It is fascinating if only academic to consider what this country would
have been like if half of the estimated half a million Guyanese living
mainly in North America, the UK and the Caribbean had remained in this
country. For this purpose let us ignore the natural growth that would have
resulted from their children and succeeding generation of Guyanese. Such
speculation is likely to meet with two separate but related responses: first
what would these people be doing given the complete lack of growth and jobs
in the economy, and second whether migration has not provided a critical
safety valve for the country and a stream of remittances for those they have
Let us not forget that when Guyana attained Independence it was one of
the most developed countries in the Caribbean and at about the same level of
development as Singapore. Had we been blessed with the galaxy of talent,
skills, human power and capital that is now available to other countries,
the country would certainly have been more advanced, there would have been
more purchasing power in the economy, more jobs, taxes, etc. Just perhaps,
that would have been the realisation of the perennially elusive El Dorado.
Indeed, Guyana could have had the reverse problem of trying to keep
foreigners out rather than keeping Guyanese at home. We might have had to
import agricultural workers and others to do the low-paying work that
better-off Guyanese simply would not do. Alas, that was not to be and Guyana
continues to export its most precious asset for which it receives only
Once a Guyanese,
always a Guyanese
But that does not mean that these people are completely lost to Guyana.
There remain strong emotional bonds between the Guyanese diaspora and their
homeland - how many times do we not hear the refrain 'once a Guyanese,
always a Guyanese,' and the conviction expressed that Guyana is still one of
the best countries in the world! Yet, the conditions which caused many
Guyanese to leave in the first place have continued forty years after
Independence, and emotionalism notwithstanding, the chances of any
significant numbers returning to take up residence are slim indeed.
How then can we make use, if at all, of the brain power and financial
resources which the overseas Guyanese have accumulated in the fifty years or
so since they have been migrating to foreign shores? Can they make a
contribution beyond remittances, and why have we been so slow to tap into
this vast potential?
The second question can be answered first, and that is like so many
things we have not recognised and therefore are unable to exploit the
considerable potential of the diaspora. And in dealing with the first we may
want to consider the term 'beyond remittances,' which comes from a paper
Beyond Remittances: The Role of Diaspora in Poverty Reduction in their
Countries of Origin, a 2004 study done by the Washington-based Migration
Policy Institute for the Department of International Development.
Failure of government,
It is not that the remittances have not proved extremely important both
at the individual and national levels. Remittances generally flow to the
poorer segments of society, contributing to poverty reduction, helping to
pay for such basic needs as housing, food, school supplies and health care.
There has not been any serious attempt to measure the extent and value of
the remittances, the quantum of which is a mere balancing figure in the
country's balance of payments.
Perhaps this reflects a reluctance to confront what is a clear indicator
of the failure of governments and the economy to provide the poor with their
basic needs. Accordingly, any analysis can at best be only informed
speculation and is better avoided.
The overall benefits at the national level are however not in dispute;
they impact favourably on the exchange rate of the Guyana dollar and since
remittances are often sent, they have a strong multiplier effect.
Perhaps this kind of data collection and analysis is what the otherwise
invisible Poverty Reduction Unit should be doing as it plans once again to
produce the annual Poverty Reduction Progress Report which appears to have
little practical use locally.
How can Guyana tap into the vast resources of the diaspora involving some
of the most talented and best-placed individuals who could easily find a
place in the world's Who's Who? Many of these of course continue to try
while others might have become frustrated often at the coldness with which
they are viewed, and not infrequently with outright hostility and jealousy.
Different countries have adopted different strategies reflecting their
own domestic circumstances and needs rather than the potential contribution
of the diaspora.
Tapping into the power of the diaspora is not a poor country syndrome as
newly emerging superpowers India and China and Taiwan, one of the Asian
Tigers, have shown. Despite being a member of the North American Free Trade
Area, Mexico too actively pursues strategies to attract its diaspora
including the armies of illegal emigrants to the United States of America.
In fact, Mexican President Vicente Fox describes the Mexicans in the
diaspora as "heroes."
China's policy recognises the entrepreneurial flair of the Chinese
whereby they have access to substantial capital, and focuses mainly on
attracting investments, while India seeks a more diverse package including
measures to remove some of the ambivalence to overseas Indians.
Legislation now provides for dual citizenship to persons of Indian
origin, issuing of bonds with special tax breaks to its diaspora,
facilitating overseas investments and networking with overseas-based Indian
The Philippine government woos its diaspora by exchange-rate policies and
allowing overseas voting, as does Eritrea which also collects a 2% tax from
the members of its diaspora. It should be evident that there is no template
for diaspora engagement, not size, economic development, ethnic composition,
demographic make-up or historical origin. It also takes many forms. The
floods of 2005 showed how this could be triggered by a natural disaster,
while there is also inward investment and contributing to the dialogue for
peace and development, as we see from the letter columns of our daily
newspapers, and sadly the financing of conflicts and the emphasising of
Contributing to the debate or the battle:
With our fifty years of political conflict and ethnic tensions, we may
find lessons from Kosovo and Rwanda particularly relevant in having our
diaspora play a role in resolving some of the more contentious issues which
have stymied our development. We need to make better use of the prominent
Guyanese letter-writers such as David Hinds, Clarence Ellis, Abu Bakr, GHK
Lall and, one of the more recent members of the diaspora, Eusi Kwayana.
At the same time we need to recognise that the efforts of members of
diaspora communities are not necessarily and invariably of an economic or
peaceful nature. Just consider the impact of the financial and other support
given by their respective diasporas to the IRA of Northern Ireland, the
Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and the armed struggle for independence by
Eritrea. One of the realities of the Guyanese diaspora is that many members
brought with them baggage of hatred, and seem incapable of finding room for
compromise or reflection - emotions which politicians from the homeland are
only too eager to fuel as they make their case for funds 'to carry on the
struggle back home.'
What about a conference bringing together some of the leading
personalities in the Guyanese diaspora to act as honest brokers now, rather
than having to make desperate calls to Caricom and other groups when we are
on the brink? After fifty years what Guyana needs more than anything else is
the removal of the causes of tension, a return to the rule of law, good
government and governance and for Guyanese to cease being
emigrants-in-waiting. If the diaspora could contribute to this first but
important step, they are likely not only to be willing ambassadors promoting
Guyana as a destination for investments into the country by others but as
re-migrants with the skills and the capital to make a real contribution to
Wishful thinking, again :
Is this itself wishful thinking? After all, those best placed to bring
about change have shown only opportunistic interest in the diaspora. The
primary interest shown by our domestic politicians in Guyanese in the
diaspora is in fund-raising for partisan political objectives with no
consideration of the national interest. They encourage our diaspora to be no
more than a reflection of the tribal politics back home with this political
group here and that political group there. With the centralisation of power
and the heavy hand of the state in every aspect of public life in Guyana,
town associations or professional groups - other forms of diaspora
assistance - seem almost non-existent. The examples and successes of other
countries and indeed alumni groups of the leading schools are certainly
worthy of emulation.
And what do we offer the diaspora in return? With the memories of the
abuse of overseas voting still fresh, there will be no right to vote, even
for those who have substantial assets and who continue to regard Guyana as
home. And past experience suggests that those who 'stayed at home and
endured the hardship' will not be favourably disposed to the thought of
offering any concession to the member of the diaspora whom the country so
Guyana cannot continue its existing non-policy towards its diaspora. The
Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have a mandate to engage and attract the
diaspora, not as a concerned group or as some branch of a political party
but as Guyanese who by whatever circumstances are non-resident. Ideally,
every high commission and embassy should prepare a register of such persons
with particulars of their skills and interest and try to enlist them in
But let us not appeal merely to raw nationalism or do this in an
autocratic manner. Let us, as the Jamaicans have just done, convene a
conference involving the members of the diaspora. Hopefully enlisting the
contribution of the diaspora is one issue on which our politicians can all
agree. The longer we take to exploit the potential of that group, the more
will 'out of sight, out of mind,' take hold.