From ‘unhappy marriage’ to ‘living-apart-together’?

Development Policy,Diaspora Inclusion19 Jun 2020Gery Nijenhuis

Worldwide, diaspora organisations are engaged in a wide range of transnational activities, in order to enhance human, social and economic development in their region of origin – and far beyond. The scholarly opinion on the potential of diaspora organisations to stimulate development is generally positive. More critical is the literature about Migration & Development policies. Efforts to engage the diaspora undertaken within this framework fail to harness ‘the potential of the diaspora’, and some scholars even refer to the migration and development combination as an ‘unhappy marriage’. In this article I will highlight three issues that are at stake: the huge diversity among diaspora organisations; the existing myth regarding funding of transnational activities of diaspora organisations; and the limitations of the institutional framework for engaging diaspora organisations in development. 

Engaging ‘the’ diaspora

In the academic debate on Migration & Development the use of ‘the diaspora’ is not uncontested. A first observation is that, even when we talk about a relatively ‘narrow’ field as diaspora in development, ‘the’ diaspora organisation does not exist. A quick look at the register of the Chamber of Commerce shows that only in the Netherlands, over 3,000 diaspora organisations exist. These represent a highly diverse range of organisations. Some have a religious function (e.g. Ghanaian migrant churches) while others focus merely on sports, or employment. Additionally, organisations target different groups, such as youth, women and ethnic groups. Diaspora organisations often perform multiple roles at the same time, and at different levels – ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘beyond’. These roles range from facilitating the integration of their members in the host country, to full-fletched development interventions in the country of origin, and everything in between. 

Though most, if not all, diaspora organisations are in touch with the country of origin, the intensity of this contact also varies; from a few incidental emails to structural transnational activities. In terms of roles, many diaspora organisations act as brokers in the practical arrangement of marriages and funerals, between the migrant and the country of origin. They also engage in political activism, in order to influence political processes in the country of origin. Moreover, they are involved in charities; for example by raising funds to co-fund the construction of a community centre and shipping containers with laptops, toys and walkers. A last category of activities can be classified as professional development oriented. These are activities that explicitly aim to enhance development beyond the individual level in the country (or village) of origin. 

Taking into account these different roles, levels of operation, transnational orientation and the characteristics thereof, we can only conclude that there is no such thing as ‘the’ diaspora organisation. As such, using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to engage diaspora in development will probably not be successful.  

(In)visible actors in development 

This brings us to a second, related observation. The debate on diaspora as development actors, rooted in the overarching debate on Migration & Development, might give the impression that they do so in an institutionalised way, with support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or indirectly funded through matching funds of development NGOs. That is a misconception: by far the majority of organisations implements transnational activities without any financial support from the public sector, far away from the Dutch government or development NGOs. They raise their own funds, often by engaging civil society and the private sector. Think, for example, of the Ghanaian home town association in Amsterdam South-East that each year around Christmas collects money from its members – 70 households originating from the Volta region– to finance the construction of a water pump in Ghana. Or take the hospital equipment that was shipped to Ghana, after a merger of two hospitals in the Zaanstad area. The chair of the organisation read about the merger, and contacted the hospital to inquire about the possibility to use it for their community. 

Often diaspora organisations do not even seek to attract funding from the Dutch government or NGOs and, as a consequence, become institutionalised actors in development. These ‘low-profile diaspora in development’ attach great importance to their independent position, and legitimize their existence by highlighting their role between civil society and the state. Rather than becoming an integral part of the development sector, organisations represent the interests of their constituent migrant community, lobby for migrant rights, strengthen social cohesion, and offer practical support as local ‘help desk’. They consider serving their members ‘here’ as their main priority. This does not mean they do not also want to contribute to development; but on their own terms.  

Next to these ‘low-profile diaspora in development’ –and, let it be clear, this qualification certainly does not refer to the value of their activities– there are a couple of diaspora organisations that do receive funding for development interventions, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through alliances with development NGOs and private sector companies. Over the last 15 years, they actively sought collaboration with actors in the development industry, such as donors and development NGOs. This leads us to a third observation: the mainstreaming, or institutionalization, of diaspora organisations as development actors.

Mainstreaming diaspora 

From 2004 onwards, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated several activities to involve diaspora organisations. They did so by implementing Migration & Development policies, also known as co-development policies. The idea was that mainstreaming diaspora organisations into development cooperation would result in additional and country-specific knowledge. Many authors have voiced critical remarks on this approach to institutionalize the role of diaspora organisations in development cooperation, for several reasons. A first remark relates to the incompatible character of Migration & Development policies –by some even qualified as an ‘unhappy marriage’ because of the highly divergent interests and agenda of both policy fields involved. According to some, this marriage often results in a marginalized position of diaspora organisations as development actors, and a budget in which migration management, and not development, dominates the agenda. A second comment refers to the difficulties diaspora organisations experience on the bumpy road towards professionalization. This partly relates to capacity building in project planning, financial management and accounting; in other words, transforming diaspora organisations into full-fletched development NGOs. It has been observed that this format was too rigid for diaspora organisations, considering the fact that most staff is made up of volunteers. A more fundamental criticism relates to the implications of institutionalization for their ‘raison d’être’. Often, legitimacy of diaspora organisations is based on the relationship with the community in the Netherlands, and the translocal linkages with the community of origin. This is also the strength of these organisations: they know local conditions and demand, speak the language, and are able to bridge the gap, in both geographical and sectoral terms. Becoming recognized as ‘official’ development actor often requires alignment with the policy objectives of donors and scaling up, which might result in a gradual deterioration of relationships with the local community in the country of origin. In similar vein, institutionalization might imply a more sedentary interpretation of development, leaving limited space for the transnational focus specific to diaspora organisations.   

Harnessing the ‘full potential’ of diaspora organisations is possible by creating an enabling environment that does justice to their diversity, specific identity and the value derived from this identity. In order to avoid another ‘unhappy marriage’, options for ‘living-apart-together’ could be explored: an equal relationship that recognizes and provides room for the specific attributes of all partners involved.