I presented a paper at the recent University of Guyana (UG) Diaspora Conference where I sought to both critique our current approach to diaspora engagement and suggest some ways in which we can begin to think differently about the subject. I think there is need for a new approach to the diaspora that conceptualizes our overseas brothers and sisters as an integral part of the Guyanese nation. We must change the narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them’ on both sides. There is a critical mass of Guyanese who live partly abroad and partly at home and others who make several short trips per year. If we begin, to employ the narrative of ‘us’ more, then we are likely to have a new thinking and new policies that reflect that mindset.
It is foolish to have more than half of your people living abroad and ignore their skills and other resources just because they do not live at home permanently. Small countries like ours, with its limited access to the skills and resources needed to compete in an uneven world as far as development is concerned, must draw on all its energies whether they physically reside in Guyana or abroad. With the coming of the oil economy, we would be challenged to find skills and resources to serve our needs and interests. Although it would be ideal if persons return permanently, one does not have to live in Guyana permanently to contribute in a meaningful way.
Of course, those who live abroad need to resist the temptation to behave as if they are ‘better’ than those who live here. They should not demand nor should they be afforded more privileges than those citizens who live here. But having said that, they would be more inclined to return or to invest resources if there are incentives at the level of policy.
In that regard, I wish to make two suggestions for consideration. First, I propose that each government ministry should have a diaspora section. I know the Foreign Affairs Ministry already has such a section, but it should be expanded to other ministries. There is a popular view that there should be a Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. But I think that is too narrow.
My second suggestion is much more controversial given its association with a bad period in our history. I do believe that the time has come for a reconsideration of overseas voting. Over 90 countries allow overseas voting in one form or the other. Given the increased migration globally, this makes sense. I think the problem for us in Guyana was not the concept of overseas voting, but that it was used as part of the rigging machinery of that time. So, in an era of fair elections, the meaning changes. I would propose that if we go that direction, as I think we should, it would bring overseas Guyanese more emotionally attached to Guyana.
Voting is perhaps the most significant aspect of citizenship. Guyanese who live abroad can now come home to register and vote. So, if we go the route of oversees voting we would be merely allowing them to vote where they are located. Perhaps we can begin with some form of weighted voting whereby, for example, two are three overseas votes are equivalent to one local vote. In that way, you control for the perception and reality that those who do not live here all the time should not have equal rights and privileges.
I know that the immediate response to this subject would be partisan—whether it would benefit one party or the other. That, of course, is not my motivation. I am guided by a desire to bring our sisters and brothers residing outside of Guyana into the national mix in a substantive way. This matter, however, would have to be subject to wide-ranging discussion both in and out of Guyana and may even have to be subject to a referendum.