Diaspora and knowledge transfer – the evidence

Development Policy,Diaspora Inclusion22 Feb 2021Yannicke Goris, Kiza Magendane, Katherine Kuschminder, Charlotte Mueller

In this – at least for now – last article by external experts in our diaspora dossier, we give the word to two researchers from the United Nations University – Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT). PhD fellow Charlotte Mueller and assistant professor Dr Katie Kuschminder – both experts in the field of migration, development and diaspora – are responsible for the evaluation of IOM’s Connecting Diaspora for Development (CD4D) programme. A few weeks ago we published an interview article with Nina Staal and Dorien Deketele, two senior officials from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) The Netherlands, who also talked about this programme. In the following, Katie and Charlotte will reflect on the successes and challenges of this endeavour and highlight some key lessons that are useful for all actors who seek to stimulate effective diaspora knowledge transfer in future. 

A new step in a long history

In the 1970s, international organisations began to implement short-term diaspora return programmes to formalise and promote diaspora knowledge transfer for development. The first of these programmes was the Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN), established by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1977. In the early 2000s, however, this type of programmes really took flight and by 2009 close to 10 different diaspora return programmes were operating in Afghanistan alone. Well known programmes of the last decade include the Migration for Development in Africa Programme (MIDA) and the Temporary Return of Qualified Nationals (TRQN). As Katie and Charlotte explain, for these earlier programmes no in-depth research has been conducted on their effectiveness, limiting possibilities to learn from and improve upon these programmes. “This is what makes our collaboration with CD4D so unique,” Katie points out. “Often these programmes operate quietly without published evaluation results and then we do not know their contributions to sustainable development.” The International Organization for Migration (IOM) The Netherlands, however, has made an important change in this situation. Since the very beginning of the Connecting Diaspora for Development (CD4D) programme – discussed in detail in the interview article with Nina Staal and Dorien Deketele -, IOM The Netherlands has given the UNU-MERIT researchers full access to its programme and freedom to design the evaluation tools. “Together with IOM and support from the MFA we are providing independent, transparent research on the CD4D programme, which greatly increases our understanding of how diaspora returnees contribute to knowledge transfer and capacity building.”

In short: Connecting Diaspora for Development (CD4D)

The first phase of CD4D ran from 2016 to 2019 and was extended in late 2019 with a second phase that will run until 2022. In both phases, diaspora members with mostly Dutch residency are linked to institutions in their countries of origin, where they conduct in-person or virtual assignments. Assignment countries during the first phase were Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Iraq, Morocco, Sierra Leone and Somalia. In the current phase, assignments are taking place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Somalia. 

CD4D focuses on capacity development through knowledge transfer and the creation of connections. The programme follows a needs-oriented approach, which means that IOM selects target sectors for intervention in each target country based on consultation of local partners and an assessment of local needs. In Afghanistan, for instance, the sectors that were chosen for the second phase are Health, Rural Development and Water Management. The target country, supported by IOM, then chooses host institutions within the selected sectors – these are the institutions where interventions take place. Institutions are selected based on both need and capacity. That is, there must be a need for capacity development at the institution and at the same time, the institution needs to have the capacity to be able to absorb the knowledge transfer and host a diaspora returnee. 

The assignments diaspora members conduct are defined based on the needs of the host institutions. To that end, the host institution is asked to write a so-called ‘Terms of Reference’ to make clear the role it envisions for the diaspora professional. Diaspora members are then selected in a two-step process. First, IOM pre-selects a number of candidates based on their qualifications and then sends the CVs of this selection to the host institution for them to select the final candidate. The final candidate is supported by IOM throughout the project. 

Individual and institutional impact through knowledge transfer

The evaluation of the first phase of CD4D resulted in some interesting insights that have relevance, not only for the second phase of the programme, but also for other organisations seeking to realise knowledge transfers through diaspora engagement as well. First, with regards to individual staff, the UNU-MERIT researchers found that diaspora returnees employed a variety of methods to transfer their knowledge, depending on what best suited their skills and the demands of the employees at the host institution. These methods ranged from formal ‘class-room style’ training and more hands-on practical training to mentoring and one-on-one coaching. One diaspora returnee working in Ethiopia, for example, gave a 1-week training on R-software and basic statistics for senior researchers. Through the training, the researchers gained insights into the use of the statistical software to analyse and interpret quantitative data, which most of them applied in their work afterwards. As one trainee said: “Not only me, but most of the researchers are now analysing their data using [the new] software. There is a big change.” In a second example, a diaspora member in Somaliland worked with local staff on improving the organisational structure of their institution. They gained knowledge about the development of such structures and learned to formulate and apply necessary forms, like a new appraisal form. This allowed staff to conduct the first staff appraisals and take responsibility for Human Resources (HR)-related matters shortly after the diaspora expert’s placement had ended.

In addition to contributing to the knowledge and skills of individual staff members, the involvement of diaspora experts also led to an increase in organisational capacity of some of the host institutions. Internal structures and processes were improved, and new policies were developed and implemented that facilitated smoother running of operations. The establishment of a filing system in the HR unit of a Somaliland ministry forms a good example. We bought about 200 files, ordered them, and started filling and organising employee files, including job description, ID card, passport photos, personal data,” the diaspora expert describes. For the ministry in Somaliland this made an enormous difference, one of the managers of the ministry confirmed: “[T]he ministry is new and so is its HR department. This means they are struggling […] with many things. [The diaspora expert] helped organise all staff of the ministry and even the regional staff in a new filing system and establish […] work templates. Now, he is also […] writing down the guidelines [for HR policy].” 

IOM Somalia

Beyond the transfer

Although the improvement of individual and institutional capacity resulting from the CD4D programme is a great result, impact that goes beyond the direct knowledge transfer is equally important. It is an explicit objective of the programme to stimulate lasting connections between the diaspora experts and representatives at host institutions, as well as connections between institutions in the Netherlands and institutions in the target countries. The evaluation showed that, indeed, several exchange visits were organised by diaspora experts, allowing for staff members from Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone to visit the Netherlands and gain insights into new techniques and technologies within their area of work. Some diaspora experts also put staff from host institutions in touch with people from their own network, fostering learning and exchange beyond the confines of the CD4D programme. 

It is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about other positive externalities or spill over effects of the CD4D programme. “There may be many,” Katie notes, “but we have not examined these systematically.” She and fellow-researcher Charlotte assume, for instance, that the training sessions and lectures given by the diaspora experts generate more impact than that which they are able to measure. “If a diaspora returnee gives a talk to 30 people,” Katie explains, “we cannot capture the exact impact of that talk on all 30 people. Yet we know that often an inspiring speaker can lead to positive change in your work. This is most likely happening [in the host institutions] as well, but we are unable to capture it fully.” Additionally, the UNU-MERIT researchers think that the newly acquired knowledge may be helping staff in host institutions attain new, better jobs. “We see a high turnover at the host institutions. And although we do not follow the colleagues that leave, it could well be that these people are creating positive opportunities for themselves […], using the new knowledge they gained from the diaspora returnees […]  to find a new position.” 

Challenges and critical elements

Although the research on CD4D confirms diaspora members can contribute to knowledge transfer and capacity development in their country of origin, the success of assignments are determined by various enablers and barriers, which are discussed in the final report of the CD4D1 evaluation in more detail. Among the factors affecting knowledge transfer and capacity development are the availability of staff to be trained, the availability of necessary equipment, the extent to which the host institutions prioritise knowledge transfer, and the availability of time to implement new procedures and changes. While the evaluation of the second phase of the CD4D programme (CD4D2) serves to shed more light on the matter, some particularly valuable elements of the programme have already become clear: “We find in our research that language is a core added value [of a diaspora expert being the trainer],” Katie and Charlotte point out. Language is rarely an issue when a diaspora expert visits a host institution – something that can form a significant barrier when a non-diaspora professional is providing the training. “Additionally, although achieving trust can still be challenging for the diaspora returnees, there is often a base of trust there, based on the fact that the diaspora expert is from the same country and speaking the same language. [This] enables the diaspora returnees to better connect with the teams in the host institutions.” 

According to the UNU-MERIT researchers trust is of such importance that it is among one of the four elements they have identified as critical for facilitating successful knowledge transfer and capacity development. For interventions like CD4D to have a meaningful and lasting impact, it is crucial that: 

  1. There is a focus on knowledge transfer during all assignments of the diaspora expert.
  2. A relationship of trust is built between diaspora expert and host institution staff, to ensure meaningful collaboration.
  3. There is sufficient time, for staff to participate in knowledge transfer and for changes to be implemented.
  4. There is sufficient room for practice, for staff to apply their new knowledge. 


The challenge we all face: COVID-19 

Like every organisation and programme, IOM The Netherlands and its CD4D programme have been affected by the impact of the coronavirus. “We have not yet been able to examine the full impact of COVID-19,” Charlotte notes. That said, in the initial evaluation report on CD4D2 (written in August 2020 and available here) the researchers point to some effects that had already become clear: While project implementation in Somalia had already successfully kicked-off before the pandemic, COVID-19 did cause delays for project implementation in in Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria as well as restrictions to the work of host institutions due to lockdowns, prohibition of meetings, financial and movement restrictions and COVID-19 infections at host institutions. 

As a response, IOM has since facilitated virtual in addition to physical assignments. The programme provided (IT) materials, as well as support on the effective use of virtual platforms. Additionally, all diaspora experts received specific training before starting their assignment on how to effectively transfer knowledge online. While some host institutions were open to online collaboration, others were less keen. They pointed to a variety of (perceived) reasons, including a lack of necessary equipment, unstable internet connections as well as the need for the diaspora expert to be present ‘on the ground’

Katie and Charlotte, for the ongoing parts of their research have adjusted their research questions and methods to the new reality. “We look forward to seeing how these new virtual assignments are working in practice,” they note. “We suspect that like with physical placements there will be a lot of variation between assignments […]. A core challenge is really the COVID-19 restrictions in the place of assignment and the ability of the host institution colleagues to complete their work on a daily basis. This is a challenge we can all relate to with school closures, and the increased technical resources needed at home offices.”

While the evaluation of CD4D2 is still ongoing and will certainly yield new and more in-depth insights, what can be concluded from the CD4D1 evaluation is that through programmes like CD4D, diaspora experts can make meaningful contributions to knowledge transfer and capacity development in their countries of origin. This does not, however, occur automatically: Diaspora experts need to be able to rely on assistance where needed and a well-structured programme in which they are provided with targeted training and other support. When these elements are in place, including diaspora experts is an effective way to transfer knowledge to and develop the capacity of institutions in their countries of origin.


For more information on the UNU-MERIT evaluation, as well as the latest reports on the CD4D2 programme, please visit this page.