JO - Courting the Jamaican Diaspora in the UK
Courting the Jamaican Diaspora in the UK
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Last weekend saw hundreds of people of Jamaican descent streaming up the motorway and taking the train to Birmingham in the West Midlands to attend the 2007 Jamaica Diaspora UK conference.
The conference took place in the Bethel Convention Centre in West Bromwich. The centre looks quite modest from the outside. But when you get inside a truly fabulous convention centre is revealed. It is as good as any similar convention centre I have seen in London. It has state of the art facilities and an auditorium that holds thousands. The fact that it was built by a major black church led by a bishop of Jamaican origin was a source of pride to delegates and made it a particularly appropriate venue for the conference.
Conveniently, there is a hard dough bread factory on the same site. So delegates were able to slip out in the intervals between conference sessions and stock up on fresh hot hard dough bread and other delicious Jamaican bakery goods. The weather was particularly bad that weekend, with flooding in some parts of the area. But dedicated conference participants were not put off. And their dedication was rewarded. It was a well-organised conference in a good venue with top quality Caribbean catering. (Not only was there curry goat and chicken for lunch but also cornmeal porridge and fried dumplings for breakfast!)
There were some fine speeches particularly from the keynote speaker, Professor Rex Nettleford, who urged the Jamaican Diaspora to lobby the British government for an education fund to support the University of the West Indies as part of a meaningful package of reparations. The conference was also privileged to hear from Professor Barry Chevannes who led a packed workshop on education and culture.
Former Air Jamaica executive, William Rogers, also spoke at the conference and addressed some of the issues that have been exercising Jamaicans in Britain since the news of the sale of the London/Kingston route to Virgin Atlantic Airways. It was a good idea to have him address the conference but it was disappointing that only one member of the audience was allowed to ask him a question.
There were obviously time constraints. But, because the issue was so important to the audience, many people felt that the timetable should have been rearranged to give the audience the chance to question him properly. As it is, most observers felt that he got off lightly. Maybe the conference organisers did not want to offend a key corporate sponsor.
But, if the Jamaican Diaspora movement is to survive and flourish, it cannot be seen as the property of any corporate interest.
As far as Jamaicans in Britain are concerned there are still important unresolved issues about the Air Jamaica sell-off. In particular, people want to know what is going to happen to the many long established black travel agents who have enjoyed preferential status with Air Jamaica but now face going out of business. A full and frank exchange of views between Mr Rogers and the audience might have brought home to him how strongly people feel about the way the sell-off was handled.
I chaired a workshop on "Lobbying for Jamaica". It was a lively workshop. First, I had to convince some of the older attendees that there was any point in Jamaicans overseas lobbying at all. They seemed to think that lobbying was a matter best left to paid (white) professional lobbyists. I had to point out that, first the banana industry and then the sugar industry, had spent lavishly on such lobbyists with little discernible effect on the relevant trade negotiations (except that the white lobbyists made a lot of money).
The Cubans in Florida have been extremely successful in influencing American foreign policy and are a good example of what determined lobbying by a Caribbean Diaspora can achieve. But, the fact that some Jamaicans still feel that lobbying is something we should pay white people to do for us goes to the heart of why the Jamaican Diaspora is not as influential in British politics as it should be.
Marketing specialist and consultant Angelina Purcell gave an excellent presentation about her own experiences (as a private individual) lobbying with a group of others in Brussels for better compensation for the Caribbean sugar industries. I tried to explain how influential lobbyists can be and detailed the range of methods available to the determined lobbyists ranging from post card campaigns to pushing hard on specific Caribbean issues at election time. It was agreed that there should be more information put out to the community to enable them to lobby effectively.
Among the issues that were identified as ones that a proposed Jamaican Diaspora lobby group could tackle were immigration issues; special programmes for young people; visa matters affecting recruited Jamaican teachers and nurses, and political representation.
Jamaican politicians are to be congratulated on taking the initiative to set up the Diaspora movement and for their ongoing support and are far more advanced in their formal relationship with the Diaspora than any other Caribbean territory.
The Jamaican Diaspora UK has been remarkably successful, given that it has no budget and is entirely run by volunteers. But there is more to be done. Many (if not most) Jamaicans in Britain have still not heard of the Jamaica Diaspora UK and we need to find imaginative and cost effective ways of raising its profile.
This year's conference saw the launch of a youth arm of the organisation for teenagers and people in their early 20s. This is a praiseworthy initiative but the real missing age group in the Jamaican Diaspora UK are second and third generation Jamaicans in their 30s and 40s.
In my experience, this generation is very interested in Jamaica and has a great deal to contribute, not least in terms of their professional skills.
Reaching out to them will take more than generalised appeals to sentiment. They will want to see a transparent, open, and democratic organisational structure. They want practical ways that they can get involved in what is happening in Jamaica.
I still believe that the Jamaican Diaspora is the country's most important and underused political asset. So, I look forward to next year's conference in Kingston.