Diaspora Engagement: Assessing Tensions and Solutions due of Social and Economic Transformation in Guyana — By Lear Matthews

This two-part article examines the tensions between the diaspora and home country and efforts to resolve them. This timely presentation is informed by the imminent economic windfall which requires constructive dialogue, collaboration, and informed policy, and argues that geographic separation should not prevent a common identity and the will to achieve a mutually beneficial purpose.

Diaspora Engagement: Assessing Tensions at a Time of Social and Economic Transformation in Guyana

— By Lear Matthews      (PART 1)

Transnational ties between immigrants and their home country is a universal phenomenon, but the relationship is often tenuous if not ambiguous. Diaspora engagement presupposes the formation of a partnership for development in which immigrants bring “potential value” to the development process through the provision of financial resources and human capital. Ideally, this situation augments connections and contributes to nation-building. Nevertheless, tensions do exist though not readily acknowledged.             

Within this context tension is viewed as stress or conflict caused by perceptual or felt differences, which may lead to feelings of frustration and misgivings between the two groups. At times they may be literally ‘worlds apart’. There appears to be an awareness of tension inadvertently causing a barrier to communication and collaboration on both sides of the transnational universe.  Yet few studies have addressed the problem. This article interrogates this neglected dimension of diaspora/home relationship and its impact on nation building. Although not unique to Guyana, it begs the question particularly at a time of transformative socio-economic change.

Certainly there are examples of cooperation and commitment to regional development. Various projects and remittance exchanges exemplify transnational collaboration, but evidence of tension does not go unnoticed. The Minister of Finance felt the need to warn Guyanese to stop criticizing their country of origin, while others appealed for an end to simmering resentment between those who stayed and the diaspora “before it’s too late”. This implies reciprocal culpability. The relationship appears to fluctuate between complementary and conflictual.

Diaspora communities exhibit various patterns of engagement. One source of tension is social remittances, i.e. the ideas, practices, identities and social resources that shape the encounters between home and diaspora. The methods and attitudes exhibited by immigrants may conflict with traditional ‘local ways’ of doing things. These actions and reactions often provoke exasperation on both sides. How such behaviors are likely to affect meaningful engagement of the diaspora with the veracity of oil and gas discovery in Guyana is a challenging proposition. There is some dispute regarding the sincerity of efforts to recruit Guyanese from the diaspora, viewed as an “untapped resource”, for employment in the oil and gas sector.

The intent is not to cast blame, but highlight the importance of internal socio-cultural values, structures and external contexts – how they interact, polarize and contribute to national development. Understanding the dynamics of these relationships and developing strategies to mitigate negative interactions are critical. Otherwise, their value and potency at this crucial time in nation’s history will not be fully realized. The objective is to determine the sources of tension, the ways in which it is manifested, possible solutions and how the latter can be a factor in progressive change. This relationship is invariably characterized by mistrust and uncertainty, and as some observers note, essentializing differences, identity, power and privilege particularly as these relate to interaction with local institutions.

Government cannot always hastily make effective policy changes, but may be in a position to do so in a lucrative economy. However, a history of corruption, lack of confidence in the problem solving ability of state agencies and ethnic cleavage have alienated diasporans and local population. Assessing these phenomena is crucial in light of the emerging technological, health and management needs. This requires a range of expertise and skills, which are among the attributions of Guyanese in the diaspora and at home. Failure to acknowledge the pejorative impact of tensions and institute approaches to “ease” them could minimize diaspora contributions to development. Some of the tension is influenced by less-than-candid government officials, as well as those in civil society who criticize or trivialize the importance of projects attempted by diasporans. Similarly, the use of social media by some in the diaspora to fan the flames of ethnic/racial vitriol exacerbates tensions.

Tensions appear to be more acute with the government officials/politicians than with local home communities. Diasporans complaint about opportunistic ‘overseas visits’ by politicians circa national elections. Further, the government  seems reluctant to implement potentially workable programs proposed by  diasporans. In this regard, the periodic practice of preferential hiring of non-Guyanese has been controversial. Similarly disconcerting, some members of the diaspora are bias toward locals, not acknowledging or validating their qualifications, skills and abilities. These actions are not only counterintuitive, but fuel tension and stagnate change. There is need for open dialogue informed by a collective conscience influenced less by mistrust and politics than openness to diverse ideas from stakeholders  (at home and abroad) in a time of impending prosperity. This would diffuse tensions and facilitate meaningful change. (Part Two will focus on possible solutions to tensions).

—–

Possible Solutions to Tensions at a Time of Social and Economic transformation in Guyana

By Lear Matthews    (PART 2)

Geographic separation should not prevent a common identity and the will to collaborate.  Mutual respect, compromise, a sense of community, validating strengths and acknowledging failure underscore successful  diaspora engagement.  Such qualities are conducive to an environment in which members of the diaspora, home country government and civil society can work cooperatively – A recipe for success  particularly in a transforming society.

Guyanese diasporans have demonstrated the desire to help and not replace or displace locals. In his report on Caribbean immigrants, A. Edmund (2016) notes, “there is evidence that most within the diaspora are more interested in leveraging their positions in their home away from home, than in returning to tinker with local initiatives… a welcome sign for any who may fear  this group is interested in supplanting them” . This should decrease tension-producing misconceptions, notwithstanding the fact that some diasporans have accused locals of being xenophobic. Nevertheless, progressive societal transformation is not motivated by unsubstantiated claims, but by fact-finding, informed policy planning and capacity building. Both local population and diaspora have demonstrated the desire to become agents of change and development without strife.

Regardless of the circumstances under which immigrants leave the home country, many identify with the land of their birth.  There is no evidence of a ‘rush’ to return due to the anticipated economic windfall. While some observers predict the diminution of the diaspora and its demise as a source of revenue or other form of engagement, others  with political motivations discourage connecting with the homeland altogether. However, there should be more opportunities for dialogue and collaborative planning to  counter nefarious opportunism.  In furtherance of this idea, Guyanese-born business consultant C. Roberts (2015) suggested that the diaspora participate in policies, planning and delivery of professional services.

Framing a plan to curb tensions must be well informed by the lived experience and narratives of the local population and returning Guyanese. The latter group has a unique, instructive perspective since Guyana became their preferred center of identity and attachment. The following are experiential examples:

*The government, with rhetorical overtures, want remittances, political donations and money for projects. …they don’t want the Diaspora’s skills, knowledge, experience or expertise.

* Some locals believe that the Diaspora abandoned them, they’re not to be trusted, are more like foreigners. 

*Locals fail to realize that they need the Diaspora because an insufficient number of them have the skills, expertise or knowledge to bring the country into the 21st century.

*After proposing changes in one sector of the administration, a frustrated returnee fretted: If I, who am here, with all my professional expertise, find it so difficult breaking into the inner circles of the bureaucracy, how much more the newly returning Guyanese?

* A local Guyanese stated, I don’t mind them coming back, but to demand certain jobs!?

*Yet another reported: I know several (returning) professional Guyanese enthusiastically desiring to use their training and experience to assist their country, but they cannot get past political gridlock. Some have packed up and returned from whence they came. It is difficult for overseas Guyanese offering skills to break the inner circle of bureaucracy (Stabroek News, 2016). Influenced by acculturative habits, diaporans tend to believe individuality and innovation are generally valued over patronage, obedience and deference. They may also denigrate local cultural values and community style and feel restrained from being their authentic self. The University of Guyana should conduct research to explore these phenomenon from a local perspective.

The goal is to draw from these experiences as a barometer for factual, open, apolitical discussion, without negative labeling from either side. The focus should be on identifying differences, decreasing skepticism and realizing effective, palpable communication among those desirous of making a contribution to nation-building. Generational tension must also be addressed. The dialogue and action plan must include youth, many of whom feel “left out” by the home country establishment and alienated from ‘aging’ diaspora organizations. However, the latter can play a ‘bridging’ role to develop programs at home and the diaspora to engage the youth, identify miscues, areas of commonality and differences between the generations as they navigate to resolve issues that marginalize and divide.

Conclusion

This presentation provides insight into challenges, cause and effects of tension between the home country and diaspora. Practical solutions which harness contributions to development through diaspora engagement are suggested and  hopefully inform policy.  A well-honed diaspora engagement policy and action plan is critical. In this process, it is not idealistic to hope for a cordial , productive relationship between interdependent heritage-related groups in light of increasing  globalization, particularly for a nation anticipating  major socioeconomic transformation.

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Comments

  • Trevor  On February 21, 2020 at 11:19 am

    Remigrant Guyanese are victims of xenophobia 2.0 as one commentator alleged:

  • Trevor  On February 21, 2020 at 11:23 am

    Robert Badal’s issue with an Afro-Guyanese remigrant investing in hotels at Ogle:

    • Trevor  On February 21, 2020 at 12:14 pm

      “We are aliens in our own country” [in response to Edmund Braithwaite’s investment in a Hilton franchise at Ogle]

      Robert Badal should be hauled into the Ethnic Relations commission for preaching pro-Trump, anti-immigrant rhetoric. He is treading down a dangerous path by castigating Braithwaite as a ‘foreigner’ when he is a remigrant Guyanese who established his business in GT since 1998.

      Robert Badal wants to stoke racial tensions by encouraging his Indo-Guyanese supporters to mistreat Guyanese and Caribbean nationals deemed as ‘foreigner’.

      Hypocritical given that Badal, Hinds and their family members might be applying for US Visa, or have US citizenship like Hinds. How do African-Americans feel that Hinds & Badal are preaching ‘nationalism’ while using the American healthcare system on the taxpayer dime?

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