Thinking diaspora

Please excuse me if I am somewhat jaded by all the talk and little action surrounding diaspora involvement. Vocal elements in the diaspora bemoaned their exclusion from and disappointment with the pace of promised change (SN: 01/10/2016); government ministers were promising a diaspora policy (07/01/2017); the University of Guyana has just held a conference with the theme ‘dreaming and doing diaspora engagement’; some have accused the government of attempting to divide and rule the diaspora community (SN: 12/05/2017), and so on. Also contributing to my wariness is an awareness that courting the diaspora, particularly at election time, has been a feature on the agenda of all the contesting parties who do little when they come to government.

The first diaspora conference of which I can remember was organised by Forbes Burnham at the Kuru Kuru Cooperative College in about 1976. In those days, even if some of them were found to live in abandoned railway stations and other odd places in the UK, the diaspora was allowed the vote and so it was a very important element in the PNC elections manipulation strategy.  This conference was only a couple of years after the very disruptive 1974 ‘Declaration of Sophia’, in which Burnham announced that ‘It was also decided that the party should assume unapologetically its paramountcy over the government which is merely one of its executive arms’ and that ‘the Co-operative will be the principal institution for giving the masses the control of our economy, … and will be the mechanism for making the little man a real man.’

This ideological departure was being widely criticised and Prime Minister Burnham and his deputy, Dr. Ptolemy Reid, wanted to provide unfiltered information to all those, regardless of political affiliation, who returned to Guyana that August.  Newspaper and radio advertisements announced the conference and free transportation was provided at strategic locations across the country. The conference was very well attended, but needless to say, the vast majority of those who were addressed and feted by Burnham and Dr. Reid were PNC supporters, and this divisiveness remains a feature of the Guyanese diaspora.

The effort by the PNC to keep in touch with the diaspora, if not particularly substantial, was many-sided and persistent, and under the Economic Recovery Programme, Desmond Hoyte revived an early 1970s party policy of employing skilled members of the Guyanese diaspora. Of course, as he was doing so, opposition forces, with the PPP in the forefront, were making significant use of the lobbying capacity of their diaspora supporters to influence Washington to aid them in their effort to remove the PNC from government, and success came in 1992. As I have argued elsewhere, sufficient effort was not made by the PPP/C to harness the enthusiasm generated by its taking office in 1992 or thereafter (The Diaspora has a significant role in nation building. SN: 28/09/2011).

Generally, the diaspora, who were in the past considered traitors by some for deserting their homeland, are now viewed as heroes, and this is not surprising given their contribution to personal and national wealth. According to the World Bank, in 2016, the Guyana diaspora contributed 8.6% or about US$300 million to the GDP. Of course, some 93% of tertiary educated Guyanese emigrate, and what the cost benefit of such an exchange is has yet to be established. However, this contribution, coupled with the revolution in communications means that diaspora engagement is now far more flexible, and few countries now put the emphasis on their citizens returning home. They now ‘reach out to their populations abroad in an additional number of ways, through institutional change, philanthropy, tourism, knowledge networks, capital funds, etc.’ (A comparative analysis of diaspora policies.  Political Geography, July, 2014).

This government did receive sizable support from the diaspora during the last election campaign, and now many feel that the latter has not been given the level of attention its contribution deserves (Diaspora members disappointed by manner in which Guyana government is treating them. SN: 01/10/2016). I believe that this can be largely explained by the fact that, for the most part, the diaspora is only a reflection of a Guyanese society in which electoral alliances, in terms of votes and/or material support, are more or less quite safe and thus our politicians will treat the diaspora no more respectfully than its local compatriots.

Indeed, this way of considering the issue raises the question about the possibility of having a successful diaspora policy in such a divisive environment where, in my view, national pride is relatively weak. Jamaica’s diaspora intervention is usually touted as a regional bench-mark of success and Jamaicans are arguably the most nationalistic of Caribbean peoples. What is the causal relationship here and what does it mean for Guyana? This is not to deny the need for a diaspora policy, but these kinds of considerations will certainly help to define our expectations and even more importantly, suggests that the regime should avoid contributing to discord if it is to optimize its interventions.

In the run-up to the 2011 election, the AFC, now a partner in the government, was all over the diaspora and its Action Plan was quite effusive in its comments, some of which are still quite relevant as the basis for a reasonable diaspora plan. The Action Plan promised to: ‘Conduct a global survey in the diaspora to determine their skills, talent and investment potential and their requirements for investing in Guyana; provide a healthy investment climate for the diaspora by addressing crime, taxes, corruption, health, government support and social infrastructure; promote diasporal representation in the National Assembly and explore the reintroduction of diasporal voting at general elections; develop the diaspora exchange programme which would entail importing skilled members of the Diaspora on a contractual basis to transfer knowledge and talent to the local population. … pay competitive salaries to Guyanese scientists, researchers, teachers, professors, engineers, doctors and other professionals who are willing to return; … establish a true one-stop investment agency that will proactively identify investment projects and seek out potential investors in the diaspora; … make re-migration more attractive; set aside land for the development of retirement neighbourhoods at competitive price.’

Some of these promises are clearly unrealistic – ‘The AFC will pay competitive salaries to Guyanese scientists, researchers’ etc. – and now that the AFC is in coalition with the PNC, others are utopian – the promise to ‘explore the reintroduction of diasporal voting at general elections’ is most likely to remain at the stage of exploration, but we shall see. Nonetheless, reflecting upon these promises makes obvious the point that nearly half way through the term of the coalition government, even with a president who claims to love and respect the diaspora, not much has been accomplished to realise the ambitions and expectations raised by the regime and its constituent parts.

This administration usually makes much about its drafting or having policies in various areas, and it is doing so here again. Among other things, to effectively drive change one cannot keep one’s policy directions secretly locked in one’s head, and it is, therefore, good that the government is committed to providing such guidelines. However, a policy that is not effectively implemented is a waste of paper and one need not wait for a policy document to begin to make significant practical interventions.  henryjeffrey@yahoo.com

 

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