Individuals and organizations of the Guyanese diaspora came together for meaningful discussions at a Diaspora Dialogue event hosted by the Guyana Business Journal and Magazine (GBJ) on Thursday, October 13, 2022. The event, held at the Antun’s of Queens Village in New York, was conducted under the theme, “Navigating A Changing Guyana: Opportunities and Challenges Ahead.” Among the Distinguished guests were Joe Yusuff, Guyana Consulate, Dr. Lear Matthews of the Guyana Cultural Association, who made a presentation titled, “Navigating A Changing Guyana and the Guyanese Diaspora: The Context”;
Dr. Riyad Insanally- Senior Fellow at the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center, who presented on the topic “Navigating A Changing Guyana and the Guyanese Diaspora: The Way Forward,” and Exxon Mobil’s Senior Director of International Government Relations, Craig Kelly as well as Government Relations Advisor on Public and Government Affairs, Devon Seeram- who both made presentations titled “Oil and Gas and The Guyanese Diaspora.” The event was chaired by GBJ Founder Dr. Terrence Blackman, with cultural musical presentations and tributes by Menes de Griot and invocation by Pastor James Richmond. Following a question and answer segment between the audience and presenters, the evening’s event wrapped up with a dinner and meet and greet session. Reporting by Utamu Belle, GBJ.
Mr. Joe Yusuff, Guyana Consulate, Distinguished Guests, friends and colleagues, comrades all, Good Evening.
Tonight, I am profoundly grateful for your support.
This gathering is a celebration of what we have accomplished together.
The Guyana Business Journal and Magazine
began with the idea that first oil, and the resulting revenues, created a need for an independent, apolitical forum to enable rational and objective discussions about Guyana’s oil resources and how the gains could be applied to better Guyana’s future.
The Guyana Business Journal has found its voice as a monthly webinar, Transforming Guyana, in collaboration with the Caribbean Policy Consortium, focused on forward-looking, objective discussions on a range of topics, with the end goal of giving a more definite form to the Guyanese public discourse.
Six general principles guide the discussions on the GBJ-CPC webinars:
- Take a look in the mirror; the initial conditions matter; document and disseminate what we have inherited with clarity.
- Guyana’s energy resources, uncovered after many years of failed exploration, can improve lives and transform the country’s future.
- Channeling Guyana’s oil revenues effectively and efficiently is vital to improving the state of general and public services, particularly infrastructure and education.
- Foreign investment and business certainty are critical to Guyana’s long-term economic growth.
- Ideas and innovation are critical to a successful Guyanese transformation.
- A holistic approach: Guyana’s future requires bold ideas and broad engagement. This forward-looking conversation is larger than any political party or government; it must engage every Guyanese.
Our webinars have been grouped into the following focus areas to better structure the conversation:
- Workforce development and training,
- Private sector and business opportunities,
- Foreign investment,
- Governance and transparency,
- Oil sector policy, and
I grew up in Alexander Village and North Ruimveldt/ My grandmothers, Grathel Phillips and Elaine Hope, never attended formal school.
I know that today they would have taken some pride in their grandson’s journey from Alexander Village to Queens College, to undergraduate researcher at Brooklyn College in the City University of New York, to the City University of New York Graduate School and in his sojourns to far flung places like Boston University, Mount Holyoke College, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, The University of Denver, The Chalmers Institute of Technology in Gothenburg Sweden, The Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne, EPFL in Switzerland, The University of Stellenbosch in Cape Town South Africa and the Harish Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad India.
They would look back and say that the platform that they built in Alexander Village and in Durban Street Lodge has served their ambitions well.
This is our challenge today.
When we, our children, look back two generations to this day, will what has been started and sustained from our efforts today support our larger vision of “an integrated, productive, prosperous and peaceful Guyana, a Guyana driven and managed by its citizens and a Guyana representing a dynamic force in the international area”?
We know that education, broadly speaking, is the most important tool for equipping the Guyanese people with the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitude to drive this vision. Quality education, rooted in innovation and research, is imperative if Guyana is to attain this vision to generate home-grown solutions to Guyanese challenges and participate fully in the global knowledge economy.
The Guyana Business Journal and Magazine is at its core an educational company that is aiming to provide us a deeper understanding of the game we are playing…
We hope you will continue to travel with us on this most important journey.
Thanks Dr. Blackman. My task as I understand it, is to “set the tone” for this important and timely discussion, particularly as it pertains to the perception and role of the diaspora in nation-building.
The IMF recently advised the government of Guyana to review its immigration laws, as well as find other creative means of attracting expertise from the diaspora to help develop its gas and oil sector, due to the growing demand for skilled labor. It was also noted that the country needs to make a serious effort to build human capital by improving the education and healthcare sectors with input from the diaspora. In this regard, I recently wrote an article supporting the view that there is a reciprocal relationship between economic development and psychosocial well-being of a nation, and strongly recommended investment in the mental health infrastructure with input from the diaspora. The IMF further advised government to establish a Ministry of Diaspora as exists in other countries, particularly in light of the fact that a significant number of Guyanese reside outside of the country.
The Head of the Diaspora Unit, Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently stated that “we need to define diaspora”. I think that this is a good idea as we need to understand this widely used term within the Guyanese context. There is no consensus among scholars about the definition of diaspora. The term generally refers to any group residing outside of their place of birth. Others emphasize the level of engagementin transnational activityor retention of traditional cultural practices.
As we know, a significant number of Guyanese make up the diaspora, but it is important to note that it is not a monolith – no single Guyanese identity, but perhaps a complex web of identities that have been historically and socially constructed. The long-standing political and ethnic divide has led some observers to ask if there are two separate Guyanas. And by extension, whether there is really one Guyanese diaspora or several diasporas. Ethnic enclaves i.e. the tendency of a group to share the same geographic and cultural space, may have contributed to further divisions in the diaspora. If there is not a unified diaspora, I ask: Who benefits, and how do we lessen the emergent tensions?
There are those who advance the notion that we should not bank too heavily on an unending outreach to the land of our birth….the diaspora is a slow diminution. Contrary to such a dismal prognosis I believe that the Guyanese diaspora is unlikely to diminish. Nevertheless, the question is: With the discovery of gas and oil, would overseas Guyanese continue the connection with the home country with the same interest and enthusiasm? Some may be attracted by the opportunity of a better, less hectic life, others are likely to be hesitant to invest time or other resources, due to lack of trust or political differences with a particular government administration. It must be noted that those who express a willingness/desire to return at this time are likely to be criticized by some locals who see them as abandoning the home country and now wishing to reap the benefits of newfound riches – perhaps a misconceived perception that could elevate tension.
There has been well-founded criticism of the slow pace of the diaspora engagement planning process by the government. A well-planned diaspora engagement strategy is likely to produce collaborative participation of persons of various ethnicities, skills, and interest in nation building. While the government boasts that Guyanese immigrants have always maintained strong connections with their homeland, engaging the diaspora has turned out to be an insurmountable task for several government administrations. Many in the diaspora have been disappointed in the governments’ failure to facilitate an organized engagement process. Indeed challenges exist, but they are not insurmountable.
Failure to release the International Organization of Migration’s final report of the Guyana Diaspora Engagement Strategy and Policy Document (completed in 2017) has caused frustration and doubt. More recently, Guyana’s Foreign Secretary who urged the diaspora to “overcome divisions and unite around one common vision”, reported that substantive data about the diaspora is not readily available. Yet, speaking about the expected role of the diaspora, that official noted that “Guyana will have to rely on the skills of overseas Guyanese with expertise in areas that could assist in nation building”.
I firmly believe that in order to help navigate a changing Guyana, the diaspora must find a way to work together. In the effort to transform the society, the role of Voluntary Organizations (including Hometown Associations) in program sponsorship and implementation is highlighted. Such organizations, both local and those in the diaspora, could be instrumental in efforts to fortify preventive and rehabilitative programs as the nation moves forward. In fact, there are more than 400 of these organizations in North America. It is important to note that some local residents tend to feel an existential threat from returning immigrants. While some in the diaspora display implicit bias or sense of “superiority” by attempting to impose their “foreign ways” of doing things. This could exacerbate tensions.
The acquisition of new money sources has a dark side. We must guard against ominous mistakes and emphasize the need for strategic planning. Specifically, Dr. Ivelaw Griffith warns of the need for investment in public security to cope with the crime that is likely to increase as oil and economic deprivation “in Proximate and far away neighborhoods” attract people to Guyana. Such planning should consider the role of the diaspora. In so doing, the government must institute a well-framed Diaspora Engagement Policy and Strategy. Prerequisites to realizing such engagement must include (1) knowledge of the diaspora (2) identification of goals and capacities, (3) equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging, and (4) building trust.
I firmly believe that in order to help navigate a changing Guyana, the diaspora which has been described as an “untapped resource” must find a way to work together.
I thank you…
I congratulate Dr. Terrence Blackman and the Guyana Business Journal for bringing together such a distinguished group from our very dynamic and diverse Diaspora community, to have a conversation about the transformation under way in Guyana and the role that the Diaspora might play in supporting change.
I also thank Dr. Blackman for his kind invitation to share some of my own thoughts with you on how our Diaspora might engage more closely with a rapidly changing Guyana, with a view to bringing your knowledge, skills and, in some cases, financial capital to bear in positively influencing the direction in which our country goes.
I am, of course, no longer Guyana’s Ambassador to the United States but much of what I have to say this evening is based on my experience as Ambassador and my own engagement with Diaspora communities in this country.
And, I am, of course, for the first time in my nomadic life, now a member of our Diaspora.
Dr. Blackman has given us the rationale for this conversation and Dr. Lear Matthews has provided us with much needed context.
Even as the opportunities seem almost infinite, the challenges are extremely daunting.
These are exciting times for Guyana, albeit balanced by a certain amount of apprehension about the future. This is only natural when great change is in the offing.
Record GDP growth projected at 56% in 2022 accounts for much of the current optimism. According to Finance Minister Ashni Singh, in his mid-year economic report to Parliament on August 29, the government, “has embarked on a period of rapid transformation, and… has laid out a masterplan for the rapid development and transformation of Guyana.” All this is consistent with the deliverables promised in the Government’s 2020 elections manifesto.
Significantly, non-oil growth at 9.6 percent is encouraging and points to an awareness of the need to guard against the resource curse. But we probably need more data, as the jury is still out on the impact that the allure of oil and gas is having on existing business development in Guyana and the effects that rapid growth are having on inflation and on the traditional economy.
And how exactly will we manage this “rapid development and transformation of Guyana”? Let me be clear: I am not pouring cold water on people’s aspirations and plans. But there are valid concerns about our capacity to move at the accelerated pace at which developments in the oil sector seem to be taking us.
This is all the more understandable given that we are a country of fewer than 800,000 people, with perhaps the same number, spanning generations, residing abroad. It is no secret that the massive brain drain the country has suffered has severely depleted our human resources. This is not an indictment of those who remain at home but it is undeniable that we lack all the technical capacity required to manage the new sector and, indeed, the transformation of the country.
Both President Ali and Vice President Jagdeo have spoken openly of the need to outsource skills, to devise an appropriate immigration policy to import labour and expertise, and to tap into the Diaspora. This is a most welcome recognition of Guyana’s reality.
In this regard, I suggest that it makes ample sense to look to the Diaspora first, even as we must also look to our CARICOM brothers and sisters, for the experience and talent required to help with the sustainable management of our natural resources, to help build human capital and institutional capacity, and to support the Government’s development thrust and the quest for economic resilience; all aimed at maximising the income from oil and gas in the 30-year window that currently exists, with a view ultimately to ensuring equitable development for all, working towards the objective of moving to clean energy and low carbon development, and effecting the transition to a diversified and sustainable economic model.
During his address at the inaugural Virtual Diaspora Conference, in May 2021, under the theme, A New Era of Engagement for the Guyanese Diaspora, President Ali made it clear that the Diaspora has to be a key element, as Guyana navigates its future of opportunity and prosperity.
This engagement is being coordinated by the Diaspora Unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and we eagerly look forward to the implementation of the President’s vision and learning more of the strategies to be employed.
Coincidentally or, perhaps, deliberately, the new Consul General in New York, my old colleague, Michael Brotherson, is a former Head of the Diaspora Unit. It is a pity he could not be here tonight but I am glad that Joe Youssuf, the Consulate General’s Adviser on Investment and Diaspora Affairs. I am sure that these two gentlemen are already doing great work to reach out to the Diaspora, to bridge some of the divisions existing among our Diaspora communities, and to identify skills and resources that might serve useful in the rolling out of the Government’s masterplan for Guyana. Indeed, I now encourage them to provide us with more information on the Government’s Diaspora Engagement Strategy. Perhaps they could roll out a series of town hall meetings across the United States, both in-person and virtual, as important steps towards involving all our Diaspora communities in what could well be a game-changing conversation.
One of my frustrations as Ambassador was the absence of structured mechanisms and systems for engagement. Driven by this sense of frustration, I was able to secure the cooperation of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of the leading Washington, DC think tanks, to undertake a study resulting in a report, “The Guyanese Diaspora”. I should add that the report, launched virtually on October 22, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, was made possible with funding from ExxonMobil and the Hess Corporation, something for which I am still grateful.
That report was, in the words of CSIS’s Michael Matera, the project lead, the “most serious effort to date to understand the size, destinations and the general characteristics of the Guyanese Diaspora.” It also included case studies from the Dominican Republic, India, Jamaica, and Mexico, as examples of how deeper and more effective engagement of the Guyanese Diaspora might be approached.
I myself, at the launch, urged all participants and stakeholders to pay close attention to the report’s recommendations in order to maximize convergence with the Government of Guyana’s enhanced Diaspora Engagement Strategy. The report, though, never pretended to be exhaustive in its recommendations, as it was well recognised by all consulted and all involved in its production that Diaspora engagement was and still is a work in progress.
I believe that it was fortuitous that the completion of the report coincided with President Ali’s highlighting of the role of the Diaspora in assisting in the development of the country. In addition, Foreign Secretary Robert Persaud stated at the time that the recommendations outlined by the CSIS report fit within the Government’s framework for Diaspora engagement.
One of the most important recommendations of the report was the creation of a “Future of Guyana Initiative” or a “Guyana Global Initiative”, involving the public and private sectors in Guyana and in Diaspora communities. In this respect, the Initiative was intended to bring together the Diaspora from all around the world and allow the Government to harness its rich human capital, primarily through the development of a cloud-based portal to facilitate communication across the Diaspora and between the Diaspora and Guyana. It was recommended that the project and the broader initiative needed to be led by a group of committed individuals, drawn from Diaspora communities and senior representatives of the Guyana Government, key Guyanese diplomatic officials and representatives of Guyana’s main political parties. One important objective was to help address a key issue identified by the report: the tensions between the Diaspora and citizens in Guyana.
It was the general feeling then that the Initiative could help to tackle some of Guyana’s most urgent issues in the areas of national/local governance, technology use, sectoral development and public health, among others. Ultimately, such an initiative would strengthen ties between the Diaspora and Guyana, assist the country in its development and raise the stature of Guyana within the regional and global community.
I should also note that some of the discussions aimed at creating a Guyana Global Forum, which could form the basis of enhanced and more structured two-way, inclusive engagement between Guyana and its Diaspora, unfortunately foundered. But I do believe that some of the recommendations of the report are still valid today even as I acknowledge that some have been overtaken by events and by initiatives of the Government.
Indeed, as Dr. Matthews has pointed out, just yesterday, OilNow reported that the IMF has urged Guyana to review its immigration laws and to create a Diaspora Ministry, as a means of attracting expertise from the Diaspora and to encourage joint venture enterprises with Diaspora members. A Diaspora Ministry was one of the recommendations of the report.
I tell you all this, not to hark back to the past, but to remind you all that there has been a lot of work done on Diaspora engagement, such as the Diaspora Engagement Strategy, done by the International Organisation for Migration, which was never made public. We should not allow these efforts to be wasted, even as we can still extract lessons learned for application to changing circumstances.
I believe too that the pandemic has shown us how it is possible to reach a wider audience through virtual means. Still, there is a need for in-person encounters, such as this evening’s event. And, I am sure that there are a number of Diaspora organisations, like the Guyana Business Journal, ready to assist the Government, through the Embassy in Washington, DC, the Consulate General in New York, and our Honorary Consuls in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Miami, in a structured outreach programme.
As I near my conclusion, allow me to quote from the CSIS report:
“The capacities and expertise of the Guyanese diaspora, if properly understood and engaged, could become an important factor contributing to the growth and development of Guyana. Guyana’s population, including the country’s civil society leaders, private sector leaders, and political leaders, as well as the large diaspora community, have a shared mutual interest in increasing formal links between the country and the diaspora and in exploring means to increase cooperation and collaboration.”
Change in Guyana will be rapid and far-reaching, and the country needs to be prepared for it. Guyana has perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to realise the potential of which we have all dreamt. Managing the transition and managing expectations are no easy tasks but we are a proud and resourceful people. I invite you all to reflect this evening on how we can successfully help transform our Dear Land of Guyana, through a huge, collective effort, involving not only our political leadership and technocrats but also other groups – the private sector, civil society, academia, the youth, the media – as well as our Diaspora and international partners, to get things right.
With regard to our international partners, I am assured by Ambassador Craig Kelly of ExxonMobil that they believe wholeheartedly in a long-term, sustainable partnership with a stable, increasingly prosperous and inclusive Guyana.
This conversation is a worthwhile exercise. I would hope that more like this can happen over the next few months and that a ripple effect can be created. We need to ensure that there are widening circles of contact and engagement. And we need a platform, a united platform, for our Diaspora to engage with one voice, with our Government and our people at home.
Thank you for your kind attention.
THE GUYANA BUSINESS JOURNAL is dedicated to exploring and understanding the Guyanese and Caribbean economy’s key issues and developing concrete policy proposals in support of the region’s socioeconomic and political development.