By Bertram Leon
OVER THE PAST DECADE, we have been witnessing a growing number of countries becoming interested in
revisiting, refreshing and rebuilding relations with their overseas populations.
A contemporary subject of public policy, referred to as Diaspora strategy or policy, has emerged. Not surprisingly, there now exists emergent interest in formulating Diaspora strategies to enhance and build relations with what’s being termed the “overseas constituency.”
We are also seeing some countries moving to institutionalize the work of their Diaspora movement by establishing joint select bipartisan committee
on Diaspora affairs in their Parliament.
As an example, and responding at a convention in Jamaica, the former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding underscored his government’s commitment, not only to the achievements of their nation, but emphasizing that key aspects of Jamaica’s future development hinge on the partnership and involvement of all stakeholders, including Jamaicans in the Diaspora.
To support this, according to Inter-American Development Bank figures, off-island Jamaicans globally contributed over $2 Billion via remittances to their economy in 2010 alone. Remittances appear to far outpace other foreign exchange inflows into the Jamaican economy.
Other sister islands like Barbados, Dominica, Haiti, and Grenada have observed this and are taking similar strategic approach towards their Diaspora, and is hosting conferences, conventions and homecoming.
In 2010, during the 14th Biennial Convention (in St Lucia), the government introduced a concept paper titled “Towards a Draft Saint Lucia Diaspora Policy” for discussion amongst the St Lucian Diaspora.
The election in 2011 temporarily halted proceedings, but at the 15th Biennial Convention held in July 2012, current Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony gave a positive indication and signaled that business would resume on the policy document.
We are now at a point in our journey where we must take stock of the status of our progress towards that objective.
I mentioned at the convention in 2010 that many St Lucians who left the shores of their homeland have gone on to distinguish themselves in several diverse areas including business, health care, education, local government, technology and law.
The desire amongst us to contribute to nation building is as great as ever, and probably more so now. There is an even greater willingness on the Diaspora’s part to engage, in order to help our country shape an agenda and path which will serve to enhance development and inclusion for the common good of all St Lucians and friends of St Lucia.
So what do I believe is now needed to move this agenda forward?
I believe that St Lucia’s government should be resolute in enacting the necessary policies that would formalize the relationship between the
Diaspora and St Lucia. This should include:
Promoting national discussion at home and abroad on the role of the Diaspora in the national development agenda; formation of a committee of persons drawn from the Diaspora, the local community and representatives from overseas missions to present applicable measures for action by our government; developing a programme of coordination and liaison between St Lucians and the other regional governments, pursuing similar efforts of empowering their overseas Diaspora to act in consort on matters of common interest; and promoting the Diaspora’s direct investment and support in various sectors of the economy in areas such as the youth sector, health, education and business.
I am, however, mindful that some sceptics may ask – will St Lucia benefit from a more strategic engagement with its overseas citizens? Which institution(s) within St Lucia, should be tasked with this?
Since St Lucia’s Independence in 1979, several meetings have been cosponsored by successive administration to showcase the potential which exists in our St Lucian people at home and abroad, and to encourage and establish longer-term relationships between St Lucia and its overseas Diaspora. In 2008, in Barbados, during the 13th Biennial Convention of the Union of St Lucian Overseas Associations (USLOA), then-Prime Minister Stephenson King gave a formal undertaking and assurance that special attention would be given to the concerns of Saint Lucians residing in other countries. This commitment was reinforced with the appointment of Ambassador Dr June Soomer (the person who would be responsible for Diaspora issues)
Which institutions within St Lucia should be tasked with the responsibility of formulating and overseeing a Diaspora strategy, or should a new institution be created for this purpose? Should and can the St Lucian government play an active or enhanced role in building the Diaspora? How can the St Lucian Diaspora be connected, so as to improve the competitiveness of St Lucian business and to stimulate St Lucia’s economic development? What challenges do the St Lucian Diaspora present to St Lucian citizenship policy and what should be the response?
These are undoubtedly very important questions, which will have to be addressed. However, I must underline that the Diaspora will have to occupy a central position in any policy development, if we are to move this initiative forward.
I do believe that adopting such a policy could herald a new chapter and an era of stronger, closer cooperation and collaboration, among those whose interest is to see us work for the common good and advancement of our country.
It has long been recognized that St Lucian in the Diaspora must organize themselves to represent much more than just a foreign exchange flow and that we should be shaping policies and programmes with a view to assisting St Lucia.
It must also be recognized that we are an important source, contributing immensely to our country’s national income.
So whatever line one takes on the Diaspora debate, what is now beyond doubt is that our remittances are in fact a net contributor of
those cash-flows forming the core of resources in the hands of local people with relatives overseas.
Sharing our thoughts and perspective on the merits of a policy is bound to create synergies and, if this is used effectively, it can be beneficial and act as a springboard for exploring and identifying solutions to the myriad of social, economic, environmental and other issues that St Lucia has to deal with.
I am happy to repeat the statement I made two years ago, when I said that our true strength and that of any nation lies in its people, whether they are at home or aboard.
Our people are a tremendous resources, and their input into our development, provides us with the basis, for crafting an enduring economic and social dynamics, whose spin-off benefits could ensure prosperity, sustainability development and opportunities across our island. The St Lucian Diaspora remains an integral part of that resource and more importantly, the St Lucia national state.
So, the effort and contribution of the Diaspora should be welcomed, encouraged and utilize effectively, rather than being ignored,
marginalized or not taken seriously. I am sure many will agree that our country is forward thinking; so I think it is fair to say that St Lucia, like all of the Caribbean, needs to embrace the Diaspora, as the country’s sovereignty and economic, social, political and cultural nourishment are inextricably linked to the many thousands residing abroad.
There is much we can learn in the field of Diaspora strategy and development from existing international practice, from countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, China and India, who have been particularly active in leading the debate in the past decade.
Other examples are countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Sri Lanka who have for a long time developed a range of consular and other services for migrant workers, with a view to continuing their engagement with the home country.
Other governments have made a particular point of highlighting the role played by the Diaspora. In several African countries, such as Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria “homecoming summits” have been organized, to allow for discussions of opportunities and partnership between the Diaspora and home country.
In going beyond the mere establishment of relationships with the Diaspora, and amongst those perceived as having developed more successful policies in that area, are China, India and Taiwan – all have business-orientated models to involve their Diaspora in
development activity in a multi-dimensional sense.
In contrast, Taiwan has focused less on investment and more on making use of expatriates’ skills. Their government has systematically invited many
professionals to visit, to teach and network, including paying for their attendance at government-sponsored national development conferences.
I see a Diaspora policy as being a powerful developmental tool for harnessing and engaging the Diaspora. Equally, it can act as an essential link in
the chain of events that must unfold, as St Lucia moves forward.
There is a tremendous capability in terms of the level of creativity, talent, expertise, passion, and commitment in St Lucia’s Diaspora, which can facilitate and build alliances with key regional and international
partners or players and develop various businesses and other opportunities in several disciplines.
What is lacking, however, is an institutionalized platform to organize and leverage this collective talent
and influence to address local or regional issues.
A Diaspora policy could meet those needs and galvanize our overseas talents to “kontinwe bati Sent Lisi,” “continue to build Saint Lucia.”
Bertram Leon is the president of the Union of St Lucian Overseas Associations
Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.