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.

Boom and a pack of Shirley

I was having a tough time coming up with a topic today. I had wondered about the crazy stunt by an artiste named Ikon of an attempted suicide by climbing a radio antenna and threatening to jump unless his song was played on air. This could have been in bad taste, given the actual suicide of one of the greatest comedians the day before. But, I suspect Ikon was only thinking about how iconic he could be. Selfish. Whoever hadn’t heard of him before at least knew his name. The song? Can’t say that I’m bothered to look for it.

That’s the sort of half-baked attempt attention-grabbing that often goes on, though usually without putting a lot of innocent people under stress or wondering if they would have someone’s fate in their hands.

Most people try to just get on with life and make the best of bad situations.

I then went to the supermarket. I love to watch people. It was early afternoon and a few people were grabbing what looked like afternoon snacks. In Jamaica, that’s often a soda and some chips (banana or plantain). I then say a man with a bottle of ‘Boom’ energy drink and a pack of ‘Shirley’ sweet biscuits.

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Boom energy drink: product of Jamaica

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Shirley biscuits: product of Jamaica

Both are local products. As were the other item I’d noted being bought.

I asked him if that was his lunch. He explained that it was to get him through the afternoon, including when he got home to watch CNN News. I wondered if the depressing content of CNN broadcasts needed offsetting with the sugar boost. He didn’t seem offended by my curiosity, which is good.

At the back of my mind were two things. First, how we get by out of home when we need nutrition. I’d read an article last night about good things to eat to get through a round of golf–usually, about four hours, and often in full heat. Boiled eggs, peanut butter and jelly, fruit, were all high on the list. I’d had a bus bans, plus eggs with toast at about 6am, before heading out to play. It seemed to hold me well. I had to hit a peanut butter and banana sandwich, then some pasta later, once I’d gotten home again and the energy drain was kicking in. Chips and soda were far from my mind.

Second, was the bubbling debate about the ‘buy Jamaica, build Jamaica‘ campaign, run by the Jamaica Manufacturers Association JMA).

This campaign has good intentions and can draw energy from the fact that Jamaicans are good patriots, even though they love to flaunt things bought abroad. Nevertheless, many Jamaicans see foreign goods as also more expensive, and not necessarily to their tastes. Look at tinned processed cheese, which would bomb almost anywhere else.

But, are we really being targeted as consumers? People may just respond to price, and Jamaican is likely to be cheaper. They may also just be responding to need and familiarity. Our packaging often comes in for much criticism, and the look of things affects many people’s choices. So, we ought to see a push to let people know that the contents are the best or near the best.

I steer away from imports, simply because I see few things that I MUST have that are not local. I don’t have a choice with certain things, such as gasoline or cars. But, I do with a lot of foods. It’s my contribution to reducing our food import bill and also pressure on the exchange rate.

But, others are not discerning or just don’t care, or just don’t trust Jamaican goods, etc. Foreign,even from developed countries, is no guarantee of anything positive, as China has found with scares over imported milk products from New Zealand.

So, the JMA could do a lot more convincing and so could our consumer advocates, who could help us understand what the market is made up of and what represents value for money, local or imported.