Awil Mohamoud: A diaspora perspective on the WRR report

Development Policy24 Feb 2010Awil Mohamoud

Since the WRR report was published on 18 January, there have been a lot of discussions about the content of the publication. However, one voice that has not yet been heard is that of the diaspora, despite being explicitly noted in the report and their considerable contribution to development in their countries of origin. The authors of the report have not interviewed or consulted a single representative from the intellectual diaspora community in the Netherlands, as the long list in the annex clearly reveals. Perhaps it is a tendency in the Netherlands to talk about the diaspora’s role in development without engaging them directly.

Nonetheless, the report is a welcome break from the polemical discussions that have polarized the debate on development cooperation in the Netherlands in the past years. The rethinking of development cooperation policy in the Netherlands is particularly important for Africa and the African diaspora, due to changing global economic, political and social realities. The old Africa has been going through a process of great change as a consequence of globalization and the emergence of new economic and political powers on the scene, such as China, India and Brazil. This means that the old perception of Africa as ‘the backyard of Europe’ is now being contested and the Netherlands, as well as Europe as a whole, must develop a concrete policy response to this new reality. Furthermore, as many countries in Africa still lag behind in terms of development, it makes sense that the report authors recommend the Dutch government allocates the majority of development aid money to Africa.

Still, Europe has a comparative advantage to the emerging global economic and political powers coming to Africa. Neither China nor India have large African diaspora communities in their countries, although Brazil does. By contrast, the African diaspora communities in the EU countries are currently estimated to be between 3 to 4 million people. Diasporas in Europe therefore represent considerable potential and resources that can be channelled into development efforts in their respective homelands in Africa.

The WRR report recognizes the tangible contribution that diasporas already provide to the development of their countries of origin, and therefore recommends that the government further stimulates that contribution. This is a welcome observation and recommendation, and is long overdue. Diasporas are currently contributing huge resources to the social welfare and economic growth of their respective homelands, remarkably exceeding the level of official development assistance (ODA). Moreover, diasporas have become the key drivers for a unique diaspora-led development sector that is quite different to the traditional development cooperation sector, which is typically the domain of donor Western governments and their subsidiary NGOs.

There are five key ways that the potential of the diaspora can be further harnessed towards the development of their countries of origin and to Africa as a whole. The first is to support the transfer of social capital from the skilled diaspora to institutions and programmes for technical and vocational education and training in Africa. Compared to Asia, Africa has not invested much in technical education in the past decades. This, combined with ongoing brain drain, has resulted in a grave shortage of skilled people to perform such routine work as the maintenance of physical infrastructures like buildings and roads – a situation that has left many African countries in a deplorable state of disrepair and impedes further development activities.

The second method by which the diaspora can be supported is through the facilitation of trade links between diaspora entrepreneurs in the Netherlands and those in the homelands. Diaspora entrepreneurs are strategically positioned to facilitate the organization of investment seminars and trade exhibitions, at which both host and homeland companies and business enterprises could establish trade networks. They are also in a position to provide reliable information and advice to business enterprises from Africa and the Netherlands that wish to do business with one another.

Third, effective partnerships between diaspora development practitioners and sub-national development actors, such as NGOs, municipalities and local governments both in the Netherlands and in Africa, must be built and maintained. Cooperation between diaspora development practitioners and sub-national development actors will ensure that the diaspora gain access to professional expertise, practical experience, influential networks and resources from the mainstream sector. This effort will further boost the development activities undertaken by the diaspora in their countries of origin.

The fourth method is to stimulate the active participation of the diaspora in the architecture of the newly formed Africa-EU Strategic Partnership and Action Plan. This new partnership, which was launched to advance the political dialogue and development cooperation relations between Africa and Europe, offers a window of opportunity for the diaspora to make use of their vital, strategic bridge-building position and become more engaged in policy processes.

Finally, there is a need to support and upscale the advocacy efforts of the diaspora in Europe via greater integration with grassroots associations and activists in Africa. This is imperative for granting the diaspora more access to the policy process in the homelands, and would enable both parties to collectively undertake lobbying and advocacy activities aimed at pressuring homeland governments to meet their development obligations.

Today, the African diaspora are in the right position at the right time and in the right place to effect a great amount of change. They are also in a position to add tangible value to the development of their countries of origin since they are already increasingly involved in the development there on a larger scale. This development presents a momentum that must be seized in order to reap maximum benefits from the strategic bridge-building potential of the diaspora.