struck by their plight and by our collective abandonment of them that I was led to launch a national appeal in my sectoral presentation in Parliament in June this year. I called for a $50 million assistance package to be developed for or indigent poor and I called on our citizens and our parliamentarians to partner with us in the Ministry of Local Government to make the last months and years their lives livable. I use my words advisedly. Note I said livable. I did not say enjoyable or pleasurable. Just livable.
Ladies and gentlemen, if I were to take you to some parts of this country – not some parts of Africa or Asia, but right here in Jamaica; if I were to take you to places not far from here and you see the conditions in which our old men and women have to exist, you would be appalled. You would be utterly shocked to tears, if you are not a sentimental person. Once you are a person with a heart, even if it’s not large.
Jamaica has fifteen homes for the indigent poor called, infirmaries. Together they care for 1,500 residents. But in addition to that number there are thousands of other indigent poor, called the outdoor poor, who live in their own homes; if we could rightly call those ramshackle pieces of board under which they hide from the sun and rain, homes.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, when you look at the conditions under which these thousands of elderly and destitute Jamaicans are living, you would be ashamed that we call ourselves a civilised society and allow people to subsist in those deplorable conditions.
You can wash your hands like Pilate and say it’s the responsibility of Government to look after these persons. And I agree that the state is primarily responsible for its most vulnerable citizens. So one could take the position that, hey “That’s Government’s job. Let them use the taxes I am already paying look after the indigent”.
But the same argument could be used for all the projects which you do support. The fact is that, fortunately, social consciousness has gone way beyond that narrow, jaundiced view. Everybody recognises that the state will never be able to do all that it ought to do for its citizens. Even in the most developed societies, there is still a place for corporate voluntary activities. Indeed, it is in these developed societies that philanthropy is most established and where corporate giving has become an integral part of corporate strategic planning.
I am imploring you today to spread your wings, and incorporate into your projects of philanthropy support, the Indigent Housing Initiative for as the Good Book says “for it is in giving that we receive.”
I promised that I will not keep you for long so I will quickly to turn to my main portfolio responsibility: that of Local Government Reform. For those of you who would have migrated long before 1993 or thereabout that is the time when Jamaica began to seriously look at reforming the Parish Councils, and the KSAC with a view to improving the quality of service we deliver to our citizens and to incorporate the voice of our communities into the decision-making process.
We have produced several Ministry Papers and our most notable work in this area has been an island-wide consultation held with communities and stakeholders to garner feedback on how they think the councils can best serve their needs. The result of that consultation was the National Advisory Council Report of 2006 in which these views were captured and was to later form the basis for a Joint Select Committee of Parliament on local government reform.
Let me fast -track and bring you up-to-date on where we are today.
This Government took the decision to abolish a Ministry of Local Government and for the first time give it “prime ministerial” attention by putting the portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister. That’s how serious we are about the reform process.
Currently, we are in the most decisive phase of the reform process:
We are moving to have some critical pieces of legislation reviewed and amended to improve tax compliance and revenue improvement – our aim here is to roll more than 72 pieces of legislation into three distinct laws governing the parish councils and the KSAC, the include the Finance act, the Human resource legislation and legislation that speaks to the governance structure and other issues of Councils. We have just completed consultation on the bye-laws with respective stakeholders
Entrenchment of local government in the Jamaican Constitution is also being addressed
We have revived the participatory mechanisms across the island through what we call- Parish Development Committees which are comprised of civil society charged with the responsibility of operating at the community level as a partners with Council
Local Public Accounts committees are also being established to improve the level of transparency and accountability in councils
We have intensified capacity building in the Councils through ongoing and targeted training for all levels of staff including our Mayors and Secretary/Managers we believe institutional strengthening of the physical layout is good but the employees are a necessary factor in the equation
Councils have been mandated to conduct ‘business unusual’ in serving their constituents as well as in finding their own sources of revenue.
Local Authorities/Parish Councils are in the process of producing citizens’ charters stating their commitment to providing quality service to the citizenry
A Councilors Handbook has been revised to aid councilors in better understanding their roles and functions and how to conduct Council meetings
We have since trained in conjunction with the Jamaica Constabulary Force six (6) cohorts of graduates under the Municipal Police Programme this is with a view to strengthening enforcement and improving compliance
Ladies and gentlemen these are some of the initiatives we have embarked on and I have no intention of overstaying my welcome or being a spoil sport but I would entreat you to help our indigent and participate as best you can in the consultations on the local government reform process your views are important to us whether you are living here or abroad. Your input can make the difference in shaping whether the government’s policies and programmes are meeting the needs of our people.
Thank you and God bless you all!