COVID-19: An Opportunity to Rethink Caribbean Diaspora Engagement

By David Gomez and Alicia Nicholls

Caribbean economies, like others around the world, have been negatively impacted by the on-going novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its June 2020 Economic Outlook forecasts global gross domestic product (GDP) growth at – 4.9 percent in 2020. For tourism-dependent economies like Barbados, the Bahamas and Jamaica, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) predicts a double-digit contraction in economic activity.

In both policy and academic circles, the conversation is not merely on how to promote recovery post-COVID-19, but how to rebuild Caribbean economies on more sustainable foundations than the ‘quicksand’ footings of mono-industries. As we search for solutions, the diaspora emerges as an important  avenue to aid in regrowth and the region’s development. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously disrupted the most common channels for diaspora engagement, and at least for the foreseeable future, the nature of how Caribbean countries engage with their diaspora will need to be rethought.

In this SRC Trading Thoughts, we suggest that COVID-19 presents an apt opportunity for rethinking how the Caribbean engages with the estimated four million people of Caribbean descent living abroad which constitute its diaspora.

Current Diaspora Engagement

Remittances are an important source of private capital inflows for Caribbean countries. Indeed, in 2019 personal remittances received as a percentage of GDP were equivalent to more than 10% of GDP in Haiti (38.5%) and Jamaica (15.6%), according to World Bank data. The Caribbean diaspora also engages with the region in several other important ways which go beyond remittances. They help to encourage trade between their homelands and their new homes through their demand for nostalgic goods, such as rum, condiments, confectionaries and fruits and vegetables. They contribute to the tourism industry by returning to their homelands to visit family and friends and to participate in festivals and other cultural activities. The diaspora also invests in the regional credit union movement, some government bonds and real estate. Diaspora communities also engage in philanthropic efforts by donating to homeland-based charities and their alma maters.

Indeed, some diaspora communities have risen to the COVID-19 challenge and assisted their homelands through donations of medical and personal protective equipment (PPE) and other needed supplies to governments and charitable organisations. One of the most well-known examples was Barbadian international superstar Rihanna’s donation of 4,000 tablets to the Government of Barbados for use in Barbadian schools.

Although the degree of formal engagement between Caribbean countries and their diaspora is divergent, a growing number of Caribbean countries either have formal Ministries or agencies dealing with diaspora affairs and have instituted formal arrangements for engaging with their diaspora through the regular hosting of diaspora conferences. Some, like Barbados, Belize, Jamaica, Guyana and Haiti have taken formal steps at mapping their diaspora. Jamaica has drafted a National Diaspora Policy

How has COVID-19 affected Diaspora Engagement?

The Caribbean diaspora has been among those affected by COVID-19 as many of the hotspots, such as the US, UK and continental Europe, are also hubs for the Caribbean diaspora. The impacts are not just health-related, but also economic through job losses or being furloughed. In April 2020, the World Bank predicted global remittances “to decline sharply by about 20 percent in 2020 due to the economic crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown”. As such, remittances flows to Caribbean countries will remain suppressed for the foreseeable future, while diaspora tourist arrivals, as with other arrivals, will not regain pre-COVID-19 levels anytime soon. The pandemic has also impacted Barbados’ planned homecoming for 2020 called ‘We Gathering’ which encouraged Barbadians living abroad to come back home to the island.

How can we re-engage with the Diaspora?  

With the traditional channels of diaspora engagement compromised, Caribbean countries must formulate non-traditional ways to harness the resource that is their diaspora. The issue of how to leverage the diaspora for post-COVID-19 recovery was explored in a Shridath Ramphal Centre (SRC) Lunch Time Chat Webinar on July 15, 2020. The roundtable discussion featured an esteemed panel of Caribbean-born, diasporic professionals whose rich backgrounds spanned the areas of trade, finance, diplomacy, export promotion, development and management consulting. The expert panelists noted that while there was the desire by the Caribbean diaspora to ‘give back’, there needs to be greater incentives for the diaspora to invest. Among the proposals the panelists raised were defining clearly who is the diaspora, getting to know the diaspora better, and expanding the types of investment vehicles available in which the diaspora could invest.  On this note, the panelists lauded the Barbados Welcome Stamp as a welcomed initiative which could entice persons, including those in the diaspora, who have the option to work remotely to do so from Barbados. 

However, the potential of the diaspora to assist Caribbean economies in their rebuilding phase goes beyond monetary considerations. The diaspora is a rich source of know-how, experience, expertise and networks which could be tapped by both governments and the private sector as they seek to rebuild their economies. Governments should engage the diaspora as they seek to promote new growth industries, expand their trade with existing markets and diversify their export markets. Mentoring programmes could be established to pair entrepreneurs with successful business persons in the diaspora. Deeper linkages could be made between the chambers of commerce in the region and those Caribbean-based chambers in major metropolitan cities. In this light, a mapping of the region’s diaspora, as well as greater engagement to ascertain the ways in which they wish to contribute would be useful.

If anything COVID-19 has shown is that it cannot be business as usual. The diaspora can be an important partner in helping us ‘rebuild better’.

David M. Gomez is the Director of the Ramphal Institute based in the United Kingdom and Managing Director, Launchpad Consulting, Belize. Alicia Nicholls is a trade researcher with The Shridath Ramphal Centre of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados. Both authors participated in the SRC’s recent webinar on ‘Leveraging the Caribbean Diaspora for Post-COVID-19 Trade and Recovery’.