US diaspora alliance ready to take risk

    Participants of the Global Diaspora Forum Meetup chat with National Football League player and HOPE Africa founder James Ihedigbo. Photo by: U.S. State Department

    A diaspora initiative launched with much fanfare by former U.S. top diplomat Hillary Clinton is awaiting its second act: The State Department is looking for buyers to turn the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance, created two years ago, into a nongovernmental organization.

    It would be a major departure, albeit one that American officials had envisioned from the start of this young alliance, which gathered government officials and diaspora representatives this week for meetings in Washington and elsewhere.

    Alliance leaders are also eager to better engage diaspora members to invest in business opportunities in their countries of heritage that traditional donors may find too risky. And IdEA is getting ready to roll out its first set of partnership agreements.

    These agreements – selected from 30 or so concept proposals received after last year’s forum – will mark the first real test of IdEA’s ability to not just convene diaspora, but also help to kickstart initiatives that will spur development abroad. It follows a review of how diaspora communities engage with their countries of heritage, conducted by the Migration Policy Institute, which currently houses the IdEA platform in collaboration with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s global partnership campaigns, as well as with corporate partners.

    The challenge will be to go beyond talking about problems and instead move toward finding and implementing solutions, said Romi Bhatia, a senior advisor for diaspora partnerships at USAID’s Global Partnerships Division.

    IdEA’s annual forum, he explained, is meant to spark a dialogue between governments and the diaspora. The overall platform, meanwhile, helps these groups find common ground and explore ways to engage with the U.S. government, the private sector and other partners.

    “If they are all approaching us from their own perspective for a particular project or several projects where there is overlapping interest, it makes much more sense to have a coalition where there is a common purpose and goal that can be agreed upon and defined,” added Bhatia.

    The U.S. government and other donors have long struggled to leverage the “human connectivity” of diaspora organizations in their efforts to deliver local solutions to global development challenges.

    Next step: Engage the private sector

    The IdEA platform is part of a broader paradigm change within the aid community away from from one-off projects toward longer-term engagement of civil society stakeholders. For the diaspora community, it represents a chance to go beyond emergency support initiatives toward more sustainable development partnerships. Engaging the private sector is seen as a logical next step.

    “To really move the yardstick forward, engaging the private sector to look at the diaspora community as part of their business operations in the work that they do is the challenge that faces us. So that’s where IdEA has to continue to evolve,” Bhatia said.

    Private sector engagement was a central topic at this week’s 3rd annual Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, where roughly 400 representatives of diaspora organizations gathered to network with U.S. government officials and each other.

    Participants shared their ideas about how to spur growth in their countries of origin as an alternative to sending remittances. While they appreciated the opportunity to network with each other, many of them said that they were struggling to navigate the complex American bureaucracy.

    As this year’s forum draws to a close, IdEA leaders are getting ready to transform the alliance into a self-standing, nongovernmental body.

    The State Department’s Global Partnership Initiative has issued an $800,000 request for proposals for institutions interested in assuming the management of IdEA. The goal is for IdEA to emerge under a new leadership as a self-standing membership platform for U.S. diaspora groups eager to funnel government and private sector investments toward their countries of origin.

    Proposals must be submitted by June 7.

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    About the author

    • Michael Igoe

      Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.