The process of birthing the Global Diaspora Jamaica Council (GDJC) doomed it from the beginning.
Most veterans of Diaspora community engagement and active support for the homeland raised concerns about the way the current Government of Jamaica conceived of, launched, and exercised control over the council. Several issues arose concerning its terms of reference and purpose.
Among the concerns was the very limited consultation by the Government with the Diaspora on its formulation of a Diaspora policy and the structure and establishment of the GDJC. It was ill-conceived, and it was perceived as disdain for meaningful Diaspora input in creating a policy of engagement that would serve the mutual interests of the Diaspora and the country. The conclusion was that the council was designed to serve the exclusive interests of the Government.
In addition to the lack of meaningful consultations with the Diaspora, several other issues emerged. Among them was how the GDJC was constituted. Only one-third of its members were "elected" by the Diaspora and a two-thirds majority appointed by the minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade who serves as chair. The appointed members serve at the will of the minister. Also, the fact the minister served as chair of the council gave further support to the view it is government-controlled. Under these circumstances, no matter how the Government dresses it up, the GDJC, as conceived, structured, and operated, is perceived as an instrument of the Government.
In the first election of members from the Diaspora several candidates emerged who were literally unknown as individuals who had track records of Diaspora communities engagement. Those with the most sophisticated online campaigns were elected. That is not to suggest these were not well-qualified professionals in their own disciplines.
A few believed that having been elected by members of the Diaspora they were representing Diaspora interests. A few of the few were disappointed when faced with the reality that they were expected to act as advisers to the Government and conduits of government communications to the Diaspora and not vice versa. I was made to understand that those who sought to represent Diaspora interests were often frustrated with the way the council functioned.
Questions which arose as to the purpose and structure of the GDJC, whether it served the interests of the Government or the interests of the Diaspora, and whether members should be government appointees were answered directly. However, the overwhelming view in the Diaspora is that the council serves the interests of the Government and not the interests of the Diaspora. Perhaps mutual interests could have been served if that was intended. But that was not the political objective and that was not the case.
The results of the most recent elections to the council overwhelmingly demonstrated rejection by the Diaspora of its purpose, structure, and operation. A few incumbents declined to seek re-election, primarily because of their disenchantment.
All three of the incumbents in the UK were unopposed for re-election. There were a total of 148 votes electing the three candidates in the UK. I am reliably informed that no candidates came forward to contest the incumbents because there was very little interest in participating in a structure designed to serve the Government at the expense of the Diaspora.
While there may be common interests, there are also significant differences between the interests of the Government and that of the Diaspora. The Government was warned from the outset that the overwhelming perception was that the structure and its control over the GDJC led to only one plausible conclusion: It is intended to be an instrument of the Government and not in service to the Diaspora. Many believe the council to be a propaganda arm of the Government. Why has it been difficult for the portfolio minister to understand or take heed of these concerns?
In speaking broadly with members of the Diaspora, I find, overwhelmingly, they believe the Government is arrogant and harbours mistrust of an independent Diaspora organisation with broad, independent Diaspora representation. Many believe strongly that the Government wants the Diaspora to serve a political purpose. Most members of the Diaspora reject any such attempt by any Government and will not allow themselves to be manipulated, used, or managed to achieve political party objectives. Most members of the Diaspora are patriotic Jamaicans whose connections to the country of their birth or heritage transcend political party affiliation in their support of Jamaica. That is how it has been and that is how it will continue.
The extremely low participation of the Diaspora in the most recent GDJC elections should come as no shock. The message has been very clear from the beginning. With a Jamaican population in the US north-east, from Maine to Virginia, a region which includes Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, with perhaps as many as two million Jamaicans, less than 100 members voted in the Diaspora-populated north-eastern US.
Yet the minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, perhaps in denial, issued a press release declaring the election as "keenly contested" and applauded the fact that a total of "over three thousand voters participated in the process… across six electoral regions [Canada, UK, and US]." That is out of a Diaspora comprising approximately five million, and an "electoral process which spanned a four-month period…" The minister also claimed, "The elections involved multiple stakeholders and attracted the attention of business, community, church, and other civil society leaders in the Diaspora." Where and in whose imagination?
Clearly, the experience within the Diaspora was quite the opposite. One can only perceive that the press release was intended for consumption solely by the Jamaican public to give the impression that the Government's Diaspora policy is successful and there is broad support for it. Of course, neither is true, and members of the Diaspora have no idea what the Government's diaspora policy, except for the misconceived council, really is. There is a lack of transparency as to the Government's objectives, but action or inaction speaks louder than words.
Some members of the Diaspora are now seriously contemplating strengthening and broadening the remit of existing Diaspora-based organisations to assume greater responsibilities in representing Diaspora interests. Unless the Government accepts its own failure and engages in broad consultations to establish an acceptable framework for Diaspora engagement, and do it now, we can expect to see emerge a Diaspora mechanism for engagement between the Diaspora and the country without much input from the Government. Such a structure would not merely be an alternative to GDJC, but a replacement.
None of this disinterest is attributable to Diaspora malaise. Thousands of Diaspora members unceasingly provide assistance to Jamaica and hundreds of thousands more provide support to those who lead these efforts. Diaspora cash remittances now exceed US$3 billion per year. The lack of participation in the elections is saying to the Government, "Wheel and tun again!"
Ambassador Curtis A Ward is a former ambassador of Jamaica to the United Nations, an attorney-at-law, and CEO of Curtis Ward & Associates. He is also chairman of the Caribbean Research & Policy Center, Inc and adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia.
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