Transforming Guyana, Episode I: Guyana and Her Diaspora

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TENSION AT A TIME OF SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC TRANSFORMATION IN GUYANA PERSPECTIVE FROM THE DIASPORA

By

Lear Matthews

Tensions between the Diaspora and home country, namely, the governing administration and civil society is occasionally discussed, but not seriously addressed.  We need to examine the cause, impact and consequences of tension as the nation enters an unprecedented phase of nation building.  

      The genesis of tension I believe, centers around circumstances and patterns of departure from the home country, as well as misunderstanding of intent, distrust, false assumptions, and the post-immigration continuation of ethnic cleavage. Tension and disharmony, nourished by a tradition of ethnic mistrust seemed to have “spilled over” into the Diaspora, perpetuated by ethnic enclaves.

      We must contextualize the problem, which is examined within the circumstances of historical patterns of emigration and resettlement. These movements were significant for the kinds of impact on the host countries and what the diaspora gained financially, educationally and socially. Motivated by “push” factors such as violence and periods of economic hardship, as well as “pull” factors, what they had to give up and endure was often suppressed.

     While some wanted to return home, others had no hope of returning and over time the relationship between the dislocated and the homeland became remote, strained or even imagined. Many people in the Diaspora remained emotionally attached to the homeland, having a sense of obligation. They became exemplars of altruism, more interested in “giving back”, leveraging their position in their “home away from home” than tinkering with local initiatives. Those with political ambitions may beg to differ.

The “give back” process includes sending remittances and increasingly sponsoring development community projects. Among the issues that tend to cause frustrations leading to tension (to mention a few) are: Bureaucratic delays in executing Diaspora-funded programs; and accusations that some Diaspora organization executives have used duty-free concessions for personal tax exemptions.

Evidence of tension does not go unnoticed. A former Government Minister warned overseas Guyanese to “stop criticizing your country of origin”, and a local resident urged “the simmering resentment between Guyanese who remained and those in the Diaspora must end before it is too late”. This implies that both groups are perceived as culpable. For those who returned to work in the home country, reported frustrations varied from unfulfilled promises to the inability to penetrate bureaucratic gridlock.  

       A local Guyanese stated ,“I don’t mind them coming back, but to demand certain jobs is not right! A returning visitor noted, “It is as if the visiting Diaspora pose a threat to locals who see them as “foreigners”. Some returnees attempt to impose their “foreign ways” of doing things. Influenced by acculturative habits and industrial acumen acquired overseas, some returnees tend to believe that individuality and innovation should be valued over patronage, obedience and deference. Others may denigrate local cultural values and community norms. But the expectations and experiences of those who return do vary.

      It is important to articulate ideas to mitigate tensions. I firmly believe that trust is a key factor in this process. The Diaspora has been disappointed in the failed promises by several administrations to institute a Diaspora Engagement Strategy. Although a document outlining a Diaspora Policy and Strategy reportedly exists, it has not been made available to the public, to the disappointment of many in the Diaspora.

     How do we manage tension in an era of anticipated wealth from the gasand oil industry? Guyanese returning to settle at this time are likely to be criticized. They may be seen as having abandoned the country and now returning to reap the benefits of newfound riches. You know the adage: “Ya’ll cut an’ run, we staan an’ bun!

      In an effort to address the problem of ethnic discord, the Guyana Cultural Association has adopted the concept of “Bridgin”, capturing the art of facilitating cultural connections. Earlier efforts to link the groups socially, politically and economically have been less successful. This seems to be Guyana’s most exhausting and vexing challenge. Understandably, lack of some resources locally, organizational structures and political realities often preclude ideal partnerships.

      The country’s future is in the hands of the youth. Some second generation Guyanese immigrants may feel alienated from “aging” Diaspora organizations. Some of these organizations, in partnership with local businesses and the Guyanese government have recently begun to play a key role in sponsoring education and skills training of young Guyanese in traditional and emerging  sectors. This is encouraging.

      However, as  plans for managing the gas and oil sector unfold, there should be an urgency in addressing a potential generational tension. Millenniums and Gen-Zs see the world through a different set of lens. Young people are more likely to be advocates of sustainable energy, environmental justice and critics of fossil fuel. The latter can be a challenge as Guyana moves forward with its fossil fuel dependency program. Let’s think about that! A important question is: What provisions are madeto include in the Local Content Policy, those in the Diaspora interested in investing or returning home?If so, how will it be accomplished? If not, Why?

FINAL OBSERVATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The first principle of dealing constructively with tension is to admit that it does exist. More collaboration between the Diaspora and home is needed. This is an opportunity to actively engage the Diaspora, a relationship often cited by government leadership as desirable. To be affective, a “total engagement” i.e. including all sectors, ethnic and social groups is essential.

      Notwithstanding the sending of remittances and making voluntary contributions, the Diaspora expects reasonable, expeditious follow-up to projects they fund. The Government should familiarize itself with the diverse resources and capacities of the Diaspora and embrace it as a trusted partner, enhancing public/private venture collaboration.

     The President of Guyana recently urged the Diaspora “not to be lazy in taking advantage of opportunities and promises at home”. If this beckoning is to be taken seriously, the inclusive nature of such an offer is essential. The Diaspora is not monolithic, but differentiated by traditional group identities and acculturation to an adopted home. Some are bound by emotional attachment or an interest in nation building, while  others, perhaps more politically conscious, prognosticate from afar what must be done to improve conditions in the home country. Tension is likely to subside if emphasis is placed on recognition and accountability to stakeholders, and not blame. We need to rethink the way we communicate. Threats between persons in the home country and the Diaspora will only increase tension.

      Focus should be on measures to articulate “the public good” in the long term. All stakeholders should be given the opportunity to lend a voice to what the country should look like in 2050 and beyond. To what extent should the Diaspora, with its representative groups have a stake in this, if indeed inclusion is viewed as the cornerstone of Democracy?

     The Diaspora’s interest in Election Reform should not be interpreted as “outside interference”, but a genuine effort by those who remain loyal to the country, to ensure civil society’s participation in social and political change. 

A cautionary note: The announcement of a Website by the Diaspora Unit of theMinistry of Foreign Affairs is welcome news. However, mapping and skills assessment data on the Diaspora must be secured.

CONCLUSION

 The courage to have difficult conversations about tension and inclusion resonates as a beacon of hope in this seemingly fragile transnational relationship. As we navigate this journey, we must emphasize the need for a well-crafted, inclusive Diaspora Engagement Plan.

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