We got oil! Realizing change in Guyana and the role of Diaspora Hometown Associations

By Lear Matthews

Lear Matthews is professor, State University of

New York, Empire State College. A former lecturer at the University of Guyana, his recently published book is “English Speaking Caribbean Immigrants: Transnational Identities”. He writes on Diaspora issues.

The nation of Guyana has been in the news lately for good reasons. Stained  by the horrific tragedy of Jonestown in the late 1980’s and recently maligned by a New York  Times writer, according to ExxonMobil, the oil discovery off Guyana’s northern coast will top 4 billion barrels and Guyana will become a leading oil producing nation in the region. However, owing to the large number of Guyanese who emigrate, much of the nation’s skills and expertise, including those that could contribute significantly to the oil industry’s success, reportedly reside in the Diaspora. There has not been an effective strategy to engage expatriates – perhaps until now. Despite the almost euphoric optimism expressed by Guyanese at home and abroad there are challenges only marginally discussed, but are beginning to emerge. One observer noted, “with major oil set to flow as soon as 2020, authorities are bracing both for the shock of wealth and its attendant woes”. This article focuses on the potential role of Hometown Associations (HTA) in helping to understand the socio-cultural ramifications, identifying the risks and harnessing required skills, attitude and cultural adaptation needed to ensure reaping the benefits of this unprecedented, historic natural resource discovery.

HTAs are organizations formed by immigrants from the same village, town, community or shared institution seeking to support their country of origin, maintaining connections through cash or kind, while retaining a sense of community as they adjust to life in their adopted home. There are more than 400 Guyanese HTAs in North America, representing (either as members or supporters) an impressive number of immigrant families. The primary support they provide to the home country are in the areas of education, community development, and healthcare. Resources in-cash and in-kind represent a wide range of ‘give back’ mechanisms. The history and track record of these organizations place them in a unique position for enabling the growth of local communities within the context of anticipated newfound wealth. Whereas in the past these organizations were viewed as primarily doing “charity work”, more recently their activities include far -reaching community development, sending collective remittances to villages, towns, regions, communities and members’ past shared social institutions.  HTAs, a popular conduit for cultural and material aspects of Diaspora connection, also play an important role in sustaining vital cross-continental, cultural linkages.

The provision of various forms of assistance from overseas could create dependency or promote self-sufficiency, depending on the manner of project implementation and understanding community needs and capacities. Nevertheless, HTA members can be a collective asset in various capacities in a transforming society, helping to ensure that economic gains from oil  royalties will be used for the public good, particularly in areas of job creation, improved infrastructure, healthcare and the overall quality of life of citizens.

Guyanese engineer Vincent Adams posits that there is an unprecedented “repository of knowledge and other resources in the Diaspora” while President David Granger prefers “brains, skills and expertise” over barrels. An emerging challenge for HTAs is to extend the provision of curriculum educational services that would  improve the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programme, identifying areas such as oil exploration, resource development, industrial engineering, environmental studies, industrial management, accounting and oil industry personnel training at all levels. Collaborating with the University of Guyana through funding and expertise, HTAs can enhance such training. Social scientist Norman Munro believes that following oil discovery, there will be “a need to develop global strategy training courses and career development support towards future technology”.

Hometown Associations also embody one of the conduits of knowledge and other resources and can play an intrinsic role in identifying and recruiting Guyanese (and others – particularly from the Caribbean region) who have expertise, knowledge and skills in the oil refining or related industries. Furthermore, members of the Diaspora will be able to complement aspects of the local workplace culture, reciprocating ideas, strategies and a professional decorum that have been tested and successfully implemented in similar industries. These intersecting “social remittances”, respectfully introduced and reinforced can enhance sustainable development.  

Individuals and organizations in the Diaspora remit to their country of origin information, norms, practices, materials, identities, human capital and other social resources that can both promote and impede development. Much of what immigrants “give back” to their country of origin is influenced by habits, tastes, technology and behaviours learned and inculcated in their adopted home. If HTAs are to make any meaningful, non-threatening contribution, the way in which these social remittances are introduced and monitored is essential. This is particularly important since the methods and attitudes exhibited by returning immigrants may conflict with traditional hometown ways of doing things. Reportedly, local residents feel an existential threat from returning immigrants, while some in the Diaspora display unconscious bias by attempting to impose their ‘foreign’ ways of getting things done. This is sometimes exacerbated by preferential treatment of Non-Guyanese. These reciprocal actions and reactions often cause resentment and frustration among locals and ‘comebakees’ alike. Mutual respect, compromise, a sense of community, as well as validating strengths and acknowledging failure, underscore successful Diaspora engagement.

While immigrants continuously send personal remittances to family and friends, HTAs through collective remittances, have been increasingly helping to develop and sustain local communities, often in the form of community development projects, including rebuilding edifices, construction of new community centres, repairing schools, medical institutions, and other infrastructures. HTA members (many seniors or retired) report that the organizations provide a sense of purpose, an opportunity to engage in philanthropy and to ‘give back’ to their native land. It is also an expression of generativity, i.e., promoting opportunities for future generations.

As with any episode of societal transition, opportunities and risks are inevitable. If HTAs are going to be one of the arbiters of successful transformation, executives need to understand the anticipated changes and ways in which they can motivate local communities and help members comprehend the realities of impending adjustments. Working with local non-profit organizations and government institutions is essential, with the understanding that effective collaboration is predicated on trust. Importantly, expectations related to organizational behaviour and consumer habits have been an area of concern likely to create conflicts as HTAs attempt to contribute to the continuous development of local communities. 

Aspects of Diaspora engagement have been viewed as challenging local beliefs, customs, and practices, causing tension. For example, some diaspora organizations have been accused of using tax-free concessions for personal transfers. In a statement about the role of Diaspora organizations, President Granger urged, “when they (HTAs) want to send a petition next time, ask them to petition for a permit to open a factory or a farm.” In the past, government officials have reached out for help from HTAs seemingly only right before national elections, a situation which has caused resentment. These examples are indicative of the tensions that exist between the government and the Diaspora. One critical observer notes that it appears as though the gravity of such tension can only be overcome when the home country establishes clear policy with concrete objectives on optimizing the involvement of the Diaspora.

Economist Jay Mandle raises some pertinent questions regarding the nation’s readiness for the impending changes that are likely to occur as a result of the discovery of oil in Guyana. He argues that not only will there be challenges with the changing technology and environmental issues, but the nation will be at a disadvantage in addressing these changes because much of the human capital necessary to cope successfully with them exists outside of the country. The emigration rate of highly skilled people, particularly those with “the educational and technical skills the country needs in order to provide high-level services to a technologically sophisticated industry like petroleum” is the highest in the world. Revenue gathered should be used to enlist the services of highly educated members of the Guyanese diaspora to diversify Guyana’s economy and later its pattern of residence. Similarly, Munro noted that “the country will be faced with geological, technical and managerial challenges. Guyanese and Caribbean Diaspora personnel could assist in the management and exploration of natural gas that can provide cleaner electricity in Guyana by lending their expertise and skills”.

HTAs can be instrumental in helping to fill the human resource vacuum. Effectively articulating the desire for, and facilitating Diaspora resources and building productive transnational alliances have been problematic. Guyanese-born business consultant, Cosford Roberts suggests that the Diaspora should be regarded as a full participant in the formulation of policies and delivery of professional services. The Diaspora, because of its size, continuous place attachment and emotional/identity connection to the home country, is viewed by some change advocates as a stakeholder in the national development efforts of Guyana. Of significance is the creation of opportunities for multiple Diaspora groups, regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation, to harness their resources for development in a changing home country environment. HTAs have contributed to pockets of development through the sending of remittances, but have the potential to make a more impactful imprint on sustainable development. Mandle further notes that members of the Diaspora can do more, rather than confine themselves to supplying remittances to the country. To have a transformative impact, they should act as (individual/ company) investors, mentors, and political actors, taking advantage of the opportunities that emerge for firms to become domestic sources of supply to the petroleum sector. Although HTAs can be a vanguard in this proposition, their support for other enterprises that have been the pillars of the nations’ economic base (i.e. rice, sugar and timber industries) should continue and not sacrificed nor neglected. Reflecting on the prioritizing of spending petro dollars, U.S.-based Guyanese novelist John Morris suggests that roads, water and electricity are paramount. HTA members with techno-management experience can contribute to an oversight Petro-Fund Committee spearheaded by local administrators. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its Diaspora Unit along with the planned Diaspora Engagement Center, must play a major role in establishing a meaningful engagement process.

In the efforts to manage the incipient influx of petro-dollars, stakeholders must be wary of the concomitant socio-economic and psychological pitfalls. Lessons of success and failure can be learned from the experience of other developing countries. It is also important to note that benefits will be stymied by inept and insufficient preparation, including failure to identify hidden costs. Nevertheless, HTAs can play a significant role in successful Diaspora engagement in the preparatory stages and beyond.  Attachment to the homeland may have been reignited by reverse push factors (anti-immigrant rhetoric/policy) and ‘gushing’ pull factors (prospects of petro wealth) and viewing this moment as an opportunity to re-migrate or reconnect in various ways. Ultimately, Guyanese in and outside the country must exercise due diligence to spend this imminent windfall wisely turning impoverishment into prosperity. This is the opportune time for those in the home country and the Diaspora, including voluntary organizations, to use their social capital to engage through networks, norms and trust that would enable them to work together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. It has been a long, brutal journey from slavery, indentureship, colonialism and post-independence struggles. We Got Oil!

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