May 17, 2021 Letters
Diaspora is an asset — economic and political. Since the time of President Cheddi Jagan, I have been goading succeeding governments to develop a formal policy (establishment of an institution or office) of continuously engaging the diaspora which since then has grown larger than the population of Guyana and perhaps have developed a greater interest in homeland affairs than pre-1992. Presidents toyed with a diaspora policy but their hearts were not in it. The President Irfaan Ali government has announced a conference with the diaspora for May 22. It is long overdue, and it is hoped that it would not be a one-off engagement like what happened under previous governments. Some formal network should be established to engage the diaspora – whose presence in America alone is bigger than the population of Guyana – and whose investment (financially and skills) in Guyana would be key to rapid development. And there should be delineated goals.
I have worked with, studied and written extensively on diasporas – Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, India, Mexico, Fiji, El Salvador, among others. I traveled to virtually every Indian diaspora country and engaged their diasporas in North America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, and elsewhere. I don’t think anyone has traveled to more Indian diaspora countries to study and investigate the role of diasporas in development. Ashook Ramsaran and I are perhaps the only Guyanese and only persons from the Indian diaspora who have consistently engaged and worked closely with governments in India from Vajpayee (1998) to Modi to harness the resources of the Indian diaspora for India’s development and to lobby Washington for India on varied issues of concern. We were politically neutral and as such were taken into confidence by alternating governments. Ramsaran also advised the government of El Salvador on how to engage her diaspora; El Salvador has an effective diaspora engagement network in America as do Mexicans and several Central American governments.
From my studies and practical experience of working with Indian diaspora groups, mounting evidence confirm that diasporas play a significant important role in development in countries of origin. Aside from sending remittances, they have helped home countries with promoting trade and investment, transferring knowledge and skills, spurring entrepreneurship, creating businesses, forming civic groups, funding charities, building schools, opening foreign currency accounts, among other contributions to development. Indo-Caribbeans have done all the preceding in India. Politicians from every developing country have been coming to the diaspora (in North America and Europe) since the 1980s for funding for election campaigns and selected development projects of a self-interest nature. Politicians looked to see what they could get out of it for self-benefits not heart or compassion or national interests driven.
There has not been a formal policy per se on the Guyanese diaspora. It was not about country but themselves. Guyanese politicians ‘talked’ to the diaspora in their visits telling them to return home and invest but they offered no specific or concrete projects. There was no formal policy. Succeeding Guyanese governments worked with some members of the diaspora on discrete projects that benefited a few or that were self-serving. Missing is an engagement policy of mutual interest for the entire diaspora or practical collaboration as equal partners. They did not engage the diaspora as active equal partners in development; they did not seek the advice of the diaspora as the governments of India or El Salvador or Mexico or Jamaica did.
During the mid-1990s, then BJP leader Atal Beharri Vajpayee met with the Indian diaspora in Manhattan during which Guyanese Dharamdatt Sukhai Durjan broached the subjects of the role of the Indian diaspora in India’s development and the conditions of the Indian diaspora in developing countries overseas. Vajpayee committed that should his BJP were to come into government, he would commission a study on the diaspora and establish a formal institution to engage them. Vajpayee’s deputy, Lal Krishna Advani Vajpayee, made a similar commitment when he engaged the diaspora, including Guyanese, in New York. Vavpayee and Advani honoured both promises after they became PM and deputy PM respectively in 1998. An Overseas Indian Ambassador was set up in Manhattan and he engaged the diaspora regularly, including meeting Indo-Caribbeans in NY and India. Ramsaran, other Guyanese and I met with him regularly in NY on diaspora policy. We also engaged PM Vajpayee in his every visit to NY on policies beneficial to the Caribbean; we lobbied for greater assistance to the Caribbean. Manmohan Singh replaced Vajpayee as PM in May 2004. He deepened engagement with the diaspora establishing a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs headed by Vyalar Ravi who never gave up an opportunity to meet with Indo-Caribbeans to listen to their concerns and recommendations on improving relations between India and the Caribbean; he met Ramsaran regularly in NY and India. Modi replaced Manmohan as PM in May 2014, replacing the Ministry with an Office for Diaspora within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that has been actively engaging the diaspora; a junior Minister took charge of diaspora affairs. India has attracted annually tens of billions in American dollars of investment from her diaspora over the last fifteen years because of her engagement. The diaspora has championed investment and charitable and philanthropic activities in India; Indo-Caribbeans assisted in those endeavours. The government cheered the diaspora and honoured several who contributed to development of India.
Guyana should consider emulating the Indian model as indeed several other countries have done. There is need for a formal policy or structure to link diverse communities of Guyanese Diaspora, strengthen overseas the bonds, and explore the benefits of collaboration between government and diasporic groups. Just like how India formally engages her diaspora and countless overseas Indian organisations with an institutionalised structure and an office established specifically for that purpose, holding regular meetings with community leaders and consulting diaspora experts, Guyana government should examine that or a similar workable model. The government must recruit people with expertise in the field to assist it. It is not a task for amateurs or those who will learn on the job. Government needs specialists in the field. Staff has to have a love and interest and background in the field. Guyanese like Ramsaran and I, with extensive experience in the field, would be willing to lend a helping hand.
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