Tapping into the diaspora
Stabroek News
February 8, 2007

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We often make jokes about our mythical Region 11, whether it be Queen's, New York, or as we say for everywhere Guyanese find themselves overseas, "Foreign". Joking apart, Guyana is in fact more than the 83,000 square miles of our official land mass. And by extension, we are more than the roughly 750,000 people, who inhabit our country.

Our diaspora, perhaps equal to or more than our actual population, is very real, with recognizable and dynamic communities in such metropolitan centres as London, New York, Toronto and Miami, to name just the most prominent. And Guyanese and the children of Guyanese immigrants have achieved widespread recognition as hardworking, upstanding citizens, with a track record of achievement in almost every area of endeavour.

The basic building block for a country's social and economic development is its people. But at home the severe lack of qualified and skilled human capital is seriously handicapping our efforts to achieve economic growth, social stability, political maturity and the consolidation of our nationhood.

In a letter on Tuesday dealing with the issue of the parliamentary bills, the unnamed letter writer suggested in passing that there should be "a website that allows people overseas and the government to match skills and needsā€¦ [as] a good start to using skilled overseas Guyanese".

It is not the first time that such an idea has surfaced in the public discourse. The opposition parties, the private sector, civil society, the government, almost every group of note has at one time or another spoken of the importance of tapping into the diaspora. One recalls in particular a letter last September from Mr GHK Lall about encouraging Guyanese to return home, in which he argued that instead of talking about a "brain drain", we should be regarding our emigrants as a "brain bank firmly pillared through a plethora of skills, capital, and ancillary assets".

It is a welcome and positive way of looking at the problem. But let's be realistic. Guyanese with the requisite skills and other assets are not going to re-migrate in significant numbers given the sorry state of our education and health systems, and the grave threats to personal security. As Mr Lall readily recognized, "the challenge is how to bring them back".

It is not that Guyanese abroad do not love their country. Witness the countless voluntary support groups that send money, equipment, schoolbooks and all sorts of other material donations back home. Indeed, some of these groups also send teams of skilled volunteers back to do good works during their vacation. We need to build on the enormous goodwill that resides overseas and start to harness these resources in a more systematic manner.

Guyana is not unique among developing countries in having lost a great percentage of her human resources through emigration. Nor is Guyana unique in needing to encourage the return of expatriate skills, whether permanently or temporarily.

The international institutions and the donor community have at various times implemented different schemes aimed at reversing the brain drain in developing countries. The most notable one has perhaps been the UNDP TOKTEN programme - the Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals - a "brain bank" in effect, used to mobilize expatriate skills, as an adjunct to technical cooperation, via short-term consultancies in their countries of origin. In Guyana, it is currently being applied on a voluntary basis, which may limit its scope somewhat.

The problem however, when overseas-based Guyanese return as anything but volunteers to undertake a consultancy or even to assume a permanent position under better terms than local Guyanese, is that there is usually resentment. The end result is more often than not a disincentive to the development of initiative and skills among those anchored in their native land.

But we need these overseas skills and we need to find ways to make their repatriation attractive, even if it means paying the market rate for them. At the same time, we need to find ways to provide incentives to public servants, who have for too long been neglected as the working poor.

Just one way to use diaspora skills more strategically would be in capacity building, training and mentorship, with a view to rebuilding our public institutions and putting in place sustainable systems, with a strong emphasis on human resource development.

The suggestion of a website is a good one, but it would need to be structured and managed in such a way as to allow for the creation of a comprehensive database of diaspora skills. One expects that our diplomatic missions abroad, in collaboration with our network of honorary consuls, is already undertaking such a vital task.

But if this is too onerous a job for the foreign ministry in its present state, then it should come under a junior minister for the diaspora, with dedicated staff and the appropriate technology. In this respect, we could learn a lot from what Jamaica is doing.