Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #13: Unlocking the potential of diasporas: a new approach to development

Denise Cauchi

25 Oct, 2016

This post forms part of ACFID’s blog series on Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. Views contained in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFID or its members.

To learn more about this series, read the introductory blog post. To view other submissions and find out how you can contribute your ideas on the future of development, visit our page on the ACFID website.

Australia is home to diasporas from countries all around the world, who are active contributors to development, peacebuilding and humanitarian response in their countries of origin. And Australia’s future development agenda stands much to gain from engagement with diasporas, who are often thought leaders, investors, civil society organisers, development practitioners and peacebuilders.

Diasporas operate in ways that are often fundamentally different to international NGOs, yet inhabit an overlapping space: they offer fresh insights and potential solutions to challenges such as rising inequality, xenophobia and mass displacement.

A striking feature of diaspora-related initiatives is their leverage of people-to-people links between friends, family and communities, not only in their counties of origin but also in countries of transit and resettlement around the world. Diaspora transnational networks are rapidly activated during times of emergency and also leveraged for international advocacy campaigning. This type of diaspora activity is decentralised, organic and highly responsive.

Australian-based diasporas are engaged directly in development, humanitarian and peacebuilding initiatives. They build schools and medical centres, train grassroots peace builders, advocate for human rights and assist families and communities seeking asylum. After conflicts have ended, many return to take up positions in government and contribute to post conflict reconstruction. Their intimate familial and community ties give diasporas high levels of contextual knowledge and relationships of trust which enable them to identify needs at the grassroots and provide culturally appropriate solutions. Their readiness to accept risk, access to remote populations and ability to “fly under the radar” enables them to operate in challenging contexts where no international agencies are present and government services are very limited or non-existent.

Because this work is generally small scale – and often not “professionalised” – it can fail to attract the interest of the international development sector. And while many projects have the potential to be scaled up and replicated elsewhere, to focus on size is to miss the point: diasporas fill gaps in the international system and have a high capacity for innovation. An evaluation of the Danish Refugee Council’s Diaspora Programme, which successfully funded 21 diaspora-led projects in Somalia and Afghanistan in its first two years, found that diasporas were almost equally valued for their innovative thinking and advanced capacities as they were for their monetary contribution and cultural remittances.

But diaspora remittances, which currently represent more than three times the volume of overseas development assistance (ODA) annually, should not be underestimated. Remittances have long been recognised as significant sources of income to developing countries, contributing to household income, the establishment of small businesses, investment opportunities, and macroeconomic stability. The Somali community in Australia, for example, remits approximately $10 million to Somalia each year, contributing to the support of the more than 40% of Somali families who are dependent on some form of remittance for the purchase of basics such as food, education and healthcare.

As long-distance contributors to the family income, diaspora members also play a role in household decision making, which ranges from familial income distribution to the level of education of a sister and even a cousin’s involvement in an insurgency group. Diasporas therefore influence attitudes and behaviours at the very level where social change begins.

As citizens and residents of Australia, diasporas also have an impact on Australian society. By raising awareness of humanitarian crises and human rights issues among the general public, diasporas are potential allies for the international development sector in its mission to build public interest in international development and demonstrate its relevance in Australia’s multicultural society.

Diasporas can be key allies in countering extreme ideologies in Australia, through community leaders who consciously build campaigns of social harmony and reconciliation. Another area of domestic-focussed activity is the settlement support diasporas provide to newly arrived refugees and migrants. As the ultimate destination of refugees is usually where their families are, diasporas provide financial support, information about visa processes and transit routes, and act as advocates and intermediaries in applications for asylum.

The mobility of diasporas between countries of origin and residence is now recognised as an asset in development, constituting a “brain gain” for their countries of origin as returned diasporas apply the knowledge and skills acquired in settlement countries to the development challenges. The US and UK governments have both invested in professional volunteering programs to foster this exchange. And the UK-based African Foundation for Development has had success with consultants from the diaspora supporting entrepreneurs and enterprise development in Ghana and Sierra Leone.

The opportunities for engaging with diasporas to enhance development outcomes also come with a set of risks and challenges. Much attention has been paid to the role of some diasporas in prolonging conflicts by directly financing armed actors or maintaining animosities long after attitudinal shifts have occurred in their countries of origin. This creates significant challenges to governments in host countries and countries of origin. While not ignoring these realities, a growing body of work in recent years is focussing on constructive peacebuilding interventions and provides guidance in navigating the sometimes turbulent waters of diaspora politics.

Engaging with diasporas not only offers the possibility of new ways of working, but opens the way for a more culturally diverse approach to development that draws on the deep contextual and cultural knowledge of Australia’s multicultural communities, and furthermore breaks down perceptions of development as a project of the global north. In this regard diasporas have a legitimacy that “outsiders” – no matter how experienced – do not.

Partnership with diasporas can take many forms - it may entail private and public sector collaboration to ease the currently restrictive regulatory environment for remittance transfer, or building relationships with chambers of commerce or investors within the diaspora to strengthen the business sector in developing countries. Educational institutions also have a role to play in furthering thinking about enhancing the development potential of Australian-based diasporas.

But to truly maximise the potential of partnership it is necessary to look beyond the project cycle, towards a relationship that engages diasporas as people of influence both in their countries of origin and in Australia, recognising the wealth of knowledge that can be applied to solving some of development’s most intractable problems.

This post has been adapted from a submission to Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. The full submission is available here.AustAust

  • Denise Cauchi
    Denise Cauchi

    Denise Cauchi is the Executive Director and founder of Diaspora Action Australia. Since its inception in 2008, Diaspora Action Australia has been pioneering the field of diaspora engagement within the development and humanitarian sector in Australia, by supporting diaspora-led initiatives and promoting the inclusion of diasporas in policy discussions relating to their countries or origin.


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