Engaging the Jamaican diaspora

This year, Jamaicans who live abroad will send home about US$300 million less than they did in 2008, which is a lot of money. They, too, are feeling the impact of the global recession.

But despite the fall-off, Jamaicans in the diaspora will remit approximately US$1.7 billion, which will not fall far behind what the country will gross from tourism and vastly more than anything that will be garnered from the diminished exports of the all-but-collapsed bauxite/alumina sector.

While the decline in remittances has hurt many individuals whose finances are shored up by the generosity of friends and relatives abroad, it remains a critical source of foreign exchange and an important leg of the Jamaican economy – a point about which the country’s economic planners are well aware. So, even only on the basis of selfish economics, the diaspora is critical to Jamaica – and, more so, in these bad economic times.

The importance of the diaspora

Parliament, for all the past protestations of its members about the relevance of the diaspora, is only now really coming around to giving serious recognition of that fact. At least, we hope they are.

On December 3, a select Diaspora Affairs Committee of the legislature is scheduled to hold its first meeting to consider, among other things, a national approach to policy on diaspora matters, as well as propose constitutional amendments, or other policy arrangements that provide, if possible, parliamentary representation at home to overseas Jamaicans.

The members of this committee are Dr Ronald Robinson, Dennis Meadows, Hyacinth Bennett, Warren Newby, Sandrea Falconer, Shahine Robinson, J.C. Hutchinson, St Aubyn Bartlett, George Hylton, Morais Guy and Maxine Henry-Wilson. It will have taken them 10 months to muster the first session since their appointment.

Hoping for fruitful discussions

Hopefully, the committee will display greater alacrity in handling and intellectual rigour in discussing the issues and making recommendations than the Parliament’s skills at scheduling meetings.

In other words, we expect the deliberations to be far more substantive than vacuous questions about whether it is unpatriotic of Jamaicans living abroad if they don’t care a hoot that ‘ackee and salt fish’ remains the national dish, despite the fact that dried and salted cod might have been caught somewhere in the North Atlantic. Nor do we expect some not-too-bright member of parliament to launch an attack on the origins of the ackee.

This committee, if it does its job well, will provide a forum for thoughtful deliberations, including inputs from the wider citizenry, on the issue of the existing constitutional bar against Jamaicans who are citizens of, or owe allegiance to, countries other than Commonwealth nations, being members of the legislature.

Of course, we expect that Jamaicans in the diaspora will be afforded an opportunity to testify before the committee. In that regard, a mechanism must be established, including, perhaps by videoconference, for such participation. The committee, therefore, should be afforded a budget to allow for such an engagement.