Connecting the Caribbean with its Diaspora

A few days ago Jamaica’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Arnaldo Brown, announced that his Government intends setting up a comprehensive database of its professionals and investors living overseas.

The work will be undertaken in conjunction with the Geneva based inter-governmental body, the International Organization on Migration.

His department, he says, has been examining successful Diaspora models in countries with well-developed Diaspora models including Israel, India, Ireland, China and Mexico with the intent of replicating successful elements for Jamaica.

Critically, in doing so he recognised that for Jamaica, or any country serious about engaging with its Diaspora, that it is a full time enterprise, has a cost, and means that existing and external bodies addressing Diaspora affairs need to be strengthened and made effective.

The Minister also suggested that Jamaica might develop a comprehensive database of those connected with Jamaica in strategic places; who have the potential to influence decision making; and who might invest in Diaspora bonds to, as he put it, ‘pay down on the debt … (and) … build infrastructure’.

Mr Brown’s remarks seemed to suggest that much of Jamaica’s emphasis will be on using the proposed new database as vehicle to encourage investment as a way of helping address Jamaica’s economic problems by capturing some of the US$2 billion Jamaica presently receives in remittances that go directly to relatives and friends.

Despite the perhaps questionable assumption that those sending remittances would invest money in Government bonds, Jamaica’s announcement represents a first serious attempt by any Caribbean country other than the Dominican Republic, which already has far-reaching Diaspora programmes, to recognise that a professional and concerted approach is required if any Caribbean nation is to leverage the latent economic and political power of its community abroad.

That said taking the matter forward will be complex. As anyone who has had exposure to the Caribbean’s North American and European Diaspora will know, defining the nature of the very different communities on either side of the Atlantic, let alone accommodating their multifaceted social identity, attitudes, political divisions, and variable connections with their former homelands, is becoming ever more complex.

For the most part, the Caribbean seems not to have accepted that its communities overseas are now far from homogenous; are rapidly fragmenting into quite different component categories that require much closer analysis given their quite different needs; and are slowly losing interest in the region from where their grandparents came.

What is apparent is that each grouping requires addressing differently.

To put it bluntly, the links with what was once ‘home’ that the young achieving, highly-educated, non-national, third-generation hedge fund manager in New York or London will have, will be more tenuous and subject to a different form of appeal than that to an older first generation migrant working at mid-level in a hospital in Toronto or Manchester; which is to say nothing about the difficulty of trying to reach the second generation, who in some cases feel neither Caribbean nor the product of the nation in which they live.

For this reason it will be interesting to learn how any database will attempt to address the sensitive issues that go with categorising and then motivating the various groups in the Diaspora, let alone accommodating the significant differences between the region’s community in North America and in Europe.

What is increasingly apparent is that many individuals of Caribbean background who are high achievers, in Europe in particular, do not necessarily see themselves as Caribbean. Through education, their parents’ sacrifice and their personal achievement, they feel apart and want an individual relationship with a region that has become remote.

Speaking to individuals in this category who are working at high levels in academia, government, the city and the private sector, they make clear that what they want is to find a way to establish peer-to-peer relationships with like-minded individuals in the region, and to get to know more of the country of their heritage.

This group often has power or access and, sensitive though it may be, requires being treated in a manner that is different to the broader Caribbean community through different mechanisms and networks.

This is in no way to set aside the importance of other parts of the Diaspora, but to recognise that any government supported approach to the development of Diaspora programmes requires creative new thinking about a range of approaches and appeals.

It also requires politicians and officials to focus more on the elemental forces of demand and supply. Instead of spending time initially focussing on raising money, greater success and perhaps eventual investment will come from investigating what the Caribbean’s community overseas want from a relationship and in then developing well-differentiated schemes that relate to their needs.

One simple low cost way to foster this and to leap the physical and cost boundaries is to develop an on-line approach that recognises the desire for peer-to-peer relationships between professionals overseas and in the region. Establishing something akin to a Caribbean LinkedIn or Facebook is not rocket science, does not need studies or external funding, and could be driven commercially. In other words there may be more rapid short term value in taking what is dynamic about everything online and enabling it, in an un-controlled way, to catalyse new relationships in a region that has by global standards extraordinarily high levels of internet penetration and social media usage.

If the Caribbean is ever to catch up with the twenty first century and bring its younger generation into new relationships that generate growth, networking with like-minded individuals from the community overseas will form an important part.

Whatever strategy Jamaica eventually adopts may provide a guide for other Caribbean nations who only now, in crisis, and despite being up to fifty years on from independence, are belatedly coming to realise that their communities overseas might become a political and economic force for good and play a much bigger role in national development.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at