Tunisia, 2010: The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi leads to protests and uprisings across the Arab world. Grassroots movements overthrow dictators, both peacefully and violently, but also pave the way for an Islamist-secular divide, conflicts and civil wars, and economic and political uncertainty. Yet the fires of the Arab Spring not only touch communities in the region: they also reach national communities living abroad – creating a new ‘diaspora consciousness’, writes PhD fellow Nora Ragab.
At this year’s Global Diaspora Week, 11-17 October 2015, I attended the online event ‘How Expatriates Contribute to Build a New Middle East and North Africa,’ hosted by the International Organization for Migration. Featuring diaspora leaders, practitioners and academics, the aim was to see how diaspora communities from the MENA region can be empowered as full partners in development.
The discussion revealed how developments in post-Arab Spring countries have not only transformed countries of origin but also spurred action among their respective diasporas. From these various communities, there seems to be a new spirit of motivation — even optimism — to shape the future of the MENA region.
The commitment to positive change is clear not only among first generation migrants, but also second and third generations — including many armed with newly acquired skills and qualifications. Yet despite their huge potential, a number of challenges remain:
- The low capacity of diaspora organisations due to a lack of human and financial resources: Many members of diaspora organisations or initiatives are engaged on a voluntary basis, on top of their work and family obligations. Moreover, many organisations finance their activities with membership fees and donations, and few are able to generate public founding from governments or international organisations.
- High administrative and bureaucratic burdens: Administrative burdens are evident both in the implementation of projects in countries of origin and procedures for seeking project funding in destination countries. These burdens stand in stark contrast to the low administrative capacity of many diaspora organisations.
- Economic or political context in the country of origin: Economic uncertainties combined with political instability due to constantly changing authorities, lack of reliable partners, as well as high bureaucracy and corruption, can discourage diaspora members from engaging in development work – particularly in transition countries.
- Counter-terrorism laws and measures: These limit the ability of diasporas to generate both internal and external funds, since accountability and transparency of the usage of financial contributions is often limited in conflict settings. Moreover, counter-terrorism measures create practical challenges because negotiating with armed non-state actors is often crucial in gaining access to people in need.
In order to engage, enable and empower diasporas there is a clear need to strengthen the organisational capacities of diasporas, and so help them to become active participants in civil society. What is also clear is that diasporas and their contributions do not trigger development per se; rather, structural changes, enabling social, political and economic transformation, are needed to unleash the development potential of diaspora groups. The contributions of diasporas are, thus, no panacea for development but can be an important part of it, so long as diaspora initiatives are integrated into broader national development policy and planning.
HOW CAN DIASPORAS CONTRIBUTE?
As agents of change, diasporas can contribute economically, through remittances, diaspora investment, transnational entrepreneurship or the transfer of know-how and skills. In the political sphere, they can act as lobbyists by raising awareness and promoting the interests of their country of origin or they can be directly politically involved e.g. through participation in elections. Migrant organisations are often engaged in the social field and promote integration of their community members in the receiving country and support their country of origin through community development projects.
WHAT IS DIASPORA WEEK?
This year’s Global Diaspora Week featured over 90 events from more than 20 countries, including movie nights, panel debates, art exhibitions, webinars, training sessions and even sporting events — together reflecting the many facets of diaspora communities and their contributions to development.
Flickr / R.Waddington