Why diaspora matters

Photo by: Entrer dans le rêve / CC BY-NC-SA

When Hillary Clinton was U.S. secretary of state in President Obama’s first administration, she was fascinated by the world of diasporas. Not only did she make outreach to diasporas central to her approach to “21st Century Statecraft,” Clinton also made it part of her Global Partnership Initiative — a “whole of government” approach that was all about creating action-oriented partnerships.

Globally, the ripple effect of this endeavor was enormous as dozens of countries began to look seriously at how to engage their diaspora communities. Under Clinton’s leadership, the State Department organized an annual Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, D.C., which, each year in 2011 and 2012, attracted more than 500 delegates representing 75 countries.

One of Clinton’s last acts as secretary of state was to ask Ireland’s prime minister and deputy prime minister for Dublin to co-host this year’s Global Diaspora Forum on the same days as this year’s event in Washington. Clinton made the request when she visited Ireland, which holds the presidency of the Council of European Union, in 2012.

With support from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the forum will now take place May 14 and 15 in Killiney Castle. Under the aegis of the Irish International Diaspora Center Trust, which has ambitious plans to build a Diaspora Center on the Carlisle Pier in Dun Laoghaire, this forum has attracted more than 50 diaspora experts from around the world. This includes The Economist Business Editor and author of “Borderless Economics” Robert Guest, Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi, Migration Policy Institute Director and co-founder Kathleen Newland, and McKinsey’s Global Alumni Relations Director Sean Brown.

Ireland being chosen as the first co-host of this prestigious forum is indicative of two interesting developments. The first is the burgeoning interest in diasporas around the world and the second is the realization that Ireland is regarded as a world leader in this space, a reputation which was hard fought. Although more than 100 countries are now developing diaspora strategies and policies, Ireland is seen as a “thought leader” and part of the Big Four alongside Israel, India and China.

Ireland now has the opportunity to become the “go-to” country in this field and, if successful, will attract international attention and open up possibilities for research, training and capacity building. With more than half of Africa’s graduates living outside the continent, many countries there are looking to develop strategies to connect with their diasporas; Ireland, building on its historical connections to the continent, could play a critical role there. Brain drain can become brain gain and brain exchange.

Technology and communications are rapidly transforming a massive diaspora sector. People can now be “here and there,” live hyphenated lives and keep in close contact with their home countries, while being totally committed to their host countries. Geography is history and the world is more mosaic than melting pot

In the old days, absence meant exile and countries lost their best and brightest forever, but now there is a clear circularity to migration. Today, more than 215 million people now live in a country other than the one they were born in — including at least 80 million Europeans. If this were a country it would be the fifth-largest in the world. And remittances in 2012, according to the World Bank, amounted to $540 billion and have been surging despite the economic crisis. It looks as though these trends will persist as processes of urbanization and globalization continue their advance.

If migration continues to grow at the same pace in the next 20 years as it did in the past 20, some analysts predict there could be more than 400 million international migrants by 2050. Internationally there is growing awareness that there is such a thing as “Diaspora Capital” and that this is a resource that needs to be researched, cultivated, solicited and stewarded. Many see this as a way of addressing tough domestic economic challenges and as a key piece of their economic recovery. Just as American universities have perfected the art of developing their alumni, so can countries adopt similar methods of engaging their diasporas.

The key to all of this is networking and building global networks of trusted contacts. Professor Anne Marie Slaughter of Princeton University has written extensively on the role of diasporas and their power in networking. She believes the measurement of power is connectedness, and that the countries and regions with the most networked power can set the agenda. It is all about connected clusters of creative people. Where you are from, she says, means where you can, and do, go back and trust and network with. In all this, Ireland has a huge unique advantage which proves the adage that the countries that lost the most to emigration now stand to benefit the most from diaspora engagement.

In addition to the Irish International Diaspora Center in Dun Laoghaire, recent diaspora initiatives from Ireland that are attracting attention internationally include the Gathering, World Irish, Connect Ireland, Ireland Reaching Out, and a huge array of other events and activities, often at a local level. Many of these started from the premise of what they can do for the diaspora rather than what the diaspora can do for them.

What is exciting about the sector internationally is that it is noncompetitive. Somebody who wants to engage with Scotland or Jamaica is not going to connect with Austria or New Zealand and vice versa. Accordingly, we should share as much as possible and research each other’s policies, programs and projects. This is at the heart of the Global Diaspora Forum, which will be held May 13 and 14 in Washington, D.C., and May 14 and 15 in Killiney Castle in Ireland.

For more information on the Global Diaspora Forum in Ireland, go to www.gdf.ie. Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

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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.