Comment…The diaspora dynamic

President David Granger meeting Guyanese in London

These days, much more than during any other period in our post-independence history, there is, with good reason, a deliberate focus on the role which Guyanese in the diaspora can play in the country’s   development. It is not as if this issue has not ever arisen before, but it had always seemed to be part of a standard diet of political jargon about the role of Guyanese in the diaspora which had its origins in rhetoric rather than realism.  Frankly, no government had ever created a well thought out administrative infrastructure designed to actively encourage and  facilitate re-migrants, so that those who returned home came because they had lived out their younger years somewhere in North America or Europe and had done sufficiently materially well (or not done well, as the case may be) to be able live the rest of their lives in better than bearable circumstances in Guyana.

We had always sold re-migration as a product of nostalgia. The problem was that among Guyanese abroad nostalgia, while it endures, has more or less been superseded by the practical realities of what they loosely

President David Granger meeting Guyanese in London

called a better life.     In the first place, migration, for the vast majority of Guyanese who have left these shores, have been for “betterment” and “betterment” was a broad concept that meant better education, better jobs, better pay and a better standard of living. The political dynamics and the socio-economic travails of the years that begun with the decade of the 1960’s impacted significantly on the outward movement of thousands of Guyanese. “Betterment” meant different things to different people.

Many of the migrants of the 1950’s and 1960’s simply put Guyana behind them. They uprooted themselves, lock, stock and barrel, took what they had and left. True, they would have maintained some ties with old friends and relatives though, on the whole, their preoccupation, wherever they ended up, was with assimilation.  The subsequent waves of migrants might have left Guyana for some of the same reasons (most of them being economic ones) though the difference was, in many instances, that large parts of families were left behind. Those who left had left mostly for economic reasons and the understanding was that what they earned was to be used, in part, to help support ‘the family back home.’ That was the understanding that spawned the ‘barrel’ phenomenon and gave rise to the culture of remittances.

Remigration is not an all-embracing phenomenon. Remigrants are divided amongst those who simply want to live out the remainder of their lives here, those who are imbued with a combination of patriotism and skills and have some desire to ‘give back’ and those who seek to exploit one economic opportunity or another ‘back home.’ In some instances there may be a connection between the last two categories of  remigrants. There are those, however, who will always pay an interest in the ‘goings on’ in Guyana without ever (except, perhaps, if they become old and lonely) having any desire to return. Their lives are already set in stone, elsewhere, whatever the quality of those lives may be. Guyana has moved on, after a fashion and so have they. For many of these it is not so much a matter of having found betterment as not having the slightest desire to uproot themselves from what, over time, had become a comfort zone.

There are challenges that inhere in the migration dynamic, considerable ones. Perhaps the major ones have to do with whether or not, for re-migrants, the marriage between expectations and reality will be a happy one. On the parts of both Guyana and the re-migrants there are expectations and with hindsight there is evidence that we have not taken sufficient time to study the dynamic sufficiently and to carefully study those expectations and the country’s desire to meet them.

No serious attempt has ever been made to create a Centre for Remigration Affairs here in Guyana. Remigration is both a sufficiently important issue and a sufficiently complex one to warrant the creation of such a service with our diplomatic missions abroad serving as extensions of that service. In the absence such a facility we encounter problems of one kind or another, particularly those that have to do with a dichotomy between expectation and reality.

Guyanese returning to Guyana out of a sense of wanting to ‘give back’ cannot be blamed for eventually wanting to walk away upon finding, here in Guyana, an awkward bureaucracy that behaves as though it is indifferent to their mission.

That is a problem that remains to be resolved as is the absence of a service the effectively facilitates remigrants who wish to invest in the country. That challenge persists despite the presence of the Guyana Office for Investment (GOINVEST), the truth being that we appear reluctant to make up our minds as to whether GOINVEST is what one might call a one-stop shop, or whether there are still other tiers of bureaucratic and political scrutiny which remigrant investors have to encounter before they get the green light to undertake their respective investment missions.

This is not to say that some attempts to embrace the desire of Guyanese in the diaspora to ‘give back’ have not met with a fair measure of success. If one were to point to an appropriate example, the one that comes immediately to mind is the impressive response of Guyanese academics (primarily in the United States) to the appeals of the recently appointed Vice Chancellor Professor Ivelaw Griffith to contribute to the ‘renaissance’ of the University. In recent months UG has been a hive of activity and discourse among local and overseas-based academics about how best to tackle the challenges facing the UG and the planned launched next semester of the School of Entrepreneur-ship and Business Initiative (SEBI) is the best example yet of a development-oriented initiative arising out of a meaningful diaspora input.

Guyana’s recent oil discovery and the development trajectory arising therefrom places the whole question of the role of the diaspora in a different and much more interesting perspective. The requirements, down the road, will extend way beyond those that are needed in the country’s oil and gas sector. Numerous other skills will be required as government seeks to utilize the returns from that sector to raise standards of service delivery in areas such as education, health, housing, hinterland development, infrastructure expansion and technology. Rather than have to embrace the option of wholescale importation of expatriate skills it would be infinitely preferable to (as far as possible) be able to secure a fulsome response to Guyanese by providing them with what, in numerous instances, would almost certainly be a long sought after reason to ‘return to the mud,’ so to speak.

But it is not only a matter of a hoped-for heightened enthusiasm on the part of Guyanese in the diaspora for ‘giving back.’ It is, as well, a preparedness on the part of all of Guyana, not least the political administration, to understand the importance of both facilitating and embracing the diaspora contribution. If no one can blame President Granger for talking up his ministers and steering clear of public pronouncements that will diminish his Cabinet’s enthusiasm and their appetite for getting the job done, there is no mistaking the signs that we have already seen that the demands of taking the country forward from the historic juncture at which we have arrived requires a dimension of capacity, and experience as well as particular skills sets that are scarce – and in some instances altogether absent from the jurisdiction – and which can only be found in the diaspora.

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