A few years back, the Jamaican official responsible for maintaining ties with Jamaicans living abroad declared that the money they send home “outstrips bauxite, tourism and any other sector you can think of.”
Senator Delano Franklyn, then Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, said Jamaicans who have lived abroad for many years still maintain ties with their homeland, and invest “billions of dollars” in island projects.
In addition to the dollars Jamaicans abroad send home to family members, several wealthy overseas-based Jamaicans have invested in projects “back home.” The names of Michael Lee Chin (photo above), Raymond Chang and Chris Blackwell spring to mind.
“We do not see Jamaicans living abroad any different from Jamaicans at home,” Franklyn said.
Of course, that’s not quite true. Jamaican-born citizens of other countries don’t get to vote in the island’s elections, and the Constitution prevents us from holding political office if we return home and keep our foreign passports.
So what we really have is a form of “taxation” – or at least voluntary contributions – without representation.
But some Jamaicans get to offer their advice. In 2004, the Government of Jamaica and the Jamaican private sector invited over 250 Jamaicans living overseas to convene the first Jamaican Diaspora Conference in Kingston. Since then, the conference has been held every two years. At the last conference, in 2008, more than 700 delegates convened in Jamaica and appointed seven Advisory Board members to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The fourth Biennial Jamaican Diaspora Conference is planned for Ocho Rios from June 14 to 17, and the government will probably listen politely to what the delegates have to say. But I doubt their suggestions will have much impact on official policy.
I don’t know who represents the Diaspora, as we are called. And I am sure most of the 2.5 million Jamaicans (and their descendants) living abroad don’t know either. But I am confident the Diaspora delegates are well-meaning, earnest people who are willing to contribute time and money to the welfare of their homeland.
But it looks to me like a one-way street.
From what I’ve heard, many island residents seem to resent those of us who have left home to build lives abroad, and some have taken advantage of Jamaicans who go home to retire. Foreign-based Jamaicans who have invested in island projects also have sad tales to tell.
At the 2008 Diaspora conference, delegates expressed concern about investing in the island because of previous experiences.
Here’s what Vilma Daley, a resident of the United States for over 30 years, had to say:
In the Nineties, I lost thousands of dollars in Century National Bank … even my investments in Cement (Caribbean Cement Company), Eagle (Merchant Bank), and Telecommunications of Jamaica (Cable & Wireless) went to nothing. At this point I feel safer investing my money in the U.S.
From what I’ve read, Jamaica needs help now more than ever. And the Diaspora could make a world of difference to the island’s future. But the Jamaican authorities seem altogether too casual about making use of this resource.
According to Wikipedia, an estimated 60 percent of the highly educated people of Jamaica now live abroad. You would think Jamaica’s government would make a more earnest effort to involve these educated Jamaicans in the island’s future.
This effort should include an education program to enlighten island residents to the contributions being made by Jamaicans who live abroad – and to the valuable resources available from those of us who choose to return home.