Diaspora unlocked – Knowledge transfers & entrepreneurship

Development Policy,Diaspora Inclusion21 Jan 2021Yannicke Goris, Kiza Magendane, Dorien Deketele, Nina Staal

The Netherlands is home to thousands of diaspora professionals and entrepreneurs making a living and contributing to the Dutch economy. Earlier articles that have been published in The Broker’s dossier on diaspora inclusion showed that these professionals have the potential to make great contributions to the sustainable development of their countries of origins as well – a potential, it was found, that often remains largely untapped. Recognising the diaspora as developmental actors, IOM The Netherlands is currently running two programmes that seek to match the needs of countries of origin to the diaspora expertise in The Netherlands and help diaspora entrepreneurs set up sustainable businesses in these countries. To learn more about these initiatives and the vision of IOM The Netherlands regarding diaspora inclusion and the role of multilateral organisations, The Broker interviewed two of their senior officials: Nina Staal and Dorien Deketele.

The rationale behind diaspora involvement 

To encourage diaspora professionals and entrepreneurs to contribute to the economies of not only their new home countries, but also to the sustainable development of their countries of origin, policies and programmes are needed that create conditions for diaspora to do so more effectively – for example by enabling easier overseas business development, investments and knowledge exchange. Apart from governments and  non-governmental organisations, however, multilateral organisations also have a role to play in promoting the inclusion of diaspora in development efforts. Recognising that role, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) hosted its first Annual Diaspora Forum in 2018 under the motto: ‘Diasporas as partners for development in a globalized world’. Currently, the Dutch branch of IOM is putting that motto into practice, with two programmes specifically designed to stimulate diaspora inclusion in development.

To the broader Dutch public, IOM The Netherlands is mostly known for its activities in support of migrants who voluntarily wish to return to their home country or migrate to a third country where permanent residence is guaranteed. However, the organisation also focuses on a broader range of support programmes such as, family reunification and the integration of newcomers in The Netherlands. Additionally, diaspora inclusion is an essential part of IOM’s Migration and Development programme. The Migration and Development programme is based on two key assumptions: 1) the understanding that members of the diaspora are ‘individuals and members of networks, associations and communities, who  have left their countries of origin, but maintain links with their homelands’; and 2) that diaspora groups have indispensable knowledge and skills that they can ‘give back’ to their countries of origin. These assumptions form the rationale behind the design and objectives of the two most recent projects under IOM’s Migration and Development Programme: Connecting Diaspora for Development 2 (CD4D2) and Entrepreneurship by Diaspora for Development (ED4D).  

CD4D: Knowledge transfers by diaspora professionals

After an overall successful evaluation of the first phase of the programme in 2019, Connecting Diaspora for Development has now entered Phase 2 (CD4D2). Through the transfer of knowledge and expertise, CD4D2 engages diaspora to support the development of their countries of origin. It does so by matching the priority needs of these countries with the expertise of members of the diaspora residing in The Netherlands and the EU. The combination of their professional expertise, cultural affinity with their country of origin, as well as their commitment to contribute to development of that country places these diaspora professionals in a unique position. Encouraged and facilitated by the CD4D2 project, they operate as excellent agents for development. After special training by IOM The Netherlands the selected diaspora professionals are linked to institutions in four focus countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Somalia. Through short physical and online assignments by means of which vital knowledge is effectively transferred, the diaspora experts actively contribute to the reinforcement of the public sector in their country of origin.  

The Keihan Foundation: a success story

Among the many stories shared by Nina Staal and Dorien Deketele, the story of Niloufar Rahim stood out. Niloufar is a trained doctor and currently Chair of the Keihan Foundation. This Afghan-Dutch foundation was set up by Afghan students residing in The Netherlands, to build bridges between these two countries. Recognising their shared interest, IOM Netherlands and Keihan joined forces to encourage Afghani diaspora professionals living in The Netherlands to contribute to the development of their country of origin. With the support and training of the two organisations various professionals travelled to Afghanistan, enhancing the capacities of local hospitals and universities. Among these professionals was Niloufar Rahim. Niloufar has trained medical students and doctors in Kabul in clinical skills and also helped set up skills lab where medical students could practice their surgical skills.  

Learn more about Niloufar here or find other inspiring stories like those of Niloufar in this short video.

With a track record of 15 years of initiatives linking diaspora to their countries of origin, the CD4D2 project is by no means new territory for IOM Netherlands.  “Over the years, we have learned how to be more demand driven through continuous monitoring efforts. We prepare our diaspora experts in line with the needs of the host institutions. In this way, when they leave on  assignment,  there is actual, demonstrable  impact,” Nina Staal (Manager CD4D2) notes. “The whole idea is that diaspora experts are sent to their country of origin to  transfer their knowledge and ensure that this knowledge will ‘stick’ after their short term assignment comes to an end. Throughout, we monitor the programme and after assignments we evaluate whether the identified needs of host institutions are met.” Based on this experience, IOM was able to improve the programme over time and identified a number of elements that are key in facilitating a successful knowledge transfer programme:

  • Aligning the needs of host institutions with the expertise of diaspora professionals. 
  • Prepare both diaspora professionals and host institutions prior to the assignment and manage their expectations. To manage expectations of both parties, develop goals that are feasible within the time and scope of the assignment, thus avoiding disappointments.  
  • A flexible design of the programme helps to accommodate the busy schedules of diaspora professionals who often have other professional engagements in the Netherlands. Such flexibility allows, for instance, for virtual and short-duration engagements for the diaspora professionals. 
  • The Covid-19 pandemic greatly limited the ability of diaspora professionals to conduct physical assignments. Faced with that challenge, IOM has greatly accelerated the use of digital technology for virtual knowledge transfers.  
  • At times cultural differences between diaspora professionals and host institutions resulted in difficult communication. This was particularly the case with second and third generation members of the diaspora community. In dealing with this challenge, sensitivity is key. 
  • Success is not only defined by the direct impact of the project. The CD4D programme is also positively affecting the diaspora community at large. The engagement of selected diaspora professionals enhances agency of the community at large. IOM The Netherlands found, for instance, that diaspora organisations built new linkages and more members of their communities became involved.  

Lessons like these are highly valuable for organisations – governmental and non-governmental alike – that also seek to tap into the potential of diaspora professionals and engage them in development efforts. Nina Staal also emphasises that diaspora inclusion is a profitable investment for both The Netherlands and countries of origin. “Over the past 15 years, we have conducted more than 1500 assignments and we currently see an increase in the requests for diaspora experts in their countries of origin, because their contributions are very effective and relatively cheap and cost-effective because of their voluntary nature. IOM will keep facilitating this process, so that members of the diaspora can continue to contribute to the development of their countries in a way that fits within their lives and expertise.” 

Improving the ecosystem for diaspora entrepreneurship  

With the second project under IOM’s Migration and Development Programme, Entrepreneurship by Diaspora for Development (ED4D) IOM seeks to reinforce the capacities of Ghanaian and Ethiopian diaspora entrepreneurs in Netherlands to set-up businesses in their countries of origin and enable a trusting environment for their investment. According to Dorien Deketele (manager ED4D), the added value of diaspora entrepreneurs is that they have innovative ideas and are per definition prepared to take more risks than an ordinary foreign entrepreneur. “They also find their way faster [in their countries of origin] thanks to their cultural and linguistic background and local contacts,” Deketele continues. The ED4D is designed based on the belief that, despite this advantage, diaspora entrepreneurs still face significant obstacles in their efforts to start a business in their country of origin. Compared to their native counterparts, diaspora entrepreneurs usually lack the necessary information and network within the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. Additionally, some diaspora entrepreneurs might have the technical expertise but lack the necessary business experience to successfully start a business in often challenging circumstances.

In collaboration with PUM – a Dutch non-profit network of senior experts providing business advice for SMEs and coaching for entrepreneurs in developing countries – IOM developed a tailor-made training programme for the selected diaspora entrepreneurs, providing them with the necessary tools and skills to overcome the key challenges in their attempts to set-up their business. ED4D does not, however, provide funding to the participating entrepreneurs to start their business. That said, the project operates from the assumption that by assisting the participating diaspora entrepreneurs with developing solid business ideas, networks and skills, they will be able to acquire the necessary finance themselves. 

Compared to the long track record with knowledge transfers as discussed in the foregoing, IOM’s experience with promoting and facilitating diaspora entrepreneurship is a more recent development. According to Deketele, however, this does not mean IOM is not well-positioned to run this project. “[We] do not operate in a vacuum but try to connect as much as possible with governmental actors and [existing] policy frameworks”, Deketele notes. “IOM is uniquely placed, as an intergovernmental organization, to leverage the many connections required to build a successful business.” Indeed, since its start in late 2018, the ED4D project has successfully assisted 20 Ghanaian and 20 Ethiopian diaspora entrepreneurs in setting up a business; even in the face of the challenges COVID-19 posed for much of the duration of the project. 

The end of 2020 also marked the end of the ED4D project, so evaluations are now on their way. One positive and unexpected outcome that is already clear, is the lasting bonds that formed between participating entrepreneurs beyond the scope of the project. The entrepreneurs continue to inspire and help each other out – a result that is of great importance, particularly for diaspora professionals, Dorien Deketele underlined. “Dutch policy [is currently built on the] belief that it is not necessary to have a specific programme for diaspora entrepreneurship. But I think that the situation and businesses of diaspora entrepreneurs are very different from ‘regular’ Dutch entrepreneurs. They benefit hugely from a programme that helps them learn from each other and assists them in building the bridges between the two worlds they are part of.” With targeted assistance, as was given with the ED4D project, diaspora entrepreneurs can not only become more productive and successful professionals, they can also make a huge difference in the development of their countries of origins – a difference that is difficult to realise for Dutch organisations and businesses without roots in these countries. 

The journey continues

For IOM The Netherlands, diaspora engagement is an indispensable part of migration policies. While members of the diaspora are not necessarily eager to move back to their countries of origin permanently, “a lot of talented people are willing to share their knowledge and skills. Their efforts and engagement, in addition to being a valuable contribution to the sustainable development of their countries of origin, also contribute to a more positive image of migration and a more balanced way of managing migration between countries.” Programmes like CD4D and ED4D are highly effective in building bridges and fostering mutual understanding, thus going far beyond the economic results they can generate. “Given their positive impact and relative ease of implementation, it would be a great pity if this type of programmes would vanish due to a change in policy priorities,” Dorien Deketele concludes.