26.1.2018 | Von:
Michaella Vanore

Diasporas as catalysts for Development

The global movement of ideas and people, and the growth of technologies that can foster their exchange, has contributed to a growing body of migrants with enduring connections to multiple countries. The knowledge, skills, values, and resources that migrants have at their disposal can make them strategic contributors to development processes in different countries and across dimensions of development.

Mexikanische Studentin an einer US-Universität: Gebiete mit einer hohen Konzentration von Migrantinnen und Migranten schneiden auf Innovationsindizes tendenziell besser ab, beispielsweise durch eine höhere Zahl an Patenten, die in diesen Gebieten angemeldet wird.Mexican student at a university in the United States: Geographical areas with a high concentration of migrants tend to perform better on innovation indices, due in no small part to higher numbers of patents filed in such diverse areas. (© picture-alliance/AP)

This article provides an overview of the contributions migrant groups—diasporas—can make to development processes. Such a research area is complex and inherently multi-local and multidisciplinary. Rather than representing an exhaustive inventory of knowledge or research in this thematic area, this contribution synthesizes major strands of thinking on diaspora and development.

I. Essential Terms

To understand how diasporas and development are connected, it is important to first define development. Development is, very broadly, improvement or evolution; fundamentally, it signifies change between two or more reference points. As indicated in this broad definition, development should be understood as 1) the process of positive change, 2) the increments or units of change between reference points, and 3) an end state.

The development of countries, regions, or societies can be measured in different ways, which may be defined based on differing ideologies of progress. One prominent way of assessing development is through economic growth. Economic development may be measured by indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) or gross national income (GNI), which provide a sense of an economy’s total production and of individual incomes. Over the past two decades, understandings of and discourses on development have begun shifting away from economic development as a sole or even major dimension of development and have instead placed greater emphasis on human development. Within the human development paradigm, development is inherently multidimensional; it engages not only economic improvement but also improvements in areas such as health and human capital. The human development perspective emphasizes the enrichment and improvement of the quality of an individual’s life, in part based on the opportunities and capabilities s/he values.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been a vocal proponent of the human development perspective, particularly through the Human Development Index (HDI), a tool that ranks countries according to the development outcomes they have achieved. The HDI relies on three dimensions of development: physical health (measured by life expectancy at birth), human capital (measured by expected years and mean years of schooling), and financial capital (measured by GNI per capita). The composition of the index signals an implicit understanding of development as reflecting expansion of human capabilities.

Depending on how "development" is defined, we may see different, strategic roles for migrants and diasporas as development actors. When development is defined exclusively on GDP growth, a macro-level indicator, the role of an individual migrant or even diaspora group may not seem so important. If development is defined as expansion of human capital, however, a single individual’s contributions may be envisioned as more impactful.

Another essential term is diaspora, which is contentious in both academic and applied literature. In much academic literature, a diaspora is a group defined by characteristics including shared ancestral origin, a collective myth about the homeland or the past, shared group consciousness and commitment to the protection and betterment of the group, and a commitment to (temporary) return to the place of origin or heritage, among other characteristics. In older conceptualizations of the term, a diaspora was viewed as being created through the traumatic dispersal of a population from the (ancestral) homeland, including through forced relocation (as in the case of Africans dislocated through the slave trade) and forced migration as the result of genocide or violent conflict, with the Jewish diaspora viewed as the prototypical diaspora. In newer conceptualizations, forced dispersal is not considered to be the hallmark event that "creates" diasporic identity, but the term is still used to refer to a population that is dispersed across at least two other countries beyond the country of origin.

In policy discourse, and indeed in common parlance, the term diaspora has become synonymous with any migrant group with a set of distinguishing characteristics. For example, one may see reference to the "Indian diaspora", which includes any member of the Indian population that resides abroad, regardless of their own identification or commitment to a collective group identity. In some cases, the term may also be used to denote a population that has collectively mobilized through, for example, participation in an association or organization formed around group identity. In this article, the term diaspora is used to refer to any migrant population, including first generation migrants and their descendants who should no longer be referred to as "migrants" given their lack of direct mobility experiences. Where the literature the article is based on refers to a distinct population, this will be noted in text.

Within the migration studies field, there is growing use of the term transnational migrant to refer to an individual who maintains ties with both countries of origin and residence, including through maintaining social networks, participating civically or politically (through, e.g. voting in elections), contributing financially (through, e.g., remittances), and maintaining other active engagements across borders. In much literature, transnational migrants are viewed as the best positioned to act as vectors of development given their familiarity and engagement with multiple societies.

II. Diaspora Contributions to Origin-Country Development

With a common understanding of what development is and who a diaspora is, it is easier to understand what kinds of contributions diasporas can make to development and under what circumstances those contributions can be made. In line with the multidimensional nature of development referred to above, this section distinguishes among social, economic, and political development.

Within the domain of social development, diaspora members may contribute to the evolution of knowledge and standards through the transfer of social remittances. Social remittances are the norms, values, attitudes, and ‘ways of doing and being’ that migrants "send" back to the country of origin. Such social remittances may reflect innovations in processes—for example, ways of producing a product or service—or may signal changing attitudes about issues such as gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, or the protection of civil liberties, as just a few examples. Over time, as diasporas share new perspectives with those who remain in the country of origin, subtle shifts in the values those people hold may occur. In this way, diasporas often support gradual social change.

In addition to subtly influencing individual values, diaspora members may also use the knowledge and skills they have gained abroad to contribute more directly to development through knowledge networks. Some transnational or diaspora networks have been explicitly organized around knowledge or expertise. For example, the Indus Entrepreneurs is a diaspora organization that encourages Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and other diasporas from the Indus region to promote enterprise development and growth "back home" with use of the skills and social networks gained abroad. Another example is the Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation Europe (NIDOE), an umbrella organization for Nigerians living in Europe. The NIDOE platform creates the space for Nigerian diaspora members willing to contribute specific skills to Nigeria’s development and to collaborate on development activities in their country of (ancestral) origin. These diaspora networks support migrants to make collective contributions to the country of origin and provide the structure to mobilize their skills and knowledge.

In the economic domain, there are both direct and indirect ways in which diasporas contribute to development. The movement of human capital is one such indirect way. As people of different skill levels and professional competencies move, they may support a better match of skill supply to demand in both the domestic and foreign labor market. For some skilled migrants who are unable to find jobs at their skill levels locally, migration and subsequent employment at the "right" skill level (and for better wages) abroad can lead to higher life-time returns for education. Higher returns for education abroad may also incentivize young people to pursue (higher) education, a phenomenon observed in countries like the Philippines that have mature markets for skilled labor abroad. The transfer of financial remittances, the money a migrant sends to other members of his/her social network, is a more direct means through which diasporas can contribute to economic development. A number of studies, including a World Bank assessment of eleven Latin American countries, have demonstrated how the receipt of remittances can reduce poverty headcount and severity. For many recipients, remittances are predictable and regular cash transfers that supplement and diversify existing incomes. In many contexts, remittances act as informal social protection; they help smooth household consumption over time, helping households not only build resistance to income shocks but also recover from shocks if they occur. During and immediately after environmental or political crises, remittances tend to increase to assist in the recovery and protection of recipients. Remittances are often described as being counter-cyclical; they may peak at exactly those moments when other forms of foreign exchange, such as foreign direct investment (FDI), decrease.

On the meso- or macro-level, the diaspora can also contribute to more robust labor markets. Diaspora members may be more willing to start or invest in a business in a less stable economic or political context than other foreign investors. Diasporas likely know more about the local context, have local networks that can help them navigate the regulatory environment, and can better detect untapped market niches that innovative businesses can fill. Diaspora entrepreneurs and investors may create or contribute to businesses that generate employment, which can help strengthen local economies by reducing unemployment. Diaspora-supported enterprises, especially those that function transnationally, can also support trade flows between countries of destination and origin.

The contributions that diasporas can make to development in the political sphere are similarly diverse. The role of the diaspora in supporting governance transitions, particularly in conflict and post-conflict settings, has been well documented. There is evidence that the diaspora has contributed to peace negotiations and agendas in post-conflict settings as varied as Afghanistan, Burundi, Nepal, Somalia, and Sudan. In such settings, diasporas have acted as intermediaries between conflicting parties, encouraged dialogue with international mediators, suggested elements to be included in peace agreements, and have supported their implementation. Diasporas may also encourage a country to adopt or expand transitional justice measures, including peace and reconciliation processes that promote disclosure of past crimes as a way to build trust among different actors. Members of the diaspora, including refugees, have been instrumental supporters of transitional justice in countries such as Iraq, Kenya, Liberia, and Zimbabwe.

The diaspora can also help revitalize political systems through both direct and indirect participation in elections and in political systems. Former members of the diaspora have historically played important roles in leading governance systems; Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the most resounding example of a diaspora member whose return from abroad (in this case, from a 21-year stay in South Africa, where he practiced law) spurred political transition. Many modern governments encompass former diaspora members who returned specifically to contribute to political institutions. In 2011, in all Somalian regional governments diaspora members constituted at least one third of all representatives; in Iraqi Kurdistan, around 50 percent of ministers were from the diaspora in 2013, and in Afghanistan, 75 percent of the interim cabinet administration of Hamid Karzai had been living abroad. The diaspora can also play an important role in shaping political institutions through extra-territorial voting. In some countries, the diaspora vote can be decisive in shaping election outcomes, including in very stable democracies such as New Zealand, where the diaspora vote in the 2008 parliamentary elections helped change eventual seat allocation among parties. The participation of the diaspora in political processes can help political systems diversify and represent wider ranges of interests and opinions, in some cases even leading to the representation of population groups that were previously marginalized within the political system.

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