THE idea of engaging a country's Diaspora is not a new one; indeed, from my little more than casual research on the issue, the nexus between the Diaspora and development is one that is garnering increasing attention across the world. Serbia, for example, actually has a
Ministry of the Diaspora.
The most obviously identifiable area is, of course, that of money, resources from the Diaspora pouring into the local economy. The importance of remittances to the financial well-being of many Guyanese cannot be overstated. Remittances sent to Guyana through formal channels, according to World Bank statistics, amounted to around US$200 million ($40 billion Guyana dollars) in 2006, a roughly seven-fold increase from the 2000 figure of US$27 million. This figure represents the money documented through bank transfers and remittance services, but doesn't, of course, cover cash physically brought into the country. It is hard to say exactly what all this money is being used for, but the assumption that it is not being used for strategic investment may be a safe one.
A 2007 paper, ‘The Development Impact Of Remittances On Caribbean Economies: The Case Of Guyana’, written by senior economist at the Bank of Guyana, Ms Debra Roberts cites an unidentified survey which shows food and clothing as accounting for almost half of remittance spending; education and real estate represent roughly one third; and the remainder, a collective 22 per cent, being dedicated to business investment (8) and savings (14).
"It is necessary," writes Ms Roberts, "for the country to have a Remittances and Diaspora Unit in Guyana, as is done in many Latin American and some Caribbean countries. This unit should be responsible for engaging the Diaspora in discussions and viable development reform strategy, along with monitoring trends in migration and remigrants activities."
Whatever the method, it is clear that we need a way to transform the mode of remittances from the Diaspora from one of subsistence to one of a conscious, strategic investment.
|‘Whatever the method, it is clear that we need a way to transform the mode of remittances from the Diaspora from one of subsistence to one of a conscious, strategic investment’
The second area in which the Diaspora could be engaged is the area of skills. With Guyana in receipt of generous amounts of donor funding in several areas of development – health, security, public infrastructure for example – a fair portion of these sums are either repatriated to the donor countries themselves or spent on expatriates who provide skills which do not currently exist in Guyana.
It is an undeniable fact that the bulk of Guyana's university graduates migrate to countries where they can receive the sort of employment and remuneration commensurate with their qualifications. It may also be true that the level of specialisation required for many donor funded projects do not currently exist within the local pool of skills. But if you consider the fact that a tremendous amount of Guyanese talent exists outside of Guyana in virtually every area imaginable, then there is no reason why there cannot be a greater engagement of that talent to address our local developmental needs. The question may be asked about the intrinsic value of this sort of nationalistic affirmative action in this area. Does, for example, a Guyanese consultant perform better than his counterpart from another country simply by virtue of being Guyanese? While there may be a way to compare per se, for me the probability – and we can assume that probability still has some place in policy formulation – that factors like an inherent sympathy, a good understanding of country context, family ties and plain patriotism will highly likely influence not only job commitment and performance, but also the possibility of a continuous engagement over the long term.
What we do not have on hand is a readily available database of skilled persons in the Diaspora who can be called upon to give their services to their country. I believe that the technology is available now that such a database can be developed, probably even within the operational framework of Ms Roberts's recommended Remittances and Diaspora Unit.
The final area in which the Diaspora can be helpful is that of the strategic influencing of policy in resident countries – not alone, but within the context of the larger Caribbean Community. The necessity for and potential of a serious policy lobby in Washington, and even Brussels, has been a perennial cry of regional policy analysts like David Jessop and Sir Ronald Saunders, himself a Guyanese. Outside of the normal diplomatic channels, Guyana can spearhead – as it has done many other initiatives within the context of CARICOM – a broad-based CARICOM Diaspora Initiative which would seek out (possibly with the use of the skills database proposed earlier in this column), consolidate, and re-engage with the Diaspora to address strategic interests in areas ranging from security to investment.
Finally, with an issue of this nature, there is only so much a weekly column can address. That said, I hope I've stimulated enough thought to warrant further discussion. Perhaps a few months down the road, we can see the establishment of a think thank dedicated to engaging the Guyanese Diaspora in as comprehensive a manner as possible, from mechanisms to ease their [re-]entry into local society to the establishment of overseas lobbying groups. Whatever the outcome, for me, this is an issue whose time has definitely come.
(First published in August 2008)