Don't call us Diaspora

Audience at 'Any Caribbean Questions' Forum

By Debbie Ransome,

reporting from London

Some people from the Caribbean or of Caribbean origin do not like being called “the Diaspora”.
Maybe it sounds too much like the ties that bind, with no acknowledgement of a life carved abroad in new societies.
Maybe it smacks too much of an expectation of remittances and other help from family “back home”.
But, whatever you want to call Caribbean people living abroad, there is growing interest in them by their governments back home – and also by politicians in their current home nations, who want their votes.
2014 initiatives
The first half of 2014 has seen a number of attempts by Jamaica and Haiti, in particular, to reach out to their communities overseas.
Jamaica launched a Mapping the Diaspora project in June 2014 – aimed at mapping the skills set of its Diaspora, who may now outnumber Jamaicans living back home.
Also in June, Haiti’s Prime Minister, Laurent Lamothe, returned to one of his favourite topics, by raising once again the idea that Haitians living abroad should have voting rights at home.
"Haitians living in the Diaspora contribute about $2bn per year to our economy and this is very significant, and I know many Haitians value this," Mr Lamothe told the Haitian-Caribbean News Network (HCNN)
"But we cannot act as if their money was welcome, but not their knowledge, their expertise and their will and their right to be significantly involved with the political life in their country," he added.
In politicians’ sights
The power of the “ethnic vote” continues to show its influence in American politics – from Barack Obama’s “Yes, you can” appeal to the cut-and-thrust of June 2014’s New York elections, which saw those Caribbean connections again making a difference. 
In November 2013, British politicians made their pitch to the Caribbean Diaspora, who can make the difference in a number of marginal seats in the UK at the 2015 general election.
This appeal was renewed at a meeting held at London’s Lancaster House on 17 June this year.
The organisers of the Any Caribbean Questions Forum, Jamaica National, represent the Diaspora-back-home link in that truly Jamaican, fiercely patriotic approach.
Their slogan is: “Your Building Society – Away from Home.”
But Jamaica National does not push a Jamaica-only line.
Jamaica National’s chief UK representative, Paulette Simpson, told the audience at Lancaster House, in response to queries from the floor about Caricom not being integrated enough, that no matter what was happening in the region, the Diaspora “needs to come together”.
Same concerns
Many of the queries at the latest Any Caribbean Questions forum were similar to the ones that had been raised at the November 2013 session: namely, student visas, whether the Labour party takes the Caribbean community for granted and whether Britain still cares about the Caribbean. 
The audience, representing a wide range of Caribbean people in the UK, from students to entrepreneurs, was scathing in its assessment of Caricom unity.
One of the panellists, former Caricom Secretary General Edwin Carrington, commented on sessions held earlier that day between Caricom foreign ministers and the UK Foreign Office.
He said he had been at such meetings since 1998 and that their ideas needed to have follow-up and implementation. 
Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell said that the world had to see the Caribbean beyond its tourism and drug-trafficking issues.
“This is not Disneyland, but where real people live, with real issues,” he told the audience.
He said that the foreign ministers’ meetings had focused more on “how we can work in partnership”. 
“We detect a shift in the attitude of the British government,” he said.
One thing that had not shifted had been the Diaspora perception that its communities are not being given the attention other newer migrant communities in Britain are now receiving.
Jamaican-born UK MP Diane Abbott said from the floor, to much applause: “The political parties have taken the Caribbean community for granted… You have to register to vote… You have to engage with MPs.”
Mapping the Diaspora
Whether UK politicians take the maturing skills of the Caribbean community seriously or not, some of their governments back home are certainly paying attention.
Jamaica’s one-year Mapping Jamaica’s Diaspora project covers the UK, the US and Canada.
Funded and supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the Mapping project aims to determine the location, interest and skills of members of the Jamaican Diaspora.
According to a Jamaican Foreign Ministry press release issued in June, “it is hoped that the government of Jamaica will be in a better position to identify the gaps which currently exist in its engagement of Jamaicans in the Diaspora, ranging from the first to fourth and subsequent generations.”
It added: “A comprehensive database of Jamaicans in the Diaspora is a necessary developmental tool, since it will assist the government in locating Jamaicans in the Diaspora who possess certain skill sets associated with our critical development projects, that we may currently not have in sufficient supply.”
Jamaica’s High Commissioner to London, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba, launched the project in the UK to encourage Jamaicans to go online and put their information on to a secure site. 
Mrs Ndombet-Assamba told Caribbean Intelligence© after the UK launch on 13 June that the exercise was not only about obtaining detailed information about the Diaspora but “also aimed at Jamaica sharing information with the Diaspora about opportunities that exist”.
“We don’t know all of the skills and expertise that exist here in the UK and in the rest of the world,” she said.
“Jamaica is looking for representation on different bodies and different committees,” she added. “If we are aware of where the skills are in the Diaspora, we can appoint members of the Diaspora.”
The website for the project outlines the two-fold nature of the venture – geared to individuals, but also to community, alumni and other philanthropic associations.
The project includes all generations of Jamaicans, as those born abroad of Jamaican parents have a right to citizenship.
“We are encouraging people to access their citizenship, those who were born in the UK to seek citizenship,” Mrs Ndombet-Assamba said.
She told Caribbean Intelligence© that the project would also provide a better sense of how many Jamaicans are actually living abroad.
Yes, we can
It may be that, as the Diaspora starts to be seen as a known community with skills needed back home, that this potential, once it has proven numbers to match, will be seen as a separate demographic group in the societies where such communities now live.
That is – beyond terms such as “ethnic”,Afro-Caribbean and the latest UK buzzword, the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnicity) community.
Amid growing talk of the power of the Latino vote in American politics, Caribbean politicians have started to indicate the difference their communities can make in votes in certain parts of the US.
In the UK, too, particularly as the country debates the United in United Kingdom, pockets of Diaspora voting blocks are starting to look attractive to English politicians.
“Engage with us,” Jamaica National’s Paulette Simpson told MPs from the UK’s three main political parties at the Any Caribbean Questions debate at Lancaster House.
“Not just 18 months before elections,” she added.
Learn from the Nigerians
One businesswoman in the audience who works with blue-chip companies to hone their engagement with the Afro-Caribbean business sector, Khami Alexander, told Caribbean people to stop thinking about working together and just do it.
“Take a lesson from the Nigerian community,” she said to applause.
Ms Alexander, a leadership and diversity consultant, described the Diaspora as the Caribbean’s “secret weapon” that should be “working as one”.
She pointed out that the population of some Caribbean countries was the same size as a single London borough.
And, it is these numbers that Caribbean governments, diplomats, business people and politicians are becoming increasingly interested in – whether you call them Diaspora or not.
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