Wooing the Diaspora


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

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Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest - tossed to me".

- Inscription on the Statue of Liberty

The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which were once true, are today something less than that. In America, attitudes are turning hostile towards immigration. America, which prides itself on being a country of immigrants, has become selective in deciding who can legally enter its borders to enjoy the "American dream".

Surveys of new legal immigrants to the US show a larger percentage of these persons having, for example, post graduate degrees compared to native-born Americans. By some estimates, up to 75 per cent of Jamaicans with higher education credentials live in the US.

There is growing public opinion that developing countries like Jamaica should take advantage of the changing trends toward immigration in the US and OECD countries by adopting a policy of training professionals and skilled labour for export. I stand firm in the belief that in the age of globalisation, when talent is the magnet that attracts investments to a country and the ingredient that produces growth, such a policy ultimately succeeds only in keeping the sending country in perpetual underdevelopment. The math is difficult but there is enough research to prove that the receiving country benefits more than the one losing its best talent in their prime working years.

That's not to say there are no benefits to be had from a bad situation in which Jamaica is not able to productively employ the talent it has within its borders. One only needs to look at remittances which, at close to US$2 billion, is the largest foreign exchange earner to be convinced that an employed teacher in New York is of greater economic value to Jamaica than an unemployed one in Kingston. But if we are going to woo the Diaspora to invest in Jamaica's development, we must present a more compelling case than we have done up to now.

To this end, the conversation must change. Talk of a Diaspora development bond must be allowed to die a natural death. Diane Abbott, in her Sunday Observer, March 31, 2013 column says what we already know: "Although the Diaspora is happy to send millions every year to friends and family, they are wary of investing in Government - sponsored schemes and Jamaica financial instruments". Finsac, the JDX and NDX are the final nails in the coffin.

The Jamaica Diaspora Conference will take place June 16-19, 2013 at the Montego Bay Conference Centre. There are signs of a fresh wind blowing that should encourage wider participation by Jamaicans living overseas and yield more tangible results for the nation.

The Jamaica Diaspora Institute (JDI) headed by Prof Neville Ying is partnering with CUSO headed by Tarik Perkins in an innovative mentoring programme, to connect members of the Diaspora with enterprising inner-city youth to fuel their entrepreneurial projects. Agency for Inner-city (AIR) and Council for Voluntary Social Services (CVSS) are partnering to stage the historic Trench Town Trade Fair from June 20-22, 2013; to be used as a medium for members of the Diaspora to directly meet and do business with micro-entrepreneurs drawn from depressed communities from across the island. Giving to philanthropic causes and investing in communities go to the heart of what motivates the Diaspora.

Government will obviously continue to be involved. How could they miss the opportunity to seek to attract investors in the proposed Kingston Logistics Hub; a mega project that will position Jamaica to reap rich rewards from trans-shipment and related business when the Panama Canal expansion project is completed in a couple of years? There is a seeming indifference in approach though. Junior minister in the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, Sharon Ffolkes-Abrahams, herself up until recently a leading light in the Diaspora, understand the risks of an overly hard sell of a Government initiative to this constituency. So too does Mark Thomas who is key in the planning from the Government's investment arm Jampro. They seem prepared to play the role of facilitator rather than being the proverbial elephant in the room.

Ultimately, Jamaica's success in wooing the Diaspora to invest in the country's development will be dependent on whether the Government, the private sector, non-government institutions and the rest of us are able to make Jamaica into an attractive, business friendly investment location. Until we fix the failures in the governance (political and social) system, the relationship with the Diaspora will remain largely one of them sending remittance that go mainly into consumption from which they hardly benefit; a most painful and wasteful exercise from which every Jamaican, working in the cold and often unfriendly climate of North American and Europe, prays she/he will be weaned one day.





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