Diaspora groups share lessons to drive development impacts

    Participants at the 2011 Global Diaspora Forum held in Washington, D.C. By sharing best practices with one another, members of the global diaspora can learn from each other about the most effective ways to strengthen their ties with and contributions to their communities of heritage. Photo by: USAID

    Over the last 45 years, the number of international migrants has tripled to an estimated 232 million people worldwide. This large diaspora population is varied but can learn from each other about how to identify the most effective ways to strengthen their ties with and contributions to their communities of heritage to advance development objectives.

    “You might think that diaspora groups only want to network with each other, Kenyans with Kenyans, but they’re actually quite interested in cross pollinating and cross learning,” said Sara Gallagher, a program officer for IdEA, the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance.

    A partnership between the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Calvert Foundation, IdEA is one of a number of initiatives bringing global diasporas together in an effort to support social and economic development. Home to more than 40 million international migrants, the largest number of any country in the world, the United States is host to a growing number of conversations between diaspora groups about how they can do more to drive development in their countries of origin.

    While diaspora populations send money across borders in the form of remittances — foreign born residents in the U.S. sent about $54 billion in remittances in 2014 —  a number of new initiatives aim to leverage diaspora funds for development impact.

    “Members of the diaspora have a greater risk appetite and they have these emotional and financial ties to their home countries that are lifelong,” said Romi Bhatia, the former lead for diaspora engagement at USAID, who helped develop the India Investment Initiative.

    Organizations like Homestrings, an online portal that offers tools to connect members of the Africa diaspora who are qualified investors — have a net worth of $1 million or more — with investment opportunities on the continent, have also emerged.

    “I was facing frustrations looking at the African growth story and finding there were limited opportunities available for me to participate in that,” said Eric Guichard, who founded Homestrings.

    Of course, a number of barriers may prevent members of the diaspora from investing in their home countries. For example, Almaz Negash, the founder of the African Diaspora Network, told Devex she is more likely to invest in other African countries than her country of heritage: Eritrea.

    She said she hopes African governments will follow in the footsteps of the Indian government when it comes to making it easier for members of their diasporas to invest in a way that drives development.

    India has the largest global diaspora in the world, and efforts by the government to engage that population offer lessons for diasporas of all sizes looking to replicate that success. As part of an ambitious government initiative to reach out to the diaspora, the national government set up a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, and state governments are launching their own departments and hosting summits to engage nonresident Indians. The growing bonds between India and its diaspora have resulted in the rise of the Indian services sector as well as an influential Indian lobby in countries like the United States.

    One of the takeaways from the India example is that countries and foundations alike need to consider the way diaspora members can contribute beyond their checkbooks, said Murali Krishnamurthy, founder and executive chairman of the Sankara Eye Foundation.

    The lesson that investment should also go beyond financial capital to include human and social capital, is a lesson that African diasporas should heed, said Negash.

    “The brain drain has become a brain gain for India,” she told Devex following the African Diaspora Network investment symposium she organized in Silicon Valley.

    As members of the diaspora, particularly those in the Silicon Valley interested in supporting entrepreneurship, look to engage, one way is through mentorship programs like TechWomen, a State Department initiative to support women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

    There are also a growing number of training opportunities to help talented local business owners gain access to opportunities led by diaspora members, like Toro Orero, who is originally from Nigeria. Last month, he launched SpeedUPAfrica, a bootcamp that will gather hundreds of startup founders in Accra, Ghana.

    Diaspora communities vary in size and impact, but regardless of those differences as diaspora communities come together they can learn from one another about how to engage their members.

    “There are a lot of smaller, much lower capacity and more scattered diaspora groups from countries like Zambia or Malawi, and there is value in them learning how how the Fiji Trade Commission, even with a small and scattered diaspora, has been able to support trade and development in that country,” said IdEA’s Gallagher.

    Sometimes what those smaller groups need most is capacity building support and that is part of what the Calvert Foundation is trying to do through a series of webinars targeted at smaller diaspora organizations.

    “Having good intentions or caring about the plight of communities back home is not enough,” Bhatia said. “You really have to marry that with clarity of mission and you have to run the organization in a professional and efficient manner.”

    Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

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      Catherine Cheney

      Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.