Reference is made to Dustin Fraser’s “A Diaspora Strategy Map is Necessary”. I can’t agree more. I wrote voluminously on the Guyanese diaspora going back to the 1980s. The government has failed to adequately tap into this rich resource for the country’s development.
One issue on which both the government and opposition agree is the imperative to involve the diaspora in development. They both espouse a diaspora policy. But there is a lot of rhetoric and no action. The attitude of the government (not just this one, but previous ones also) is not favourable to diaspora investment.
There are many inadequacies that need addressing before the diaspora can fully collaborate with the government on development or to invest in the country. Grievances like red tape, multiple clearances for licenses and approval of projects, distrust of government and politicians in general in fulfilling promises, and incentives, need to be addressed.
We had experiences where politicians come among us in the diaspora and receive royal treatment and when we go to Guyana we can’t find them. They are always busy, although they can be found at the rum shops. Both government and opposition court and address the diaspora, but never consult the diaspora on policy-making. Both sides say the diaspora has a lot of expertise and resources and urge them to return home to contribute to development. But in reality, there is no enforceable policy in place. When the diaspora comes home, the members are ignored or “hustled” for money by those very politicians who asked them to return home, or corrupt bureaucrats emulate their bosses to also demand quick bribes to approve projects.
What the country needs is a diaspora policy, which both political sides agree upon and that is enforceable, in which bureaucracy and police will not be in the way of investment.
The diaspora is accustomed to a first world style of doing business and living a first world life; one can’t expect them to return home to invest their hard earned money and follow fourth world procedures and live a fourth world lifestyle (overcoming political, bureaucratic red tape, and police corruption and living in fear of criminals who prey on them from the airport to their place of abode. A duty free vehicle is not enough to attract investment from the diaspora. The government has to clean up the place of the corrupt filth that pervades everywhere and provide security against criminal elements.
There is no doubt that the diaspora is valuable to the country – with remittances of an estimated billion US dollars (legal and underground) annually, lobbying abroad for Guyana, promoting Guyanese culture abroad, and building a good image of Guyana abroad by their education, industriousness, and work ethic.
Cheddi Jagan was the first elected leader who started a diaspora policy, although it was Bharrat Jagdeo who formulated it in policy-making. Before he was elected as the legitimate President, Jagan invited Guyanese abroad to join in nation building. After he was elected, he appealed to Guyanese to return home and participate in national development, much like Indians and Chinese in the diaspora do.
Some of us in the diaspora, including this writer, volunteered to help out in various ways, appealing to Guyanese to invest in their former homeland – collecting materials and sending to various institutions and charities in Guyana. Some of us were energised into espousing Guyana’s causes in the U.S. Of course, our support to Guyana’s interests was not automatic. We often urged politicians and parties (PPP in particular) to modify policies to suit American sensitivities; they hardly listened or took advice.
Overseas Guyanese were much enthused, and when they returned home, the welcome mat was absent. The investment culture under Burnham and Hoyte had not changed and diaspora investors gave up and returned to their first world host countries. Presidents Jagdeo, Donald Ramotar, and David Granger followed up with calls to the diaspora to invest in their former homeland. There were some takers who returned home out of nationalism and patriotism, but they soon found that appeals for investment were simply rhetoric.
The government provided no support, leaving investors to the mercy of bribe-takers. Investors were unable to expedite paperwork and made to pay huge bribes to obtain licenses. It was not worth their while to invest in Guyana and they gave up in frustration. Investment in “white man countries” (as Burnham referred to them) provided better opportunities.
The government needs a codified policy on the diaspora. An institutionalized policy is needed. The diplomatic missions abroad, particularly in North America and UK, tend to interact with the diaspora on national days or significant occasions, although they neglect sections of the community (like Queens and Mississauga) based on party politics and culture; Indians complain their cultural festivals and communities are marginalized. Diplomats must permanently interact with diaspora leaders and investors. They must not be Brooklyn-centric when PNC is in government and Queens-centric when PPP is in government.
On national policy, promotional half measures won’t work. Skilled persons in the diaspora should be asked to return home to help in development. And such requests should not be “politicized” favouring supporters of a particular party. Diaspora policy should be politics neutral. Already, disquiet has been expressed that public money is being spent on hiring diaspora individuals who are only interested in using public funds for their own well-being and promotion rather than for the well-being of country.
The diaspora should be a centrepiece of the country’s foreign policy. Visiting politicians in the diaspora should engage all communities (not just Brooklyn) with needs and priorities. The government must address diaspora suggestions and take action to remove grievances that are obstacles to investment. There is need for regular diaspora conferences (in the diaspora and in Guyana) like some of us organize in Queens. And Guyanese in the diaspora should be honoured for their work as an encouragement to promote Guyana.
Government officials can’t just “meet” overseas Guyanese whenever there is a crisis (as in the Venezuela threat) or when the government has a need. There must be a sustained ongoing policy. The government should try to get precise data on the number of Guyanese in different parts of the world and develop a skill bank. The Guyanese diaspora is more prosperous than before and its potential in Guyana’s development is huge. The diaspora need to be made aware of opportunities in Guyana. The country should have a comprehensive plan on how to lure the diaspora, offering incentives and guarantees of freedom to invest without obstacles and bribes.
Dr. Vishnu Bisram
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