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GUYANA & HER DIASPORA, REVISITING TENSIONS BETWEEN THE DIASPORA AND HOME

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By

Lear Matthews

During the Virtual Webinar held on June 8, 2022, titled “Transforming Guyana,” sponsored by the Guyana Business Journal and the Caribbean Policy Consortium, it was stated that technical problems and locating suitably qualified Guyanese to manage a proposed website were the reasons contributing to the delay in the moving forward of the Diaspora engagement process. However, post-webinar comments suggested that perhaps the delay was due to more substantive and political reasons. 

Despite such revealing explanations, it was gratifying to learn that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomes ideas from the diaspora. It was also emphatically announced that there has been no evidence of discrimination or rejection of project proposals submitted by the Diaspora. Further, the Diaspora Unit seeks to expand and improve services through the various Consulates. Nonetheless, there has not been a full disclosure about what exactly has been agreed upon. This article briefly revisits the tension issue and highlights the reported constraints and efforts to institutionalize a long-anticipated Diaspora Engagement Policy and Strategy.

A point of view often ignored is that one cannot think about a single Diaspora. To do so would be to miss the core dimensions and persistence of the tensions within the diaspora and between the Diaspora and the home country. We also need to understand how frustrations, which inadvertently cause a lingering barrier to communication and collaboration, lead to tension and vice versa. Repeated experiences of bureaucratic bottleneck and unfulfilled partnership promises related to Diaspora-initiated projects may lead to distrust, dampened confidence, and compassion fatigue. Engagement must consider the needs, experiences, perceptions, traditions, and resources of diverse hometown communities and the bona fide standing of contributing diaspora organizations.

At the same time, we must not lose sight of the complexities of community and ethnic relations. Nor should we underestimate the depth of emotional and economical attachment to one’s home country. Migration Expert Dr. Manuel Orozco reported that Guyanese in the diaspora are among the leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean who sustain bank accounts in their home country. Such practices are relevant, particularly as socioeconomic transformation in Guyana is anticipated. The large number of community development projects sponsored and funded by the more than 400 Hometown Associations is testimony to the commitment of these organizations’ membership. Whether certain transnational activities by the diaspora remain relevant is yet to be seen. Would Diaspora Philanthropic activity and hometown bank savings subside?  Will the sending of remittances decrease? If so, will this exacerbate tense relationships? Is it possible or necessary to listen to all the different groups?  How can all stakeholders be heard? These seem to be timely issues of inquiry. The government’s capacity to respond expeditiously to such questions is a reasonable concern.

One of the Webinar participants concluded that Guyana is in serious trouble, and there is no evidence that the current leadership can address the intellectual deficits that have emerged in shaping policy or developing the capacity to create a strategy to move the country out of the doldrums. Advocating with equal passion for the participation of ordinary citizens, local communities, and the Diaspora in helping to realign social institutions would be helpful at this time. Not only can the diaspora become a growing source of investors for Guyana, but also a bridge to global economic reach beyond the regional CARICOM connection.

The recent launching of a Guyanese Diaspora Digest seems well-intended. However, the primary focus appears to be showcasing development projects in Guyana and minimally on building broad, constructive alliances for effective Diaspora engagement. Nonetheless, a report about the appointment of an Advisor on Investment and Diaspora Affairs at the Guyana Consulate in New York is encouraging. All Embassies and Consulates should do more to provide resources to help Guyanese across the diasporas strengthen confidence in and connections with the home country. Besides providing routine information on immigration matters, Consulates should play a leading role in helping streamline the diasporas’ contribution to nation-building. This can be accomplished through mapping, i.e., quantifying and reporting the features, skills, interests, socio-cultural characteristics, and other resources of individuals and organizations in the diaspora. The hope is that such a plan is forthcoming and will be executed securely and objectively.

Understanding the causes, effects and possible solutions to reciprocal tension is essential. The intent is not to blame or cast aspersions but recognize the importance of both internal socio-cultural structures and external contexts – how they intersect and the possibilities that collective effort brings to national development. Understanding the interconnections and attributes of the government, members of the diaspora, and local communities are instrumental in this process. Whilesocial analysts warn about the prerequisite needto end tension vis a vis ethnic and political divisiveness, the Center for Caribbean Diaspora Report views diasporas as a defining constituency for development that will become more decisive in the future.There should be some oversight of voluntary diaspora organizations for accountability, sustainability, and integrity. Having confidence in the functioning and competence of local institutions is also expected.

The government must not only talk about interest in the diaspora but is expected to expeditiously implement feasible policy and engagement strategies that have been missing. Some diaspora organizations have reported fewer challenges working directly with their target home communities than with the government as a mediating institution. The diaspora, civil society, and government must acknowledge the areas of disconnect and adopt coping mechanisms to enhance a common goal of sustainable development. Diaspora advocacy groups tend to be either supportive or critical of the home country’s government. In light of the concerns continuously and passionately expressed, an umbrella non-partisan Diaspora Organizing Group should be formed to represent the interests and concerns of the diaspora, regardless of ethnic identity, education, socio-economic status, or political affiliation. This would enhance the coordination of services and minimize fragmentation and competition, adding to a systematic engagement process. It will also provide an opportunity to be more inclusive, engaging diverse groups, seeking to coordinate the collective interventions of individuals and multiple organizations. The opportunity to form partnerships and share interests and development concerns will be at the forefront of such a model.

Building trust and mobilizing stakeholders are core elements of Diaspora engagement. This requires well-planned implementation of an institutional framework at the national level to communicate with their Diasporas, coordinate policies, and provide support for follow-up on engagement. Formulating a new paradigm in which diaspora organizations appeal more to the younger generation would be helpful. They can help manage a Web-Based system and confidently identify with a progressive path of nation-building. Ultimately, the Guyanese populace should not be bystanders at home or abroad but hold elected officials to their sworn responsibilities. Collaboration among civil society, the private sector, and the government could be the hallmark for dealing effectively with emerging national and regional challenges and reimagining a nation where transparency, accountability, empathy, and trust are at the core of governance civil societal relationships a dream yet to be realized.  

As the nation continues to claw its way out of a climate of mistrust and tension, the hope is to mold a new generation by the determination to exorcise the ghosts of ethnic, political, and transnational schism. The youth must be empowered with a clear vision and equipped to work toward a more socially just and tension-free society to ensure meaningful social and economic transformation. Ultimately, what would a more inclusive vision entail? Guyanese Professor Dr. Vibert Cambridge believes that the people of Guyana need ideas of what a caring and just society can be. Emphasis should be on collective capacity-building and coherent policy implementation. It should not be motivated by politics or prioritizing one group over another but by intelligent management of natural resources and a balanced and just societal transformation.

Ideas for a mutually beneficial diaspora policy and engagement framework can be gleaned from the National Diaspora Policy of Jamaica. That plan outlines a comprehensive framework and guide. It seeks to harness the resources of the Diaspora to ensure that those at home and abroad are empowered and to promote diaspora research, human capital exchanges, well-being, safety, and efforts to integrate the diaspora. Such a framework offers a multidimensional plan for favorable interaction between the diaspora and home with regional relevance. To maintain a good diaspora engagement strategy is to facilitate the ways the diaspora can bring benefits to the home country. This includes opportunities for replacing the infamous brain drain with brain gain.

Understanding the dynamics of these phenomena and developing an action plan to mitigate negative interactions are critical to the value and mechanics of Diaspora Engagement. Otherwise, the potential and potency of the relationship at this crucial time in the nation’s history will not be fully realized.  Notwithstanding the post-pandemic challenges in both geographic locations, it is essential to explore the behaviors, practices, and policies that worsen this binary tension and formulate strategies to deescalate them. The goal is to identify the sources of frustrations and uncertainty, how they are manifested, and strategize possible solutions. The hope is that Guyana charts its history collectively.

In a recently announced plan to establish a One Guyana Commission, the government pledged a contract of inclusion which promises to build an environment of trust to give voice to all social groups, including the diaspora, regardless of political affiliation, race, religion, promoting social harmony, tolerance, understanding, and respect for cultural diversity. Could this become a reality? The complexities and depth of attachment to the home country and the existence of smoldering resentments mean that “bridges” are not so quickly built. With measured optimism, it is expected that a protracted Diaspora Engagement Strategy will soon be available, and the diaspora will have an opportunity to review and comment on it before it is implemented. Reaffirmed by commitment and inclusivity, this will be mutually beneficial to Guyanese at home and abroad. However, to secure the confidence of the diaspora, the Comprehensive Diaspora Engagement Strategy Report, which was prepared for the Government of Guyana by the International Organization for Migration and any other data about the diaspora, should be made available to the public.

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