COJO wants Government to treat foreign donors better

BY PENDA HONEYGHAN Observer writer

Sunday, September 13, 2015

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THREE executives, including the chairman and founder of Children of Jamaica Outreach Inc (COJO), a New York-based non-profit organisation, Gary Williams, are calling on the Government to revise and implement new policies to provide waivers which cover all goods imported for charitable purposes.

"The Government needs to do more to encourage members of the Diaspora to assist the needy children in Jamaica," Williams said in his address at the fifth annual staging of COJO's scholarship award ceremony for outgoing wards of the State who have excelled and will be continuing studies, held at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel in New Kingston last Thursday.

"Even though over the years the CDA (Child Development Agency) has helped us with administrative cost and other taxes to gain clearance for goods being brought into the island for the kids; it should not be so. The money that the CDA is using to cover these taxes could be used to carry out other functions to care for the kids. They shouldn't need to pay for us to help," Williams lamented.

Drawing reference to the United States, Williams said that once donors and charities can produce documentation to support their charities, all goods bought and require clearance are given duty-free status.

However, in the Jamaican context where this is absent it can be very discouraging to philanthropists, because even though their hearts are in the right place, not everyone is willing to endure the challenges they may face at the various ports of entry when it is time to retrieve items shipped or carried.

Williams said had it not been for the close relationship COJO shares with the CDA, as well their commitment to underserved youth -- specifically wards of the State -- they would have thrown in the towel long ago. "It's discouraging, when you have to pay to help. How can the children be the future when you are discouraging the very people who want to help them; when we are not making the channel to their education any easier?" He questioned

Every year, during the month of May, missionaries travel to Jamaica to provide assistance to houses of safety. According to COJO executive and manager of Transcontinental Express Shippers, Robert DeSouza, who has provided free shipping to the organisation since their partnership three years ago COJO communicates with the CDA and gets information on the most-needed resources each year, they in turn provide items, such as home appliances, school supplies, clothes and shoes.

But Linden Taylor, communications director at COJO, said that regardless of the continuous efforts to assist these needy children every year, Jamaica continues to send a message of scant regard for the work being done by non-profit organisations.

"The message we get is that Jamaica does not have the interest of the underserved population at heart. We are not a charitable nation. We are asked to pay so much every year when all we want to do is share with children who are wards of the State. CDA shouldn't have to pay," he said.

Taylor added: "We implore the Government to provide tax exemption not only for use at the ports of entry, [but also] for the purpose of making purchases for the children while we are in the island as well."

These COJO executives are not the only philanthropists who are appealing to the Government to make changes, lest they run the risk of scaring off potential donors.

Last month, a Jamaican living abroad -- Douglas Johnson -- claimed he was asked to pay just over $7, 000 in taxes and duties, even after presenting waiver documents granted by the Ministry of Finance for school supplies he pledged to his alma mater. This, Douglas claims, was the reduced rate from the initial ask of $57,300, a figure customs says was incorrectly attached to the cost of an item that Douglas was carrying, after a few hours of no discussion between him and a customs supervisor.

Douglas engaged a Facebook audience to express his displeasure at the way that Jamaica Customs treat people giving back to the nation's children. He said that at one point the exchange between the supervisor and himself became "painful", that he was ready to leave the goods at the airport and return to America on the first available flight.

"I had enough, and standing there I made up my mind to just leave the goods if I needed to pay more after having invested US$ $1,200 to procure the school material, which was issued to over 100 students and staff members at the Brownsville Primary School in Hanover.

Douglas said that volunteerism, especially bringing goods into the island, is a sore point for him and for many others who shared similar ordeals with him. "I love giving back. I want to assist the children... I want to see them learn but I cannot understand the unconscionable actions of the Jamaica Customs Department. I am certain that I'm not the only one who now worries about bringing items into the island for charity," Douglas lamented.

He too pleaded with Government to make radical changes which allows Jamaicans in the Diaspora as well as other philanthropists with a genuine interest in contributing to nation building by way of charity, a greater freedom and support from the Ministry of Finance and by extension the department of customs when they decide to do so.

While COJO may have endured the challenges associated with retrieving imported goods at one of the country's port of entry for 21 years while CDA foots the bill, Douglas has decided to look past an experience he has described as horrific and unprofessionally handled because of his love for giving back others may not be so forgiving.

Senator Norman Grant, who was also in attendance at the handing over ceremony where four Jamaican outgoing wards of the State received scholarships valued at US$5,000 each, promised to bring the concerns of COJO back to Parliament.

Every year COJO invests approximately US$35,000 in the outreach project.

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