African Diaspora’s programme of action: economic cooperation

Est. read time: 8 min

The following paper was submitted to the African Diaspora’s Technical Committee of Experts, which met in Pretoria, South Africa, on February 21st, 2011. 

Preamble

Following the report the rapporteur for the Economic Cooperation break out group gave to the Meeting in the penultimate session on Tuesday 22 February, Mr Richard Cambridge made a helpful and informative intervention in which he dealt with the issue of remittances.  I was a member of the Social Cooperation group, dealing with educational, social and cultural affairs.

The rapporteur’s report highlighted the proposal that there should be a bank to handle remittances and that existing banks with an enlarging profile in Africa and the Diaspora should be used for that purpose.  Eco and Standard banks were cited as examples of those.  The report and Mr Cambridge’s comments also focused on the proposal that there should be an African Institute for Remittances linked to or in parallel with an African Diaspora Investment Fund.

Time did not allow me to comment in the light of the Economic Cooperation group’s report, but I wish to make the following observations in the hope that they could be reflected in the report of the deliberations of this Meeting to Ministers:

1. We need to adopt a much more nuanced approach to the issue of   ‘remittances’ and not see them solely in economic terms or in the context of their contribution to the GDP of receiving countries.   Remittances take the form of cash, or goods, or services in support of the needs of recipients, or technical advice based on the expertise of the donors/senders.  Labour migration is part of the history of the African Diaspora both within and beyond defined regions.  The phenomenon of ‘the barrel’, as a purveyor of ‘goods as remittances’ from people straddling Diasporas, is well established.  For example, my earliest recollection of my father in the 1940s is as the source of the barrels that my mother in Grenada received from Aruba in the Dutch West Indies where he worked in the Lago oil refinery. His two brothers, also Grenadian, spent most of their lives dredging for minerals in British Guyana (BG) and my only connection with them was as the source of the barrels that came several times a year and especially at Christmas.

2. Cash remittances could be meant for recipients to use as they please, or they could be for recipients to put to use on the specific instructions of the senders (re-paying loans, paying land and other taxes, repairing houses, buying land, building houses, etc.)

3. The ‘historical’ Diaspora  and the ‘new’ Diaspora are not mutually exclusive groups.  The ‘new’ Diaspora in Europe, for example, includes:

  • migrants to Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, etc., from the historical Diaspora AND from the African Continent since the Second World War;
  • refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution or genocide;
  • economic migrants seeking to escape unemployment, poverty and lack of opportunity in Africa and the Diaspora;
  • skilled Africans leaving their country of birth or adoption to go and work in the historical Diaspora or in countries where there is an already established ‘new’ Diaspora;

While we might group all those together, they do not necessarily have a mutual relationship with one another, nor are they all regarded in the same manner, favourable or otherwise, by the majority population in the countries in which they find themselves or which they have adopted.

4. As the population of migrants that relocated to metropolitan countries in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s age, a growing number are re-joining the ‘historic’ Diaspora, having been sending remittances ‘home’ for anything from twenty (20) to sixty (60) years.

Those returnees are typically elderly people with a range of Health and Social Care needs.  Many suffer from conditions that affect African heritage people, especially from the Caribbean, significantly more than other ethnic groups:  – diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, sickle cell anaemia, prostate cancer, arthritis, rheumatism, glaucoma, etc. Medical care in the ‘historic’ Diaspora is often prohibitively expensive, assuming it is available, which is quite often not the case.  Those returnees therefore make regular trips back and forth to the metropolis in order to get the level and quality of health care they need.  If they have been away for a significant period and no longer qualify for residency, they are expected to pay for such health care at full cost, in addition to paying for air tickets to travel back to the place that until recently was ‘home’ and where, as in the case of the UK, they had access to free health and social care.

5. In the case of returnees from the UK, typically the state pension they receive is not index linked.  This means that they remain on the basic pension they were receiving on leaving Britain until they die.  The cost of health and social care at home as repatriates, added to the cost of health care back in the metropolis induces a level of anxiety about their dwindling finances which can and does aggravate whatever illness the individual is already suffering.  The evidence from different countries in the ‘historical’ Diaspora over the years is that the combination of these factors impacts adversely on their wellbeing and longevity, such that many returnees do not get to enjoy for any appreciable time the homes they spent much of their life’s savings to build when they were still part of the ‘new’ or recent Diaspora.

6. Meanwhile, countries in the ‘historic’ Diaspora do not feel that they should (or could) adjust or improve their health care provision in order to accommodate that new area of need caused by these returning citizens.  Indeed, over the years, Caribbean heads of state (Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada) have told me, on the record, that they cannot see why they should be expected to take account of the needs of returnees, however numerous they are, because the latter gave all their best and most productive years to the UK, Europe and North America and then end up laying burdensome responsibilities upon the homeland in which they have chosen to retire.

7. I can provide anecdotal evidence from Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St Lucia, in fact pretty much anywhere in the Caribbean Diaspora, that exemplifies the plight facing many of those returnees.

8. This is a rich and worthy area for some of the research the other two breakaway groups (Social Cooperation and Political Cooperation) propose we should carry out, if only to build an accurate picture of the situation of returnees in different age bands and in various countries in the ‘historical’ Diaspora.

9. That said, returnees are themselves establishing their own social networks and organising themselves into returnees’ associations both in order to give support to one another and to influence government policies and practices in the ‘historical’ Diaspora.

10. Assuming that, broadly speaking, this analysis is correct, the following questions arise:

  • what role can cash ‘remittances’ play in meeting the needs of those rejoining the ‘historical’ Diaspora who themselves were for many years the source of those remittances?
  • how can a dedicated bank for handling cash remittances, an African Institute for Remittances linked to or in parallel with an African Diaspora Investment Fund be a platform for funding Health and Social Care for returnees to the ‘historical’ Diaspora and for those who were once recipients of their financial support and can no longer depend upon it?
  • what examples exist in other Diasporas (Jewish, Indian Sub-continent, Chinese) of how these economic and social problems at the interface between the ‘new’ Diaspora and the ‘historical’ Diaspora  have been addressed?
  • what steps have governments in the ‘historical’ Diaspora taken or are taking in order to tackle this issue of returnees and their needs, acknowledging that cash remittances sent by them when in the ‘new’ Diaspora helped sustain their economy to some degree over a considerable period?

Conclusion

What I have attempted to do in this brief intervention as a delegate who straddles the ‘historical’ and the ‘new’ Diaspora (in the UK) and who was not part of the group that looked at Economic Cooperation is to suggest that ‘Remittances’ raises rather more issues than the economic and financial angle from which the group appeared to have approached it.  Indeed, the social and policy implications it has for governments in  AU member states, in the ‘historical’ Diaspora and I dare say in the ‘new’ Diaspora such as the UK (returnees and their pension rights, dual citizenship and ‘returning residents’ rights, for example) go far beyond the banking and investment of ‘remittances’.

Recommendations

1. That Ministers be asked to give due consideration to the specific issue of ‘Remittances’ as amplified in this submission.

2. That in order to inform their deliberations on the issue, they commission research/fact finding to gather evidence of the variables identified above, including the measures and policies (if any) their governments, both in Africa and in the ‘historical’ Diaspora, as well as governments in the metropolis, have in place for dealing with the specific needs of those making remittances when they return ‘home’ and re-join the ‘historical’ Diaspora.

Picture (home page): “What’s for dinner?“, by Aquila (Flickr)

If you would like to download this paper in .pdf format, please click here.

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