‘We ourselves are a people of migrants. Something became a “sticking factor” for us. Something new might be out there’

 Interview – Soorya Gayan : The “Diasporas” will certainly need more than good intentions to be attracted back

It is estimated there are some 200,000 members of the Mauritian diaspora out there who have emigrated in different waves to their countries of adoption, mostly to the richer countries of the world. The economic concern or creating better opportunities for themselves was perhaps one of motives for leaving the country. Others simply did not come back after studies or professional engagement.

Countries like China and India have seen waves of diaspora members returning to share in their original countries’ newer adventures. We asked Soorya Gayan, Director General of the MGI & RTI, who chaired this week the Mauritian Diaspora International Conference at the MGI, what could be the clues to enhancing cooperation in future between the country and its diaspora and how should we go about it.

Mauritius Times: The Mauritian Diaspora international conference being currently held at the MGI appears to be the first ever organised locally to examine, from an academic perspective, the trajectories of the 200,000-strong Mauritian community living abroad and the connections that could be envisaged for the benefit of both the country and the diaspora itself. Is it the objective of the Conference to assess whether such an engagement would prove worth the while or, are we thinking of laying down the foundation for such a mutually reinforcing engagement?

As the themes of the conference show, this is an exploratory meeting, which brings up issues of being and becoming in the context of twentieth century emigration from Mauritius.

It is more to get to “know” than to get to “decide”. In that sense, this is more like laying foundations.

* Do we have records which show the different fields in which members of the Mauritian diaspora have excelled in their countries of adoption and the skills they could bring to us therefore to raise this country from where it is into areas we’ve haven’t yet ventured into?

This is an exercise which is being undertaken by certain bodies, including I understand, Nou Diaspora, an NGO. Also the Mauritius Research Council has set up a Mauritian Diaspora Research Funding Scheme, the objectives of which are to:

•       Tap into Mauritian talents based overseas

•       Enhancing exchange/collaboration between local and international institutions

•       Promoting further quality research

•       Increasing research exposure

I take this opportunity to place on record the partners of MGI and collaborating institutions in the organizing of the Conference: Mauritius Research Council, University of Technology Mauritius, Nou Diaspora, University of Mauritius and Air Mauritius.

To come back to your question, a survey of competence would constitute a fundamental tool for decision takers to concretely propose schemes aiming at mobilising the Diaspora as a resource for development.

* On the one hand, those who have stayed back have apprehensions about the return of the diaspora (loss of jobs to them). On the other, members of the diaspora could be very demanding towards their countries of origin, having lived in different professional environments. Yet, Indian and Chinese diasporas have found their countries’ upgrades in recent decades attractive enough for them to head back home and contribute in the development process. In Mauritius, we don’t offer that kind of scope yet to the diaspora. Surely, members of the diaspora will not come back to work with us only for sentimental reasons?

I fully agree. In my welcome address on Wednesday morning, I underlined this inevitable tension between Mauritius and her “Diasporas”. Are we heading towards ruthlessness in competition or shrewdness and acumen in collaboration? Humans have their own way of identifying their interests. The common roots may well bring a sense of emotional mutual acknowledgement, but, in the final analysis, all initiative is individually motivated and aimed at one’s own progress.

The “Diasporas” will certainly need more than good intentions to be attracted back. The Chinese and Indian models are, of course, very much to the fore as examples of dynamic mutual engagement between those abroad and those still in the original home. Much academic work is being carried out to understand how conceptually one can move from understanding “diaspora” in cultural identity terms to grasping its features and mechanisms as a resource in economic terms.

What is for sure is that the exploration taking place at this conference is a first, and it will therefore inevitably raise a whole raft of issues, including the ones you are raising here.

One outcome, apart from the publication of the proceedings, will be to pick through the issues, on the one hand, and put up a research agenda, on the other. I hope, some concrete proposals will come up for a positive mobilisation of competence, on both sides.

* It is generally believed that members of diasporas are quite demanding with their countries of origin in terms of achievements and international standing before engaging. Will members of our diaspora be more condescending in regard to their demands from Mauritius? If so, can we expect to tap successfully on the contributions they could potentially have made to our social and economic advancement?

Prof Chinappah, one of the keynote speakers, pointed to the need to avoid the pitfalls of any condescending approach. We have outgrown the urge to have foreigners to advise us. Mauritians would not look well on a fresh breed of experts.

* In other words, could it be said that Mauritius has “improved” sufficiently for members of the diaspora to want to draw inspiration from the source? Or, would you say Mauritius has to do a lot more to match up to the diaspora’s expectations given the higher recognition and standards of living they might be enjoying over there in the different places they’ve settled into?

Then again, it depends on what one considers to be a high standard of living. There is perhaps more of an emphasis these days on “quality of life”, and here Mauritius may well score higher, compared with countries in which the diaspora has settled. The attractiveness of the conference to find out ways to even out differences that might stand in the way for the two sides to come together should not be underrated.

* In the course a conference that was previously organized by an NGO in Mauritus, one of the questions was whether members of the diaspora should have the right to vote in local elections. Elections are already quite polarizef over here and politicians will not want to complicate matters. There’s also the issue of dual nationality and the one country to which allegiance is owed. If members of the diaspora were to engage, they would surely want to have their voice heard. How will issues of this sort resolve themselves out to make way for a smooth collaboration?

The relationship with the country of origin is much more complex than the right to vote.

As you know, the African Union recognises and wishes to “encourage the full participation of the African Diaspora as an important part of the continent, in the building of the African Union.”

In that context, the African Diaspora is defined as “consisting of people of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality and who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union”.

The debate about “diasporas” has moved beyond the question of right to vote and of nationality. The stakes are higher economically rather than only politically. We are looking at a world where interests and influence go well beyond frontiers. One should expect the relation between members of the diaspora and the countries of origin to be bonded by a more multi-dimensional consideration than the mere issue of citizenship and nationality, such as a deep sense of commitment to push for economic, social and environmental progress.

* We should nevertheless take cognisance of the fact that more than 3 per cent of the world’s population now lives outside of the country they were born in, and it’s also reported that “if migrants made up a single nation, they would be the fifth largest in the world.” A large reservoir of talents and resources to reckon with?

The “reservoir of talents” you mention raises the issue of “brain drain”. Flourishing economies can attract talent and give it the opportunities and resources to develop. Hence the “prise de conscience”, and the urge to attract that talent back.

* At the end of the day, the going out of Mauritians to other countries in years past has opened up new and perhaps better perspectives for them in their newer countries of residence. Do you think that there could be a higher than the sheer economic pursuit to make them come back over here and collaborate to the nation’s development? What could be a sticking factor to our diaspora? Is it some sort of a nostalgia of an environment they’ve lived in before?

We need not simplify too much when it comes to human relationships.

The world is porous, time has also shrunk. Modes of travel, technologies, and mindsets have made people become very mobile and all parts of the globe have become easily accessible.

Nostalgia may be easily, temporarily, remedied. The “sticking factor” might be something neither material, nor emotional. It’s the magic or spark, which, perhaps, at this point, we are not seeing.

We ourselves are a people of migrants. Something became a “sticking factor” for us. Something new might be out there, which we do not see, but which might just trigger a fresh period of “mutual engagement”.

* Published in print edition on 4 December 2015

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