The diaspora
Stabroek News
December 30, 2003

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In an address at a symposium sponsored by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies in September 2002 Dr Mark Figueroa, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics, University of the west Indies, Mona, Jamaica, put forward some interesting ideas on the Caribbean diaspora.

Dr Figueroa started by questioning the attitude to the diaspora by many radical Caribbean nationalists of "regret, suspicion or even open hostility." "Not all groups of migrants", he said, "maintain their close ties with the Caribbean, with some playing a much more significant role in the creation of a diaspora. Yet these nuances cannot justify the failure to include the Caribbean diaspora as part of our imagined community, or more relevant to the current discussion within an effective economic development strategy for the region." In other words the diaspora, or at least those who have not "turned their backs on the Caribbean, to one degree or another" should be treated as part of the "diaspora platforms for Caribbean development."

Dr Figueroa notes that officially recorded private remittances back home by Jamaicans overseas in 2001 were US$809.4 million, higher than the value of exports of bauxite and alumina (US$736.4 m). He suggested that if receipts from unrecorded private transfers in cash and kind were included remittances might be comparable with total visitor expenditure for the year projected at US$1234.5m (tourism is Jamaica's biggest official foreign exchange earner) and may well have a greater impact on the economy than tourism. Some of these remittances, he accepts, may be due to the participation of Jamaicans in the illegal drug trade abroad. But given the importance of these remittances to the economy Dr Figueroa raises the interesting possibilities of a Ministry of Migration or a Ministry of the Diaspora and deplores the absence of "any well articulated perspective as to how these remittances might be sustained."

There follows an interesting passage which will ring many bells in Guyana and indeed throughout the region: "We know that the majority of persons trained in certain sectors will eventually leave the country but we do not know over what time or if this eventually brings a net financial benefit to the country.

"The Jamaican Government spends considerable sums on the training of professionals such as teachers and nurses but we do not know the extent to which the country might be receiving a different rate of return on investment in one profession as against another. (That is, if we take the Government's educational expenditure as an investment in human capital, which pays returns in remittances and subsequent repatriation of savings and retirement incomes). What we do know for sure is that in the short run our people are going to migrate. What we have not looked at strategically is the optimal professional profile that they should leave with if they are to remit funds to the Caribbean and indeed return eventually whether during their working lives or after they have retired."

Dr Figueroa suggests that an effort should be made to understand the dynamics of migration and remigration and that bureaucratic structures should be developed to facilitate these processes and "tailor our educational, financial and communication system to meet the needs of that segment of our population that is going to be on the move." He notes that returning residents living in Jamaica received nearly 60 million pounds in retirement pensions, widows' and other benefits from the British Department of Social Security in 1999.

These are exciting ideas. As Dr Figueroa notes, the inclusion of the diaspora expands the way in which we imagine the Caribbean. He also suggests much more can be done to involve those who visit the Caribbean in local foods and other cultural products and talks of franchising famous Jamaican dishes overseas building on the diaspora but spreading to other consumers.

It is time we rethought our attitude to the hundreds of thousands of Guyanese living overseas, many of whom retain a keen interest in their native land with all its trials and tribulations and some of whom play an active role in our letter columns. Many were among our best and brightest, who emigrated for a wide variety of reasons ranging from the decline of the educational system, to disgust at the unsettled politics to limited economic opportunities. Quite a few can still play an important role in the development of this country and should, as an act of official policy, hopefully supported by all the political parties, be encouraged to do so, not in the half-hearted, opportunistic manner it was done in before. There are perhaps as many Guyanese now overseas as there are in Guyana. Many are highly skilled and experienced. With careful planning, perhaps some new legislation and the right approach much fuller use could be made of their goodwill and talents, both overseas and here.

Dr Figueroa has opened up a potentially fertile field which begs for more detailed examination. A Ministry of the Diaspora with a clearly defined portfolio to explore the various possibilities would be an interesting start.