How to engage diaspora in global development

    Ghana's currency. Remittances alone currently represent a bigger share of Ghana’s balance of payments than the combined total of all official development aid. Photo by: Jason Finch / CC BY-NC-ND

    Accra played host over the weekend to a newly convened forum to engage diaspora in global development causes.

    The forum, supported by the International Organization for Migration, seeks to stimulate long-term cooperation and engagement between the government of Ghana and the diaspora members in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Scheduled Aug. 24-26, it brought together government, diaspora associations, the private sector and civil society.

    Engaging diaspora in skills transfer and investment is “central” to Ghana’s development, according to the IPM Chief of Mission Dyane Epstein.

    Aid groups have been struggling to find ways to engage diaspora in development causes beyond the mere sending of remittances. There’s huge potential: Remittances alone currently represent a bigger share of Ghana’s balance of payments than the combined total of all official development aid. More than 30 million Africans have officially emigrated, and in 2010 they sent back $40 billion.

    Across the board, diasporas are eager to get involved in developing their countries of origin, Epstein said – not just by giving money, but also by getting involved in foreign aid planning and implementation.

    Devex asked Sonia Plaza, World Bank senior economist and co-author with Dilip Ratha of the book “Diaspora for Development,” what advice she would give governments when it comes to working with the diaspora. Here’s what she said:

    • Provide dual citizenship. The most important thing governments can do is to provide dual citizenship so that migrants can go in and out of the country without hassle, according to Plata. In countries like Germany and the U.S. where dual citizenship is mostly prohibited, diaspora members no longer have access to the countries they came from, making it harder to do things like open a business or travel back and forth.

    • Look beyond diaspora associations. They can’t represent everyone. Instead, get representation from all over the country and from different segments of the diaspora. Plaza herself, who is from Peru but lives in the United States, does not belong to a diaspora association despite the fact she is involved in working with her home country. Plaza suggested making arrangements with universities for mutual skills sharing and technological training.

    • Use creative partnerships. There should be a development marketplace where entrepreneurs with good ideas can do joint projects with the diaspora. In general, governments should create programs to develop the technologies most needed in the developing world in collaboration with diaspora members with the highest skill level.

    • Build diaspora capacity. These groups are often very eager to work and come with a lot of ideas, but they need funding and capacity. They need to be put in touch with their counterparts in developing countries, even if it is only for a short engagement. Doctor missions or volunteer teaching assignments are common ways to engage individuals for short-term projects. Encouraging diaspora participation, even if it’s short-term and imperfect, is necessary.

    • Focus on health and education. In these areas, assistance from diaspora can go a long way because it may reach poor people who might otherwise be completely neglected. National research centers like the U.S. National Institutes of Health or National Research Council or university programs might be a good fit.

    • Decentralize the approach. Plenty of attention and aid goes straight to the capitals of developing countries, where plenty of resources already flow. By decentralizing assistance from the diaspora, using twin cities programs for example, those living in remote areas who are often the poorest won’t be forgotten. Plaza herself recalled some bumpy plane rides en route to a college in the Peruvian amazon, where she shared her knowledge in a way that reached people who could never have accessed it in the capital of Lima.

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    About the author

    • Jennifer Brookland

      Jennifer Brookland is a former Devex global development reporter based in Washington, D.C. She has worked as a humanitarian reporter for the United Nations and as an investigative journalist for News21. Jennifer holds a bachelor's in foreign service from Georgetown University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University and in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School. She also served for four years as an Air Force officer.