Diaspora and development

Getinet Enyew left Ethiopia when he was young, but returned to the country upon learning a local bank was approving loans for qualified members of the diaspora to return and start businesses. Members of the diaspora are potential agents for development. Photo by: Morgana Wingard / USAID / CC BY-NC

There is growing international dialogue on the importance of links between diaspora and development.

In both policy and academic sectors, there is emerging, if not uneven focus on the topic as governments and agencies attempt to identify and mainstream optimal modes of diaspora engagement for home and host country development. Some countries have created ministries, institutions and programs to promote diasporas as development agents. At the same time, there are diaspora-led initiatives to shape arenas of social, economic and political development. But despite all this, as we approach an important crossroads leading up to the post-2015 development agenda, there remain significant knowledge gaps about the forms and functions of diasporas in development practice.

An engaged diaspora can be a true asset, offering a channel of access to networks of human and financial capital that can be valuable resources in development practice. However, it can be difficult to assess and quantify the value and impact of diaspora engagement — as is often observed by practitioners and scholars in this area, “no one-size-fits-all” — and some governments are still unsure about how best to scale and implement policy in diaspora engagement.

As interest in this area grows, only a few governments have invested in really understanding their own diasporas and even less in understanding other diasporas resident in their countries as potential agents for development. Although the knowledge bases are now increasing, policy lags behind as resource and coordination remain fragile and patchy.

In particular, European governments have been slow to recognise and respond to African diasporas in their midst as potential partners and agents of engagement with countries of origin.

Diaspora-led development comes in many forms, and is not solely a matter of remittances. To be sure, the role of remittances remains very important — in the African diaspora, remittances far exceed official development assistance flows — but there are also significant contributions in terms of philanthropy, mentoring, shared learning and advocacy. Notably, African diasporas are using ICTs to influence development, using a range of online platforms and innovative funding mechanisms to create transformational interventions in countries of origin. They are also challenging the ideological imperatives of international development.

There are policies and practices that evidence successful and sustainable engagement, while skills and knowledge are transferable as long as the contexts are suitably understood. Research shows that diasporas have variable impacts on many areas of development, including investment, trade, skills and knowledge transfer, tourism, conflict transformation and humanitarian support.

More needs to be done to understand these impacts and identify the role for policy in optimizing diaspora engagement for development. We must bring together the informal worlds of diaspora-led development and investment activity with the formal worlds of international development and investment practices. Governments need to provide systematic cooperation to help bridge these worlds, working with private sector and civil society organizations that are already active in linking countries of origin and destination.

The most basic research need is to understand the dynamics at work in the creation and maintenance of particular diasporic cultures and networks, and their relations with hosts and homelands. This can be the basis for understanding opportunities afforded both host and home countries by strategic diaspora engagement. The most basic policy role is to build capacity within ministries and government agencies to support the engagement of diaspora for development, connect and empower diaspora stakeholders, and maximize the impact of diaspora engagement.

To advance discussion about research and policy in this field, the Global Diaspora and Development Forum will be held in Dublin from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1. The forum will bring together international policymakers, scholars and a diverse range of diaspora actors and representatives to address global examples of diaspora engagement, explore fresh trends and share best practices, provide opportunities to develop strategic collaborations, and act as a pivotal forum for moving beyond phases of dialogue to action-oriented platforms for diaspora engagement in the post-2015 agenda.

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About the author

  • Liam kennedy

    Liam Kennedy

    Liam Kennedy is director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at Dublin's University College Dublin. Author and editor of several books, his research interests and teaching experiences ranges from U.S. urban studies, visual culture and globalization to transatlantic relations.