The recent formation of the diaspora-based Coalition in Defense of Democracy (CDD) in Dominica and recent articles in this medium has brought into sharp focus what role Dominicans living overseas have to play in the development of the nation.

On one hand many people living at home think that the diaspora should not get involved in what is happening “on the ground” in Dominica because they don’t face the day to day reality of life and hence they have no idea of what is going on. After all “who feels it knows it.” Members of the diaspora beg to differ.

I confess I write this from the diaspora myself hence my opinion might be seen as biased, but I have struggled with this very issue for years. Although I left the island as a student in 1991 I have maintained a strong attachment to home, visiting regularly and keeping my Dominican passport. I have never applied for citizenship in any other country.

Within the global economic context it is unlikely that the country’s economy will grow fast enough to absorb the scores of highly educated and unemployed/underemployed Dominicans living at home and the hundreds of students leaving school every year. Migration outwards in search of opportunities by Dominicans of all ages today and in the distant future seems to be one possible outlet for some of the country’s population and unemployment pressures. Hence one can safely conclude that the diaspora is here to stay.

It is beyond doubt that the diaspora is playing an important role in the development of the nation. Remittances from Dominicans living overseas has made Dominica among the world’s top recipients of this form of finance relative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and serves as a major source of external financing. As a matter of fact remittances have far exceeded direct foreign investment and official government transfers and by 2004 had peaked to a whopping EC$124 million.

Despite this massive flow of foreign exchange many (not all) Dominicans at home appear uneasy about an organization such as the CCD, which is solely diaspora based, and some are even questioning its true intentions. In an internet conversation I had with a friend in Dominica a few days ago, Dr. Thompson Fontaine, founder of the CCD, was labeled as a “UWP activist” who has grossly mislabeled the idea that democracy is under threat in Dominica.

“Look at the amount of media houses we have in Dominica and they are not being shut down. I am not prepared to have people who have not been to Dominica in 10, 15 or 25 years dictate to me who have lived all my life in this country that democracy is under threat or anything else,” I was told.

Whether the description of Dr. Thompson as an “activist” is correct or not, I don’t know, but the last part of the conversation raised probably the most vexing concern, in my opinion, of the diaspora issue.  The term ‘diaspora’ is broad covering anyone who left the island’s shores one year ago to 50 years ago. I know people who have left Dominica for over 15 years and have never returned. Do these people have the right to “dictate,” using the term of my friend, to people who have lived all their lives at home on what is happening on the ground? Does the frequency of visits to home make any difference? Are diaspora Dominicans and at home Dominicans equal partners? The debate rages on.

It is my opinion that diaspora’s role in nation building goes beyond remittances and organizations such as the CDD, important as they might be. However it walks a very fine line. One of my disappointments with some members of the diaspora is that they have become involved in the mudslinging and divisive tactics that have become the hallmark of politics back home. I believe that the diaspora have all the right in the world to point out and critique the political, economic and social challenges facing the nation but it has to be done in a manner that is non-partisan, non-divisive and neutral. The diaspora should serve as some sort of fence-mending and bridge building entity, not the opposite. Furthermore expatriates should respect the sensitivities of their fellow Dominicans who, for one reason or the other, have stayed home and should not make it appear that they are smarter or more intelligent.

Having said this let me offer some suggestions for possible exploration by expatriates if they are interested in contributing to nation building. People who have migrated to other countries, especially more developed ones, have a great opportunity to build, develop and maintain fruitful linkages and networks between Dominica and their country of residence. Professionals should maintain extensive relationships between institutions in Dominica and in the country where they work through which knowledge and expertise flow freely in a cooperative manner.

One way in which knowledge and expertise can be transferred and links and networks maintained is through short targeted visits to Dominica by highly skilled emigrants. This is what the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has sought to do with the TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals) scheme. TOKTEN aims to reverse patterns of brain drain by encouraging expatriate nationals to volunteer their expertise in the service of their homelands for short periods. Are any highly placed professionals in the more developed nations even aware of such program and how much it can actually benefit Dominica?
Another network-based program, although not geared exclusively towards the diaspora, but seeks to operate similar knowledge networks is the “Visiting Scientist Program”. This program, co-sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) and UNESCO, supports visits by senior scientists of a minimum stay of one month to institutions located in developing countries.  Such a program, if explored and utilized, could provide invaluable knowledge transfer to professionals at home and be of great benefit to Dominica.

Highly-trained members of the diaspora can also make contribution to the development of Dominica through the use of technology. Using advanced information and communication technologies and other means of communication, highly-skilled expatriates may form professional networks to accelerate knowledge transfer to home. UNESCO’s “Virtual Laboratory Toolkit” provides such a platform. It provides scientists and other professionals in developing countries to establish and participate in so-called “centers without walls” with their counterparts in first-world nations. It is a kind of electronic workspace for distance collaboration and experimentation in research or other creative activities. Again this can be of great benefit to Dominica if expatriates exploit it to the maximum.

The contribution of the diaspora to the development of our nation cannot be underestimated and should not be ignored. The challenges Dominica faces are enormous and we need all hands on deck.