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Commentary: Caribbean Governments Must Step Up

By Christopher Chaplin

PHILADELPHIA – It is now time for Caribbean governments to get directly involved in at least one area of U.S. domestic policy. Every 10 years, the United States embarks on the process of counting every person in the country.

The US Census is mandated by the Constitution and the next Census is scheduled to take place beginning April 2010. Census data are used to distribute Congressional seats to states, to make decisions about what community services to provide, and to distribute $300 billion in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments each year.

Historically, Caribbean Americans have not responded to being counted in the Census very well. According to NY US Census officials, some largely West Indian areas in NY had response rates as low as in the 20-45 percent range during the last Census in 2000. These low response rates have the effect of lost federal funding in these areas as well as lower political clout. Additionally, ask any marketing company targeting the Caribbean Diaspora in the United States what is the biggest issue it faces and you will likely be told that it is the lack of demographic data on Caribbean nationals

So why should the US Census matter to regional governments and people? The reasons are economic and political in nature. Firstly, an increased count of the number of people in largely Caribbean communities, whether in Brooklyn, New York or Ft. Lauderdale, Florida results in increased federal funding to those communities. New York Census Coordinator, Stacy Cumberbatch, estimates that each person who does not fill out the census form results in lost federal funds to New York City of $2,700.

These lost funds result in reduced services to residents in these cities and the disproportionate impact is on immigrants and especially West Indians in cities with a strong Caribbean presence.

The second and perhaps more important reason is political. I have long held the view, having been exposed to a number of Caribbean ambassadors since I was a student in Washington DC and subsequently over a twenty plus year span, that Caribbean nations have been largely fortunate in the quality of their Foreign Service personnel. Caribbean embassies and consulates have been staffed with some of the brightest and best, especially in the areas of foreign policy and trade.

However, Caribbean nations have failed miserably in organizing their Diaspora into potent political forces the way Israel, Ireland and even Mexico have. This has resulted in weak coordinated political responses from the Caribbean Diaspora to changes in U.S. policy that affect the Caribbean.

With President Obama in office and the Census taking place next year, the next four years present a perhaps once in a generation opportunity for Caribbean countries to build a potent political voice in the United States and the Census is as good a starting point as any.

I would suggest that regional governments begin the process of getting involved by executing on the following:

1. Census 2010: Supporting CaribID, a volunteer organization founded by Guyanese-born journalist, Ms. Felicia Persaud, that has made history by advocating for Caribbean nationals to get their own Census category on future forms and for nationals to `Stand up and Be Counted` in 2010. CaribID seeks to ensure an accurate count of all Caribbean nationals; to get them their own origins category on the Census form, and is an active partner of the 2010 US Census.

Carib ID has adopted a number of measures and principles that Caribbean governments can review, sign on to and adopt as messages to their Caribbean nationals in the US. These measures and principles can be communicated through each government`s information ministry and information attaches stationed in the United States.

2. Build a Database: The need for a database containing the name and contact information of every Caribbean national in the United States should be obvious. The technology and expertise to do it are already within the Caribbean Diaspora. What is needed is the political will to do it.

3. Support Congresswoman Yvette Clarke`s Bill: Advocated for by CaribID and recently introduced in the congress by Congresswoman Yvette Clark, (D-NY), this measure calls for language in the census forms to include a category for Caribbean nationals to identify themselves. The bill has been supported by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Kristin Gellibrand (D-NY) and needs further support.

The greatest danger we face in building a strong Caribbean Diaspora is disunity. If Caribbean nations adopt a common set of guiding principles, even though there may be disagreement on some specific details, we can go a far way in building a political force capable of affecting US domestic and foreign policy in positive ways. And the time to start that process is now.

NOTE: Mr. Chaplin is a Founding Member of CaribID2010 and Co-Chairman of Team Jamaica Bickle Philadelphia. He is a Director of Hard Beat Communications Inc. and CaribPR and Co-Publisher of Caribbean World News.

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