Columns

Think carefully before launching diaspora bonds

DIANE ABBOTT

Sunday, April 15, 2012    

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LAST week I had the pleasure of chairing the opening session of the Fourth Annual Jamaica-UK Investment Forum here in London. The cream of Jamaica’s leading business organisations was represented in corporate partners Grace Foods UK, Jamaica National Building Society, Jamaica Stock Exchange, Victoria Mutual, Cable and Wireless, Lime Jamaica, Blue Mountain Coffee, and PNB Paribas. The star speaker was the Hon Anthony Hilton, minister of industry, investment and commerce who gave a brilliant introductory presentation.

Investment has always been a vital issue for Jamaica. But the age of austerity has made attracting investment more difficult than ever. However, this is a very special year for Jamaica. Win, lose or place, the Jamaica track and field team will be the stars of the Olympics.

On the recent royal visit to Jamaica, pictures of Britain’s Prince Harry posing with Jamaica’s Usain Bolt made the front page of every British newspaper. There is no other international athlete who would be featured in this way. But 2012 is also Jamaica’s moment because it is the 50th anniversary of Independence. It is an opportunity to raise Jamaica’s profile to the world and to international investors.

The investment Forum was notable for the number of serious investors there. They were impressed by Minister Hilton’s presentation, but asked the practical questions that have come up for years about investing in Jamaica. The questions served as a reminder that unwieldy bureaucracy remains the biggest single obstacle to the new investor in Jamaica. But there were also people there who had invested in Jamaica and they had a positive story to tell.

There is no doubt that JAMPRO, under the leadership of Sancia Bennett–Templar, is working hard at reaching out to international investors. But desperate times call for innovative thinking. And I think that more could be done to attract investment from the Jamaica diaspora.

One idea is diaspora bonds. Some African countries are trying this. Ethiopia launched a ‘Millennium Diaspora Bond’ in 2009 to finance the building of a hydroelectric power dam. But the bond flopped.

So Ethiopia has launched a second bond, the ‘Grand Renaissance Dam Bond’, which it hopes will be more successful. The new bond is aimed at dispelling the fears that hampered its original bond issue through new features, such as the payment of interest every six months.

In Kenya, the Government says the money raised from its bonds will be tied to particular development projects with the hope that that will ensure a good uptake of the scheme. Nigeria has also indicated that its bonds will be tied to specific infrastructure and development projects.

Although Jamaicans overseas are very patriotic, they will naturally be suspicious about handing over their money to a government organisation. The danger is that the only people who make any money from a diaspora bond will be the sharp-suited businessmen whom the Government employs to devise and promote them.

Diaspora bonds are an idea worth exploring, but the Jamaican Government needs to be careful. It should also be looking at other ways to encourage the diaspora to invest.

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