Some 1,200 reportedly registered as participants for the “Jamaica 55 Diaspora 2017 Conference” here July 23-26. It focused on a variety of issues - under the theme “Partnering For Growth” - aimed at bettering the relationship between the place they call home and where they now reside.
The movement towards collaboration, which began in earnest in 2004 with the first conference here, has been embraced by successive governing political parties which have declared the need to harness the potential of an estimated three million people overseas who identify themselves as Jamaican.
“Essentially it started with recognition that we need a structure to deal with the issue of the diaspora,” explained Franz Hall, Jamaica’s consul general in Miami, who attended the conference.
More than a decade later, the movement has expanded as Jamaica attempts to woo investors, make doing business in the country easier, smooth the path for those who want to contribute to social causes such as education and health, fight crime and promote the nation’s culture. The government said it welcomes the input.
“(The diaspora) are among our best assets,” said Prime Minister Andrew Holness while addressing the conference opening.
“… We need the participation of all our citizens, whether at home or abroad … We are serious about strengthening the relationship between Jamaica and the diaspora. Our diaspora must be increasingly engaged … Let us continue to connect and partner for growth.”
Estimates show Jamaica’s diaspora makes a massive contribution. More than $2 billion in remittances reportedly comes to the Caribbean island from the diaspora each year. In health care, for example, more than 200 medical missions visit Jamaica each year from the diaspora.
But some observers who have charted the growth of Jamaica’s diaspora courtship lamented the slow progress of the movement. The partnership, they claim, should have more concrete accomplishments to show since 2004. Among the problems, advocates claim, is that follow-up collaboration to the conference, held once every two years, has not generated the same enthusiasm. Many in diaspora do not even know the movement exists.
“For me, the most important thing is consistency,” said South Florida-based attorney Marlon Hill, a former member of the Diaspora Advisory Board. “We haven’t done well in terms of the marketing.”
Translated, that means getting all Jamaicans in the diaspora - not just a selected few - involved in the movement. Even among some who are aware, the conference is seen as a merely a “talk shop”.
Frustrations hit peak here when local news reports pointed to a revelation raised at the conference involving a diaspora ambulance donation sent to Jamaica 10 months ago, but had still not cleared customs. The public outrage prompted the government, through an announcement on conference day two by Daryl Vaz, minister without portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister, that “a moratorium of the (customs) duty” had been issued. That news was warmly received by diaspora delegates.
However, participation in diaspora endeavors, including the conference, can be difficult. Conference participants do not get financial backing to come to Jamaica. They bear the expenses. That has displeased some diaspora members who believe Jamaica’s government is banking on their undying love of country, yet unwilling to reciprocate.
“Jamaica knows what it wants from the diaspora,” said New York-based Irwine Claire, also a former Diaspora Advisory Board member who did not attend this year’s conference. “I’m not sure if the diaspora knows what it wants from Jamaica.
“If the diaspora is so important - Jamaica wants us, they want to partner with us - then how come we have to pay to go, pay for accommodation and conference fees?”
To underline that point, South Florida attorney Dahlia Walker-Huntington questioned why Jamaica hardly looks to woo professional talent in the diaspora to fill employment vacancies in Jamaica.
“When there’s money for paid opportunities you have look to us,” Walker-Huntington told a panel at the conferences “Diaspora Growth Forum”.
They were not alone. One conference delegate called some of Jamaica’s leadership “arrogant.” There was also a call for a shift in parts of Jamaica’s culture, which was are believed to hamper progress.
“We have a cultural issue that we to deal with,” admitted presenter Michael Lee-Chin, billionaire business and chairman of Jamaica’s Economic Growth Council (EGC). “We have to re-set, re-calibrate standards.”
Overall, however, Jamaica’s effort to generate diaspora interest in the nation’s development has borne some fruit. The conference has grown to include a “Diaspora Marketplace”, showcasing products and services from government and private sector, plus workshops, planning sessions and presentations from variety of public and private sector leaders.
However, stories from individual diaspora conference participants showed a mixture of reactions ranging from keen interest in the movement, frustration with meager progress and hope for the future. Some accept success has come in increments.
“Meaningful connections are being made,” explained Winston Barnes, commissioner for the City of Miramar who has been involved since 2004.
“A lot of people believe you have to do these humongous things, but the small things matter.”