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Mobilising a fragmented diaspora

Published:Sunday | May 20, 2012 | 12:00 AM


As a percentage of its resident population, the Anglophone Caribbean has one of the world's largest diasporas.

Despite this, its community overseas is, for the most part, fragmented, poorly organised and rarely mobilised in support of the interests of the region.

Moreover, as new generations emerge and are assimilated by host societies this valuable resource has become semi-detached from its origins and its capacity to help diminished.

One consequence is that the region's ability to wield political influence in North America and Europe, the two regions where most Caribbean expatriates or their offspring reside, compares unfavourably to the structured approach of groups from elsewhere.

It also contrasts with the very active engagement of the Dominican Republic and Haiti's large communities in North America who having the right to vote at home, or in the case of Haiti may soon have, feel fuller participants in the societies from which they originated.

It now seems, very late in the day, that a consensus is emerging among the Caricom political class that there is a need for a better organised and more coherent approach, if the Caribbean's community overseas is to play a supportive role in the nations in which they reside or be encouraged to support Caribbean economic development.

A recent Caricom foreign ministers communiqué contained language referring to this and the need to enhance engagement with the Caribbean diaspora.

redoubling efforts

Meeting in Paramaribo earlier this month, foreign ministers agreed on the need to formulate a regional policy that would provide a platform for mobilising the talents, skills and resources of the communities of Caribbean origin overseas; the objective being 'to promote trade and investment, national development, policy formulation and advancing the interests of the Community'.

This was linked to a strongly worded statement about what ministers described as the discriminatory implementation by Britain of its air passenger duty and the negative impact the tax is having on the region's revenue sources.

According to the communiqué, ministers intend redoubling their lobbying efforts in the United Kingdom (UK) 'with the continued support and influence of the Caribbean diaspora, to vigorously advocate for review of the tax'.

The idea of formally embracing the region's broader community is welcome but far from new.

The initiative which, in part, is expected to lead to major conferences in Europe and North America, requires much more detailed commentary from ministers on how in the longer term their aspirations are to be delivered, who is to fund such an approach and what kind of organisation is to be put in place either in the region or overseas.

What is striking about today's Caribbean diaspora is how diverse it has become; how, for the most part, it remains even in its third generation divided by country of origin or familial affiliation; how academic achievement, economic status and societal aspiration have modified the way successful parts of the community want to relate to the region; and how, as a consequence, there is a not well-recognised need for the Caribbean to address its far from homogenous community overseas with many different voices and in many different ways.

In the absence of clear direction, this poses a problem if Caribbean governments, diplomatic representatives overseas or even regional institutions are to attempt to weld the Caribbean's community into a more coherent force.

Look at the ways in which other diaspora groups organise them-selves in the nations to which their one-time citizens departed and one immediately realises how far behind and disorganised the Caribbean is.

Search the Internet and there are bright interactive websites in the United States, Europe and Canada for a multitude of diaspora community groups, political action committees and corporate services that link communities from say Croatia to Palestine or El Salvador back to their homelands.

Some nations such as India go further and have programmes to honour and offer special categories of citizenship to high achievers in their overseas community while others have established peer-to-peer relationships that enable some of their most successful sons and daughters to share their experience, contacts and influence to the benefit of the country from which their parents or grandparents came.

What the Caribbean has not done is undertake such a task in a systematised way or made such linkages attractive or easy.

While most of the region's embassies and high commissions try to relate to their communities, this needs to be organised with clear economic or political intent and support from home.

What is little understood is that the Caribbean's new-found interest in its community coincides with an interest in Europe and North America in trying to find ways to better relate to the region through its diaspora.

So much so that many Governments and extraregional institutions now say they would actively welcome a stronger Caribbean lobby, able to act politically, mobilise interest, enhance strategic thinking about the region and improve economic relations.

For instance in the area of entrepreneurial development, the US State Department in partnership with the Department For International Development, the UK's development ministry, the Inter-American Development Bank and others, recently launched a business competition aimed at promoting jobs and economic growth in the region.

This involves encouraging partnerships between members of the Caribbean diaspora in the US, Canada, and the UK with entrepreneurs in the Caribbean through a Caribbean Marketplace Challenge Fund that will provide a US$0.1 million grant to each of the 10 best business plans involving partnerships in Cariforum.

addressing minority voters

In recent weeks too, the UK Conservative peer, Lord Ashcroft, who grew up in Belize, published research on UK minority voting, suggesting in part the need for his party to address the view among black voters of Caribbean origin that his party was actively hostile to their interests.

It was not right, he wrote, that in contemporary Britain a large part of the population should feel that a mainstream party of government, which aspires to represent every part of society has nothing to say to them.

All this is promising but what is missing is an organisational lead from the Caribbean sustainable funding, leadership that bypasses community cronyism and a younger generation who can bring new thinking and a fresh appeal to the many differences of experience and opinion that exist in the Caribbean's overseas community.

Also required is a viable means of communication, something far from difficult in an age of social networking and low cost globally-visible websites.

But above all, what is needed is wider recognition that while political or national affiliation in the community has an important place, a regional approach would be truly empowering.

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council. Email david.jessop@caribbean-