James Ellsmoor, Island Innovation
The Scottish Islands and the Caribbean might not have much in common at first glance. Yet both regions have long been sources of emigrants, sending many of their best and brightest off-island to areas with greater economic opportunities. Historically, the diaspora has been a key pillar for growth in the Caribbean, and island nations carefully built strong relationships with their overseas communities and leveraged them for their expertise and investment potential.
The diaspora is particularly important in Jamaica, with some estimates indicating that as many Jamaicans may live off the island as on it. Remittances from those abroad represented US$2.45 billion USD in 2017, approximately 16.6% of total GDP. The proportion of remittances in Haiti and the Pacific Island nation of Tonga are even higher, at 32% and 37% of GDP, respectively.
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are acutely aware of the importance of this monetary flow and many have long-established diaspora engagement programs. This may consist of specific government ministries that engage overseas communities through events, conferences, exchanges and youth programs designed to encourage a sense of ownership and belonging. There are even “birthright” programs modelled on Israel, where young people born overseas can win the opportunity for a fully-funded trip to ‘return’ to the country of their parents
As The Caribbean Council points out, bringing a diaspora together means dealing with a range of social issues:
“defining the nature of the very different communities on either side of the Atlantic, let alone accommodating their multifaceted social identity, attitudes, political divisions, and variable connections with their former homelands, is becoming ever more complex. For the most part, the Caribbean seems not to have accepted that its communities overseas are now far from homogeneous; are rapidly fragmenting into quite different component categories that require much closer analysis given their quite different needs, and are slowly losing interest in the region from where their grandparents came.”
The techniques needed to engage the diaspora are changing with digital technology providing opportunities to engage those overseas without them even physically returning. Improved communications allow for more rapid transfer of knowledge and information (in both directions) while also increasing opportunities for people to return and establish international businesses from their islands. It is vital to think of diaspora engagement beyond just economic terms and benefit from the skills, knowledge and representation of communities abroad. Innovative approaches such as creating local institutions specifically to foster these relationships and even island “consulates” to represent their needs could also be an opportunity in Scotland.
The experience of the Caribbean may be something that Scottish islands can learn from and adapt to work in the local context. By seeing emigrants as key stakeholders in their islands’ futures, communities could make a concerted effort to engage them at all levels. There are, of course, key differences between these regions such as the higher birth rates in SIDS generally meaning depopulation is a less pressing concern than in Scotland. However, both island regions see the need to retain skills and engage their communities. With virtual technology redefining what it means to be a “community”, involving island diaspora could be a resource to all islands. Diverse islands around the world may have surprisingly similar experiences and learning from successful programs in other regions could bring big benefits to Scotland.