Last month I wrote about Chef Nina Compton’s superb performance on Bravo’s television show Top Chef and how her representing St. Lucia on that show not only put the spot light on our country but also helped to mobilize St. Lucians (if only for a few days) and create a sense of national pride at home and abroad. Now that we have sobered up and successfully concluded our 35th Anniversary of Independence celebrations, it is important for a more critical examination of the potential of our Diaspora, that is, St. Lucians living abroad, and the role that they can play in St. Lucia’s future growth and development.
The following is a typical portrayal of a Caribbean country in the Weekly Gleaner, a popular Caribbean newspaper in the UK:
When one examines the advertisements, the link with ‘our country’ becomes much more concrete. The pages are stuffed with advertisements for shipping lines, airlines, freight handlers, money transfer services (send your cash in a flash one says), plots for sale in (the Caribbean), architects, removal companies, vacation accommodation and export houses selling tropicalized refrigerators…
The above snippet is indicative of the strength of a transnational Caribbean identity and the emotional attachments that Caribbean migrants living abroad have with their home countries. This attachment is often accompanied by a sense of loyalty, belonging, yearning to return and sometimes obligations to the homeland.
Caribbean countries have a long and entrenched history with migration. Migration is an integral element in the history, culture and socio economic life of Caribbean people. Caribbean migrants, even after decades abroad continue to identify strongly with their homelands, retaining what observers such as George Gmelch will call an ‘ideology of return’. This desire to return to the homeland (whether for short visits or permanently) has been cited as one of the defining characteristics of the Diaspora and is closely associated with the existence and nature of transnational linkages established between migrants and their home country. Even when they do not return, West Indians long to know and to be a part of what is going on in their home countries. They follow events such as General Elections, Government budget debates or carnival happening back home through word of mouth, formal and social media. These transnational linkages with home coupled with a psyche to return, thus creates important opportunities for engaging the Diaspora and tapping into their potential.
Grenadian online paper (Spiceislander.com) reported back in 2008 that, “The [Caribbean] Diaspora is intellectually rich and financially strong and has been only partially exploited by Caribbean marketers…”
This is still very true today and I will go further in saying that it is not only marketers, but our governments also, have not even begun to find ways to engage its people. Unlike the Grenadian paper, I would rather not say ‘exploit’ though. It conveys a sort of using and discarding of our people. As part of the St. Lucian Diaspora myself and having done research in this area, I can say with certainty that our people even though living abroad, do want to be a part of and contribute to developments at home.
St. Lucians living abroad include professional and talented men and women who, besides remittances, have so much more to offer to their home country. However, our development planners and policy makers are yet to find creative ways of harnessing the Diaspora’s potential. And do they even understand the magnitude of this potential or the value of this important resource, which is more than just dollars and cents?
Recently a friend of mine (also St. Lucian living abroad) blogged some amazing pictures of costume designs from a St. Lucian designer living in the US and asked the question ‘why aren’t our carnival bands at home using this fellow country man to design costumes? Why are we still turning to Trinidadian designers when we have so much talent of our own?’ Her question which was quite a valid one was acknowledged by the CDF. We can only hope that the relevant bodies at home will take note and go one step further in forging some link with this talented designer. Now this is not to say that we do not have talent based at home but the point is, that in valuing our country’s human resources we must also include those St. Lucians within the Diaspora. Within today’s global village and with all the latest technology, the geographic space should not inhibit us. I often tell my friends that I do not have to be physically at home to make a contribution to my home.
Remittances (cash and kind) sent home have been quite sizeable over the years and are well documented. Not surprisingly, Caribbean governments have always had a keen interest in knowing the percent of GDP contributed by remittances or how much foreign exchange the Diaspora sends and brings home. Beyond that however, have they even considered ways of facilitating and reducing costs of remittance transfers? Have they tried to improve the banking system and transfer rates or put policies in place that will help channel remittances into positive investments for the home country? What has been done to facilitate the Diaspora so that ‘their dollars can make sense?’
Besides sending back money and barrels to family and friends, the Diaspora maintains social, cultural and political ties with the home country either through return visits, donations of goods, knowledge and information exchange. The business and personal networks that we establish abroad have the potential to translate into real tangible benefits for St. Lucia through small business development, trading links and investments in our home country. If each person in the Diaspora were to tell one friend, family or colleague about St. Lucia and encourage them to visit, the numbers of visitors to our island would increase and foreign exchange earnings would expand significantly. This would then lead to direct jobs, occupancy levels would increase and the spin-offs into the construction, transport, entertainment, insurance, banking sectors would boost our economy. All of these things alert us to the fact that the Diaspora has the potential to be a primary vehicle for the socio-economic sustainability of the home country.
In response to my last article “The Curry Goat was Sublime”, a fellow St. Lucian abroad added his thoughts,
“One does not even need to stretch one’s thinking to find great utilization for our folks in the development programmes of the Caribbean countries. Matters as simple as networking will yield untold benefits for us, national conferences on selected subject matters, such as town planning, traffic, mathematics, ICT and other related technical subject areas. We continue to perform dismally in Math and Languages, and yet we have people in the Diaspora helping out those disadvantaged kids out there but we could not be bothered to invite them here to share their experience with us and possibly make a contribution.”
We continue with top down development planning and policy. We hire foreign consultants at the highest rates, who can barely speak our language to come to give us solutions, many of which yield little returns. It is time our government and leaders recognize and engage our own. The first step in doing so is identifying the location and composition of our Diaspora. In Jamaica the Diaspora Unit at the UWI has set up a web portal with a database of Jamaican professionals based in the US, Canada and UK. This is a good strategy that other countries can follow. If managed properly we can use this database to match local needs to talent and resources in the Diaspora. As a researcher, I know that data is important. It can tell us many things; it can tell us who makes up our Diaspora, their capacity, their value and it can help us measure the impact that our people abroad can have on our socioeconomic development.
Dr. Natasha Mortley is a Sociologist and Research Specialist based at UWI, Mona, Jamaica. She is the author of the book “St. Lucian Women on the Move: The Impact of Gender Relations on Migration Decisions. Natasha.firstname.lastname@example.org