Diaspora engagement and its possibilities


Monday, November 26, 2012

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I am still hopeful: Jamaica isn't a sinking ship, we are just navigating treacherous waters. In many ways I feel more embedded in Jamaican society than in any of my "domiciles" in the USA.

I truly feel completely comfortable only when I'm in Jamaica. Jamaica is home. I'd like to propose some pathways that will facilitate the Jamaican government being able to take advantage of the human capital and fealty to the "land we love" of forgotten scions abroad in the diaspora. Those who see things through an apolitical lens, who love Jamaica, are still plugged in to social, familial and professional networks and who are imbued with patriotism and genuine desire to impact Jamaica positively.

I love Jamaica. In addition to my leisure trips over the years I've worked in Jamaica, first researching HIV at Cornwall Regional Hospital and the western parishes in summer 2009, and as the HIV portfolio intern at the United Nations Development Programme in summer 2012. A source of pride for me is that I have kept my Jamaican accent intact throughout the years, and nothing brings a smile to my face more than being lauded for that and being told, "You are still very much a Jamaican." I read the two national newspapers daily and speak to my cousins and friends about current events in Jamaica weekly.

I flew into Sangster International Airport on election day last year and took the Knutsford Express into Kingston that same day. I was brimming with excitement at the spirited conversations I'd be having that night with my cousins at my Uncle Neville's house and friends on the phone about their views and their vote. To my chagrin none of my cousins voted, nor did any of my close friends. In addition to the endemic apathy of my generation, I find my cousins and friends to be extremely partisan as it relates to the orange and the green. On the other hand, I consider myself to be apolitical and wary of political labels. I have seen good and bad in both parties and their policies. I'm a Jamaican first and foremost.

I don't for one second think that I am the only Jamaican immigrant who has maintained his strong connections to home, while not being susceptible to the disillusionment that seems to have dissuaded many Jamaicans of my generation from voting. Of my circle of about 10 friends and relatives who immigrated to the US as children or young adults, half would be amenable to moving back home and putting their skills to good use both in the public and private sectors. "Amenable" does not do my line of thinking justice, for me it's more like alacrity. How does the Jamaican government take advantage of individuals like me? Glad you asked.

I propose that the Office of the Prime Minister create a Jamaica House Prime Minister's Fellowship programme for young professionals (six from the diaspora, three home-grown Jamaicans). This programme would be modelled after the USA's White House Fellows Programme. The US Fulbright Public Policy Programme should be looked to as the model for financing these fellowships. The USA, Canada and the UK have significant Jamaican populations; it is my belief that the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), European Union (EU), the United Nations Country Team (UNCT) can all be sold on sponsoring a Jamaica House Prime Minister's Fellow at approximately US$45,000 a year. Likewise, the Jamaican private sector should be called upon to sponsor the three homegrown fellowships as a part of their individual corporate social responsibility strategy or under the auspices of PSOJ. Both the sponsoring agencies and companies can make accepting the fellowship contingent on going to work for them for a predetermined period after the fellowship. Everybody wins!

Moreover, there needs to be strategic engagement of the wider diaspora. There needs to be a conversation about Jamaica creating a non-resident category for Jamaicans living abroad who will be subject to a modest income tax and represented by an MP or senator, or both. Furthermore, there needs to be diaspora engagement through social entrepreneurship in the vein of India Corps or Teach For All.

Lastly, just like the JFF chasing talented overseas-based football players in hopes of luring them for the campaign to Brazil, the government should recruit professionals from the Jamaican diaspora who are trailblazers in their fields. They can bring desperately needed innovative ideas that don't adhere to either the JLP or PNP political philosophy but are dedicated to the implementation of sound policy. One such professional is former Rhodes Scholar and MIT-trained economist Dr Peter Blair Henry, Dean of NYU's Stern School of Business who was born in Jamaica and who moved to the United States as a youngster. I hope he is being recruited to be a part of Dr Peter Phillips' new financial team. A role as adviser to the Ministry of Finance should be his to refuse at the very least.

In May 2014 when I've finished my Master's, and there are openings at Digicel Foundation or the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for defence, development and sports, or USAID Jamaica or the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health in need of addressing the shameful prison health situation, I know where this newly minted young professional might very well be.

Terrol Graham is a graduate student at Yale who is currently studying international development as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.





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