The Caribbean Diaspora accounts for a significant percentage of the GDP of many Caribbean countries. In Haiti alone, their annual remittances account for 40 percent of the country’s GDP. While they are playing a major role in their home countries’ economic development, to date there has been no systematic effort to harness the skills, knowledge and professional networks of the Caribbean Diaspora in addressing the regional development challenges and promoting and developing investment opportunities in the region. Additionally, the Diaspora, especially business leaders, often have great influence in their local communities in the U.S. This influence has not been tapped to elevate U.S.-Caribbean relations.
What is truly lacking are institutionalized platforms to organize the Diaspora to leverage their collective talent and influence to address regional issues and bilateral issues. Other regions, such as Asia, have been very successful in leveraging their Diaspora communities and especially at creating ongoing bilateral business dialogues and various channels in to U.S. policy makers.
Clearly, U.S. priorities are focused on the Middle East region, anti-terrorism initiatives, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other political crises. Despite its proximity to the U.S., the Caribbean is not a priority for the Administration. Not because it should not be, but rather because in addition to being spread thin in foreign policy, there is no organized channel to funnel information into the U.S. policy makers, especially from the Diaspora community. Additionally, the Caribbean is perceived as a tourist destination, not an economic engine, as are China and India. Politically, the Caribbean is often associated with instability and trade disputes, to some degree. However, there are many interesting new initiatives taking shape in the Caribbean, notably in the energy sector where there are plans to turn the region into a hub for bio-fuels. Some countries, such as the Bahamas, are projecting record economic growth rates for 2007.
But the region is fragile. Historically, it has been colonized by the major powers, and more recently it has been a pawn in the Taiwan-China rivalry and in Venezuelan President Huga Chavez’s plans to roll back economic and political reforms in the region. The Caribbean countries need another voice in Washington, D.C. to educate policy makers and the public of the importance of the region and on the major issues challenging their governments.
The Diaspora community should play a key role in reinforcing Caribbean government’s efforts at home and abroad. One significant way they could support political and economic development in the region is to organize itself to address the key challenges of: local economic development and securing international attention and assistance.
This paper will outline and examine some proposals for platforms that the Caribbean Diaspora should develop in order to elevate the region as a higher priority for the U.S. government and to participate in their region’s growth. Included in the paper will be a discussion of a: CARICOM-US Business Council, to elevate a bilateral dialogue between the business communities and develop an agenda that includes key trade issues; a Committee of 100, that could establish a high level policy dialogue across sectors and highlight Caribbean culture; a CARICOM Congressional Caucus, that would elevate the issues in the U.S. Congress; a CARICOM Society to highlight unique aspects of the Caribbean culture including art and entertainment; and a CARICOM Youth Leadership Program, supported by some of the above mentioned organizations and the regional governments to help build capacity in the future. The key will be to advocate bringing some structure to the CARICOM efforts with the Diaspora community.
CARICOM-U.S. BUSINESS COUNCIL
Bilateral business councils have been created around regional and country specific issues. There is a U.S.-Brazil Business Council, U.S.-China Business Council, U.S.-APEC Business Council, among others. They offer the opportunity to bring together the top business leaders in the region and U.S. and Diaspora business leaders with a big stake in the region. The councils provide a strong, systematic platform for business leaders to funnel their priorities and challenges into the policy system, and they have a stronger voice than if tackling the issues separately. As the main engine of economic growth, the private sector usually has significant influence in shaping the trade and policy agendas.
U.S. trade and economic leaders have a multitude of priorities, including a series of Free Trade Agreements, a new Doha round at the World Trade Organization, energy policy, and ongoing strategy development related to the rise of India and China. Caribbean issues are relegated to the bottom of the priority list. However, with the growing influence of leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the region, it is greatly in their interest to develop a more robust strategy to engage the region.
In order to attract the right level of attention from U.S. leaders, the Council should be comprised of senior level corporate representatives as well as some notable advisors from the region. The Council should have a clear, and focused agenda with an annual meeting, accompanied by the release of a white paper and a gala dinner. In addition, the Council should have a small staff to publish a regular newsletter for distribution among U.S. policy leaders and the membership. There are currently very few sources of information on Caribbean priorities and this would go a long way toward educating leaders on the issues.
THE CARIBBEAN COMMITTEE OF 100
In addition to building a business-to-business dialogue, the Diaspora community should also encourage a broader range of voices into the policy process and to highlight the region. There is the need for an organization that brings an Caribbean-American perspective to U.S. relations with the Caribbean and to address the concerns of Americans of Caribbean heritage. To address this need, a Committee of 100 Caribbean leaders should be developed to include all sectors, from business to sports to entertainment and art. To be most effective, the Committee should be an international nonpartisan organization composed of American citizens of Caribbean descent, Caribbean citizens residing in the United States or prominent Caribbean citizens living in the Caribbean from a broad range of professions. With these diverse backgrounds, members will be able to collectively pool their strengths and experience to address important issues concerning the Caribbean-American community, as well as issues affecting U.S.-Caribbean relations.
The key functions of the Committee should be to serve as bridge between the cultures and systems of Caribbean and the U.S. and also, to provide a forum for those issues that Americans of Caribbean descent face in bettering their lives in the United States. The Committee will be dedicated to serve as “cultural ambassadors” and fostering the exchange of ideas and various perspective among their membership with those in the community and government.
The Committee of 100 will be a voice for the enhancement of relations between the U.S. and the Caribbean With an in-depth understanding of both cultures, the Committee can enhance America understanding of the Caribbean, as well as Caribbean’s understanding of the United States.
The Committee could also serve as the vehicle to develop charitable programs and donations by creating endowment funds for scholarships or recognition awards for significant contributions to promoting Caribbean culture. This would be less of an agenda drive organization and more of a profile raising group to encourage constructive relations between the Caribbean and United States .
CARICOM CONGRESSIONAL CAUCUS
Many countries and regions, including Hong Kong, have encouraged the formation of a Congressional Caucus. Caucuses meet frequently and hear expert testimony on the key issues in the region. They conduct congressional delegations and fact-finding missions to the region and release white papers. Further, they can be helpful in pushing a legislative agenda that benefits the region.
Through various platforms, the CARICOM leaders should encourage the Congressional delegations, particularly from Florida and New York, to form a caucus around these issues. The potential Business Council and Committee of 100 would be excellent platforms to leverage to meet with a select list of Congressional leaders to advocate this caucus. In lieu of established platforms, Caribbean business leaders and Diaspora should form an ad hoc coalition and inform members of plans to put in place certain structures. In this way, the Congressional leaders will know that they will have partners to reach out to in order to support this initiative.
Another successful platform to put in place would be a CARICOM Society. This could be an organization that would promote cultural awareness through policy debates. A prominent example of such an organization is the Asia Society headquartered in New York. They are endowed in large part by private funding, including the Rockefellers. They undertake a range of activities promoting everything from Asian cooking to the spread of democracy throughout the region. In addition, they have a headquarters that can be used to host events. This is something that should be a longer term goal for the Caribbean nations, but certainly it would go a long way to promoting better understanding by beginning to set up such a structure.
CARIBBEAN YOUTH LEADERSHIP PROGRAM
Another important group to engage is the youth ? both the youth in the Caribbean and the Caribbeann-American youth. Education is the key to the future of the region and will better prepare the region to meet future competition and challenges. Many countries face a chronic shortage of skilled workers or a weak pool of candidates for government posts. In addition to promoting greater U.S.-Caribbean ties, the above mentioned groups should partner with the OAS and local governments to launch a program aimed at promoting youth education and development. Clearly for the Caribbean youth, a better understanding of how the United States operates in the arenas of economic, political and social issues can only strengthen future relationships between the Caribbean and the United States.
The Caribbean Youth Leadership Program should be created to facilitate exchange programs between the youth of the Caribbean and the youth of United States. Programs could include scholarships for Caribbean-American students, scholarships for students throughout the Caribbean to study in the United States, government exchanges between young civil servants in the Caribbean to do study programs in the U.S. The program could also work with D.C. think tanks to develop internship programs. Further, the Diaspora in the U.S. could act as mentors for students serving as examples of being successful at home and abroad.
The combination of these initiatives will begin to address the lack of policy attention that the region is currently getting and is intended to put some shape and structure to the regions agenda by harnessing the power of the Diaspora community. Of course, the Diaspora should work closely with Caribbean governments as well in order to undertake a well coordinated effort. Therefore, in addition to the above mention activities in the U.S ., several of these platforms should also consider hosting events and programs in the region or incorporating government into representatives into their initiatives by hosting them for programs in the U.S. While the Caribbean governments play an important advocacy role, their efforts will be greatly supported by Diaspora organization as well.
Washington Democracy Project