Business Page  The Diaspora: More than remittance or campaign financing

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

      

Introduction:

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 left behind.

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 minimal return.

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,

economy

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.

No template:

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 businesses.

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 differences.

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 the country.

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 badly needs.

Conclusion:

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 nation-building.

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.