Brief thoughts on a small island being a big nation-June 14, 2021

A brief exchange with a friend yesterday sparked a few thoughts I’ve had for a long time: they concern Jamaica’s diaspora.

My basic view is that Jamaica’s governments have not really known what to do with the mass of Jamaican migrants and their offspring, since the major outflow of the late-1940s onwards.

Here’s the picture I see. Jamaica has an island population of about 3 million. Around the world, mainly in the UK, USA and Canada, there are people born in Jamaica and their generations of offspring, some also born in Jamaica but many more born overseas, which total about the same number. Statistics on that disapora group are a bit fuzzy as they include those born in Jamaica and identifying as Jamaican in some way. (I’m not sure if the data also nuance those born in Jamaica who no longer identify with the country, for a variety of reasons.) But, let’s leave with the idea that ‘Jamaicans’ number some 6 million, worldwide. We know people happily talk about Jam-Brits, Jamaican-Americans etc.

That global total includes a spectrum of people who wish they could have nothing more to do with Jamaica-sadly, some of those actually live in Jamaica, and do much to make life miserable for those who happily live on the island. The other end of the spectrum has people who are not in Jamaica but wish to have as close a link as possible with the island. That leaves a lot of space for indifferent views and views that bounce between the ends of the spectrum.

Simply put, some of those who have left Jamaica only see their future abroad, and Jamaica receding in the rear view mirror doesn’t bother them. They may have no ill-will toward the island, but don’t see active links with it as part of their future. Nothing wrong with that. Make the most of where you are is not a bad principle: feed your energies fully into building the best life you can where you are.

Others who have left, try to keep alive the links they have; this includes supporting relatives, friends and organizations left behind in Jamaica. Alumni groups are a fertile area for support. For some, it means keeping an active physical connection by visiting the island, periodically, alone or with family. Some harness that connection by making claims on the land, through investment in real estate, and by investment in private and public financial assets (especially if they believe recent stock market trends as true reflections of future directions).

So, we can see a significant flow of real and financial assets coming to Jamaica from its diaspora. Much of that we can measure through remittances. But, much cannot be measured so clearly, eg when people visit as tourists and spend substantial sums connected with such travel. That became a bit clearer during the pandemic as we’ve seen ‘remittance’ flows surge and part of that is ‘deferred tourism’ spending as travel restrictions stopped journeys to the island but financial transfers could be made. Ironically, we now have more such flows feeding into measured systems, such as returns from money transfer institutions that previously bypassed such systems. (Economists know that the balance of payments data contain miscellaneous or unidentified flows, whose origins aren’t easily traced, much of which represents goods, services and financial capital that slip through measurement systems, legally or illegally, but account for movements in international reserves, almost as residual items.)

Those flows from overseas can be assessed in other ways to see if they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Why bad? Some of that flow is related to criminal activities and I’ll take the view of that being bad as it cuts into a wholesome national fibre that I’d prefer see as less favourable to criminals. Others can disagree on that, not least for simple reasons such as crime creates income of jobs for some who would otherwise have neither. But, my view is not supportive of flows that support imports of guns, drugs and other things that support violent crime, the negative impact of which have generally been to make us poorer. We can debate this aspect for ages.

However, my essential concern is that the diaspora holds substantial assets the ‘origin’ country can exploit. A big part of that asset pool is also human capital.

For the most part, that exploitation hasn’t happened in many systematic ways. I’ve been to diaspora conferences and heard yearning for investments and proposals made and time passed and little to show for the bright ideas. We’ve lost years and money and human talent, in bundles. We’ve not learned much from the successful exploitation of diasporal links shown by the likes of Israel, India, Ireland, Ghana, Nigeria, or countries dotted around the world.

Often, belatedly, Jamaica realises it has a pool of untapped assets in the form of those abroad who were born in Jamaica or have generational links to Jamaica. That’s most evident in sport, where the pool of talent developed and developing in industrial countries makes for a potent addition to national resources. So, we’ve seen attempts to tap that for football, where great talent exists, though much of the best sports people tried to see if they could make it higher as members of national teams in their host countries. Ironically, we see that some of the best talent on show in those countries have clear Jamaican links. But, representing Jamaica has not often been their first choice. Alongside that, is the suspicion or fear that their sense of commitment to Jamaica will not be as strong as those born and raised here. Across a range of sports and countries, I’ve rarely seen low commitment at representational level from so-called ‘imports’. Other problems may exist, including lingustic or cultural differences, or financial considerations, that may only become obvious once people of mixed origins get together.

On the sporting plane, by contrast, Jamaica’s riches from those who have not left the island have been clearest in track and field. In other sports, the untapped diaspora talent is being tapped more and giving positive results. Our men’s and women’s football teams are good examples. But, it’s also evident in less common sports, where Jamaica could excel, anyway, if committed to them nationally, eg rugby or lacrosse.

But, we ought to be looking beyond sport. We also need to be looking in more structured ways. We’ve lost many potential investors by not having a clear policy or instrument to put in front of those now living abroad.

Diaspora bonds are issued by a country to its expatriates. These bonds allow developing countries in need of financing to look to expats (mainly in wealthy countries) for support. Diaspora bonds offer migrants (and offsprings) discounts on government debt from their home countries. India and Israel have successfully issued diaspora bonds:

  • Diaspora bonds are often used for infrastructure projects or crisis relief in developing countries, where more resources above humanitarian aid are necessary.
  • Diaspora bonds have typically been successful with countries such as Israel and India, where expats have strong patriotism and knowledge of their home economy’s prospects.
  • However, these bonds typically carry low yields because of the strong patriotic duties felt by expats to their home countries.
  • Migrants typically receive a discount on the debt from their home countries.
  • Issuance can prove to be challenging at times, especially as migrants have fled oppressive governments in the past.

Many issues need to be resolved when engaging diasporal interests, some of them need time-consuming and individual negotiations, which may make the gains less clear relative to the costs that have to be incurred. Simple case. When, say, a star performer with generational links is sought as an investor that may involve high-level discussion because of their new wealth, status, and other interests that may not sit well with Jamaican interests. With the best will in the world, Jamaica’s negative image abroad can be a deterrent to diaspora interest irrespecitive of any strong patriotism.

We may also need to understand that quid pro quo may quickly rear its head: it’s business and the bottom line won’t be far from the thoughts of bigger investors. We can throw scorn at how they appear lacking in charity, but that’s too bad.

One of the ironies that many see, including me, is when, where and how countries like Jamaica seek to ‘claim’ their diaspora. As I noted with my friend yesterday, with Raheem Sterling, he got ‘national’ recognition (most recently, gaining an MBE in the latest Queen’s birthday honours) from his adopted country well before any such recognition came from the land of his birth. We can discuss why or if we care about such things, but it’s still a fact. Do people feel slighted by such things? Maybe, even if not personally, there’s always the sense of resentment that can come from the entourage.

I don’t see reasons to believe that Jamaica’s engagement with its diaspora will change any time soon. I suspect many have drawn that conclusion over the years and done what they feel fits them best. We can’t prescribe patriotism and how its manifested.

When my parents migrated to England in the 1960s they never thought they would become English. I’m not sure what they thought their son would become, as he grew up in England, whether he would identify more with the new host or the land of birth. This is a common dilemma that swings many ways. I never thought of myself as British (notwithstanding the odd designation of that as a relic of colonialism). No amount of years in England changed that. However, my affinities span support for Britain and/or Jamaica in some situations. If you think code switching is interesting in how people speak, try wrapping your head aroumd having no issue supporting fervently two countries, maybe in the same sport, maybe over different sports, say. When I was growing up in England, I was on track to represent Great Britain (GB) in athletics and England in football. Did anyone in/from Jamaica think they should tap me to be part of its national set up? Let’s say the messages ‘got lost in the mail’. It didn’t matter to me. I looked around my peers who had parents from the Caribbean or were born there and then set on tracks (literally) to excel and represent the new host country. None of my generation got called up for Jamaica, but many went on to represent and win big for GB, England, etc. and are now ‘national’ heroes there. Then, someone would add or note that they were ‘Jamaican born’ or had ‘Jamaican parents’, etc. No slight was meant, and I think few, if any took, umbrage. Britain was where life was being made. Add to that how migrants stop sounding like the countries of their birth and you’ll understand easily that this is a fuzzy area. I still giggle when I hear Wes Morgan (born in Nottingham, England) speaking in his clear English Midlands accent as captain of Jamaica’s football team. He’s described as a ‘Jamaican’ footballer because of his national playing affiliation. By contrast, Raheem Sterling, born in St Andrew, Jamaica, is described as an ‘English’ footballer, for similar reasons.

Some of this mix-up and blend-up gets bizarre, especially when people dig far back to find the connections they want to exploit. I don’t have any issues with people tracing back generations to find what they want. I understand, however, that it’s also part of processeses that then raised issues of nationality and patriotism that are not easy to overcome, personally or in the minds of others.

I’m not proposing any solutions to an area that I think is complex, individually and collectively. But, I’d like to see and hear more thought given to how and when and where we want to embrace our ‘nation’, broadly defined.