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Belizeans abroad: an untapped resource

FeaturesBelizeans abroad: an untapped resource

Last year there was a raging debate on Facebook on whether those Belizeans who have acquired dual citizenship should be allowed to sit as representatives in the National Assembly. The issues surrounding the debate became so provocative that a group of Belizeans from the Diaspora sponsored a well-attended public forum in Belize City for the ventilation of these issues. While that debate was significant, there is an even larger question to be answered and that is: What will constitute the future relationship between Belizeans at home and those abroad, especially those in the largest part of our Diaspora—the US.

This is an even deeper, more important debate because it will outline the future of how Belize will use its global talents over the next twenty-five years. In fact, the real question is: what will define Belizean citizenship and identity over the next phase of our development?

First, we must realize that we have dropped the ball several times since the Eighties in addressing this challenge of engaging Belizeans abroad. In fact, our sister nations in the region like Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana are far more advanced in their process of engaging their Diaspora citizens in their national development agenda.

Recently the Jamaica Gleaner carried a story about The Jamaican Diaspora Crime Intervention and Prevention Task Force (JDCIPTF) that was formed two years ago. On April 7, 2018, they will host their first Town Hall Meeting in Toronto, Canada. This meeting is the direct response of the Jamaican Diaspora to address the crime and violence crisis that Jamaica has been experiencing. Proposed speakers will include Jamaican Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Hon. Kamina Johnson-Smith, and Minister of State in the Ministry of National Security, Hon. Pearnel, which is demonstrating that the Jamaican government acknowledges and support the efforts by its Diaspora.

Belizeans have been migrating to the US since the beginning of the last century. As far back as World War I Belizeans have gone to the southern states in the US in work programs and there were also contingents of work crews that went during World War II in the 1940s under the H-2 visa status. Throughout the 40s and 50s Belizeans were entering the US both legally and illegally (through the back).

Dr. Jerome Straughan has done extensive research on this movement of Belizeans to the US and to date has the most documented research on the subject. According to him, Belizeans in the US constitute a significant sector of the Belizean population whose acquired talent in education, training and capital is a significant reserve that still has not been tapped by any government thus far.

During the debate over the 7th Amendment in 2009 and again in last year’s debate the focus was narrowed down to remittances as being one of the ways Belizeans abroad have contributed significantly to Belize. But while remittances are important, especially to the informal economy, it is only one way that they have contributed to Belize. The in-kind contributions in education; the amount of homes that have been constructed which provided employment and investment in construction materials; taxes collected from imported items including vehicles; the amount of investments in business, again contributing to the economy; and just the thousands spent each year, especially during holiday periods: All these are ways, beyond remittances, that Belizeans abroad contribute to our economic development.

But while this has been the pattern for the last seventy years the next twenty-five years will be even more challenging and like our sister nation of Jamaica, we will need a more coordinated effort, including government, to tap into the resource of Belizeans abroad.

If, as one report says, there are as many as 200,000 Belizeans living abroad this alarming figure suggests that we have a lucrative gold mine as important as any natural resource in Belize that must be developed to get the best for Belize.

There were some comments during the Facebook debate that were dismissive and even condescending when referring to Belizeans abroad; almost as if personal unresolved issues were surfacing and the debate only provided the opportunity to vent on those so-called “Belams”.

But while that debate needs to continue we need to go beyond the issue of “right to run for the National Assembly” and ask how do we get those talented Belizeans who have acquired tremendous nation building skills to bring those essential skills back to Belize. And therein lies one troubling question that had surfaced during the debate: Why should we provide any special incentives to attract Belizeans back home? Why shouldn’t they be patriotic enough to return on their own? And while all of that is true, how can government justify providing incentives to potential (non-Belizean) investors and not see that a similar package of incentives, geared specifically to the returning Belizeans, can also go a long way to develop Belize?

I remember when the Consortium for Belizean Development was launched over thirty-three years ago it had a broad vision of operating as an umbrella structure for all Belizean organizations in the states. The brainchild of the Hon. Phillip Goldson, Ambassadors Edward Laing and Bert Tucker (all deceased), the Consortium was envisioned to be a coordinating body for funneling Belizean talent and resources back into Belizean development process.

What happened?
It got off to a good start but soon floundered because of a number of significant factors. First and foremost, it was perceived to be a creation of the UDP and that may not have been far from the truth. Despite the fact that it presented itself as non-partisan it couldn’t escape the fact that its most influential members were UDP supporters. There was a brief moment in 1990 when Ernesto Castillo, a PUP, became President of the group and a short lived attempt was made to engage the then PUP government to embrace the concept of the Consortium but that did not gain traction.

Another factor was the bourgeois identity, an elitist, royal Creole image that made it appear unfriendly to the average Belizean. Additionally, it spent a lot of money to hold grandiose meetings in big fancy hotels in different cities in the US where only few members could afford to attend.

So while the Consortium itself was a good concept it just could not gain credibility as a relevant and viable US-based organization.  It never got a meaningful project off the ground and therefore watered its contribution to donations to various social programs like hospitals, the aged, etc., as well as a float in the September Celebrations.

However, the way forward must include a mechanism like the Consortium that can coordinate development initiatives into Belize from throughout the US. We need to go beyond the financial contributions of capital (remittances) and broaden our focus to include investment capital and take advantage of the diverse talents. In every area of the Belizean development process there is an equivalent Belizean counterpart in the US with the experience and skill to advance that process.

We must set up the mechanism that will connect those needs with the relevant providers and coordinate the transfer of information, technology, support system and even capital to assist in addressing our national development needs. The Belizean expertise to make this happen already exists in diasporic communities. Names like Aria Lightfoot, Mario Lara, Bilal Morris, Joe Guerrero, and Norman Fairweather immediately come to mind.

I’m always amused to see TV interviews with non-Belizeans who come to Belize to share their knowledge in some area of expertise through lecture, training, workshops, etc. only to realize that there are so many Belizeans with equal or more knowledge on the subject than these foreigners yet the Belizeans are not included in the process; their talents are left untapped.

The real challenge in front of us now is how to move forward and set up this mechanism. Clearly the first hurdle is to take it out of the political realm. Such a mechanism has to be non-partisan for it to have any integrity with Belizeans at home and abroad.  While the government of the day must play a major part in the facilitation process it is incumbent on them to keep partisan politics at a minimum.

Back in 1989 the late Ambassador Bert Tucker and I were working on setting up an innovative mechanism under an already established UN program called TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals). The idea of this was to provide Belizean professionals, i.e. doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses, who are residents in the US, a program that facilitated their return as expatriate nationals.

The way the program would have worked was for the host government to provide the housing and food for the professional while the UN provided a return ticket and a small monthly stipend. The professional would provide the labor in their particular field for a period of three months to one year. The program had worked successfully in Egypt and Eastern Europe where professional nationals from those countries took advantage of giving back to their countries.

Tucker, who worked at the UN at the time, had received a commitment from the then Foreign Minister, Said Musa, that his government was prepared to cooperate with the development of the initiative. Unfortunately, like the Consortium, this was an idea before its time.

It’s time to revisit these programs. They need not be conducted under the auspices of the UN but by professional Belizeans making the effort to cover their own expenses with the government providing some kind of logistical support. Imagine the cost saving to government when qualified Belizean geologists or biochemists or manufacturers, psychiatrists, psychologists, persons with expertise in gang intervention, drug rehabilitation, or dealing with children with special needs become available; the list is endless.

Let us take an example of best practice from our sister nation of Jamaica and “get growing”.

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