Columns

Moving forward by giving back (part 1)

ID: INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE

David Mullings

Sunday, July 29, 2012    

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THE title of my column today is also the theme for the 2012 Global Diaspora Forum held by US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton in Washington, DC last week.

This is the second year, and I was fortunate to attend the first one in 2011 (see my columns from last year titled 'A report from the secretary's Global Diaspora Forum' on May 22 and 'Mobilising Diaspora entrepreneurship and investment' on June 5).

This year the focus was primarily on ways diaspora groups can give back to their countries of origin outside of remittances. Support via mentorship, entrepreneurship and early-stage investing were the key points with numerous case studies and examples presented. This is exactly what I have been saying for years and personally worked on.

However, even if members of a diaspora recognise that they can truly give back and move a country forward without moving back, it still requires those on the ground, especially public and private sector leaders, to recognise this as well.

Policies must foster investment by overseas nationals. The ability to set up business incubators and new businesses must be simplified and supported. In the same way that the US Department of State, through its Global Partnership Initiative, acts as a convener, catalyst and collaborator by bringing people together, helping them launch projects, sharing lessons and avoiding duplication, so can the various governments in the Caribbean.

The capital and expertise exist and yearn to be deployed, but in order to be mobilised there has to be a systemic shift in the way that the power of overseas Caribbean people is leveraged.

The most important panel for me was the 'Startup Diaspora: Unleashing a Transnational Ecosystem' panel because each presenter made points that directly reflected my 10 years of work related to Jamaica and what I will continue to work on.

Dilawar Syed of Yonja Media Group said that "doing business in a country is an opportunity to give back without moving back" and stressed the importance of mentorship. He also pointed out that mentorship was not a one-time session but instead was ongoing. He travels to Turkey each year and sets aside time to meet with those he is mentoring and stays in contact throughout the year.

As someone currently mentoring eight people in Jamaica I can relate. I travel to Jamaica almost once per month and always make time to sit with some of them and make myself available via e-mail and Skype when I am not in Jamaica.

Oltac Unsal of the World Bank focused on the importance of diaspora money because they were more likely to provide early-stage funding, angel investing. They were less risk averse when investing in their country of origin because they were familiar with the culture. However, he pointed out that mentorship was needed more than money, and passing knowledge gained from outside to locals was a major growth driver.

Myself and a few other overseas Jamaicans have provided seed capital to a few ventures and will eventually scale that while encouraging others. More important is knowledge transfer. I love speaking to students at high schools and universities, sharing my insights and mistakes with entrepreneurs and other groups.

Some people asked me why I was doing that instead of focusing on growing my company first, but I felt that if I saw a boat sinking and waited to help bail out the water, then the boat might not be there when I finally came back to help.

Driss Temsamani of the Maghreb Growth Fund and Citibank made the valid point that too often members of a diaspora are concerned about investing because they do not know who is going to stay back and watch the money or projects and ensure it is used wisely. That is where governance and local partners come in. Partnerships with reputable financial individuals and firms can solve that problem.

The most important point for me, however, was when Mr Syed said that you must have a higher reason than just trying to get a good return on investment: "You have to try to make a difference in the lives of people" and "if you are going to engage then you have to spend time on the ground", points that are rarely brought up.

As someone who has moved back to Jamaica twice since graduating high school to attend university in the USA and worked for 18 months each time in corporate Jamaica, I understand the value of being on the ground. I have been fortunate enough to witness the improvements, to suffer the PAYE tax increases, to work with individuals who share their personal stories, to volunteer and see the outcome over time and then to build up a strong network and my own reputation.

Mr Syed was correct when he said that if you assume you know your country even though you have not been there in years, then you lose credibility with locals, and too many overseas Jamaicans have made that mistake.

No one will welcome you with open arms if you feel that you know the problems and solutions although you have not been back for years. Nothing trumps experience.

The next 50 years of development for Jamaica requires all hands on deck. The water is rising and we need every person, local and abroad, to start bailing the water and patching the ship so that we can finally reach the destination we all know that we can reach.

David Mullings is president and CEO of Keystone Augusta and was the first Future Leaders representative for the USA on the Jamaican Diaspora Advisory Board. He can be found at facebook.com/InteractiveDialogue and Twitter.com/davidmullings

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