Diaspora matters — now more than ever

A world map with pins. More than 232 million people are living outside the country they were born in — up from 150 million in 1990. Photo by: Alexander Kaiser / PoolieStudios / CC BY

EDITOR’S NOTE: The international development community has traditionally looked at diasporas through the lens of remittances and financial flows. Although important, these are only part of the story, Diaspora Matters’ Kingsley Aikins writes in this guest commentary.

Development professionals may be missing a trick. Migration is — quite rightly — a huge contemporary topic attracting much attention. It is also highly emotive, politically toxic and emotionally draining.

At the same time, the fact that the area of diaspora gets a much easier ride and more positive press is seen as generally a good thing and is attracting a lot of attention from dozens of governments.

They have seen how the four most successful countries in diaspora engagement have benefited: Some 80 percent of foreign direct investment in China comes from its diaspora; India has become a global technology hub because of its diaspora; Israel has partnered with its diaspora to become one the world’s most prominent technology centers and the great “startup nation”; and Ireland has leaned heavily on its diaspora for everything from helping to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland to attracting overseas investment, tourists and students.

In short, diaspora equals jobs — and that is concentrating governments’ minds everywhere.

Countries are also realizing that those that lost the most to emigration are in a position to benefit the most by engaging them or their descendants. They are now coming to see them not as “lost actors” but as “national assets.” Traditionally, we looked at diasporas through the lens of remittances and financial flows. Though important, this is only part of the story.

Diasporas are influential bridges to knowledge, expertise, resources and markets for countries of origin. With more than 232 million people living outside the country they were born in — up from 150 million in 1990 — migrant remittances have quintupled since 2000 to $560 billion in 2013. The power of the sector is self-evident.

Diasporas constitute collectives of people through which networks can be created and individuals mobilized for mutual benefit — the classic “triple win” that benefits the diaspora member, the host country and the home country.

Dozens of countries are now seeking to put in place policies and programs to convert their “diaspora capital” into practical projects with tangible and measurable outcomes. To be successful, however, countries need to be aware of five key elements:

1. Think first what you can do for your diaspora rather than what your diaspora can do for you. Familiar words and, as in life generally, the more you give the more you eventually get.

2. Don’t be seduced by the numbers or think you have to engage millions. A very small number of committed members in the diaspora can have a huge impact. The American philanthropist Chuck Feeney, part of the Irish diaspora, has given more than $1.5 billion to educational institutions in Ireland.

3. Programs should focus on both the vulnerable and the successful alike. Ireland’s Emigrant Support Program has distributed 114 million euros ($143 million) to disadvantaged groups in the Irish diaspora. At the same time, the Irish government has courted the successful members of the diaspora through, for example, the Global Irish Network — a group made up of 350 Irish CEOs heading up major companies overseas. Global Scot and Chile Globale are other examples of this approach.

4. Diaspora engagement is all about networking — but networking on global steroids. There is a methodology to this and it is about the four-step process of research, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship. Nobody disputes the importance of networking, but nobody at school or college is taught how to do it.

5. Join the “CASE” club — copy and steal everything. Diaspora development is a noncompetitive sector. Somebody going to help the Palestinian territories, Poland or Portugal is not going to help Scotland, Sweden or Switzerland. We should share to the maximum and learn from each other: The issues and challenges are quite similar from country to country.

In the old days, migration was final, brutal and sad. In many cases today, it still is. However, for possibly the first time in history, absence now no longer equals exile and geography no longer dictates identity. In fact, you could say that geography is history. People are leading hyphenated lives and living “here” and “there.” The world is more a mosaic than a melting pot and “brain drain” can become “brain gain” and “brain exchange.”

This is the backdrop to the Global Diaspora and Development Forum being held today in Dublin, Ireland, where my consultancy company Diaspora Matters will be launching a Web-based project titled “100 Global Diaspora Initiatives”  — taking a look at a selection of unique diaspora projects in more than 50 countries, showing just how international and vibrant this sector is.

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

  • Kingsley aikins profile

    Kingsley Aikins

    Kingsley Aikins is founder and CEO of Diaspora Matters, a consultancy firm that gives advice on diaspora issues to governments, companies and individuals. A former Irish trade representative in Australia and director of the worldwide Ireland Funds, Aikins produced in 2011 a Global Diaspora Strategies Toolkit and two years later chaired the Global Diaspora Forum held in Dublin.