Interpersonal partnerships and bottom-up initiatives
A conversation on diaspora inclusion with Bart Romijn
As the Dutch membership body for development organisations, Partos is always looking for ways to facilitate and support the work of its members. Its interest in fostering collaboration with the African diaspora in the Netherlands should therefore not come as a surprise. In this interview, Partos’ director, Bart Romijn, explains why his organisation is looking to put diaspora inclusion on the agenda and how the current corona crisis provides an opportunity for both development organisations and the African diaspora in the Netherlands to foster new ties. In order to create a sustainable collaboration, Romijn argues, diaspora organisations and the development sector should develop interpersonal relationships and come up with shared bottom-up initiatives.
Most of Partos’ members run projects in one or more African countries. Does that also mean that Partos is aware of the dynamics within the African diaspora in The Netherlands?
There are many members of the diaspora in the Netherlands who are connected with countries where our member organisations operate. Yet, overall, there is limited interaction between our members and the diaspora. Last year, Partos did organise an event on migration and development but this was one of the few occasions where many of our members as well as diaspora organisations were active and present. In general, however, this interaction is very limited, which means that neither our members nor Partos are sufficiently aware of the dynamics within the diaspora. I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Why does Partos want to put the subject of diaspora inclusion on the Dutch development agenda?
This is based on a few fundamental assumptions. First of all, I think that there is a lot of untapped potential in the collaboration between diaspora organisations and the development sector. The diaspora has relevant knowledge of and networks in countries where our member organisations operate. This knowledge and networks can help our members overcome their blind spots. Even though our member organisations have already established networks in their target countries, I believe that much can be gained from consulting and collaborating with the diaspora.
Further, I believe that development organisations should not only look at countries far away but also at what happens in their own environment. Therefore, understanding the complexity and position of the diaspora in Dutch society is important. For one thing, members of the diaspora are rooted in three worlds: in their home country, in Dutch society and in their own community within Dutch society. Sustainable development efforts should not, and do not, focus only on the most marginalised groups in poor countries. Additionally, they should also be aimed at marginalisation and exclusion in our own country and especially at those who have the highest ecological footprint. From that perspective, understanding the dynamics of diaspora groups -their movements, experiences, knowledge and connections- should be one of the key tasks for the development sector.
To what extent does the current corona crisis provide an opportunity to reflect on diaspora inclusion in the Dutch development sector?
Current data suggest that the direct impact of COVID-19 (infection rates and deaths) in Africa is relatively limited. The indirect impact of the virus however, is huge. Lock-downs and other policies have put existing basic systems like food, business and clean drinking water under pressure. In addition, many of our member organisations and their local partners cannot carry out their activities, or only to a very limited extent. It is in these very challenges that we find the opportunity, and the necessity, for diaspora inclusion. Although many members of the diaspora are not necessarily connected to formal institutions, they do have fine-meshed, local networks of friends and family. I believe that, at the moment, these connections are invaluable. Governments have the tendency to operate through big international networks, especially in times of crisis. The recent AIV-policy brief on extra funding for Africa, for instance, focuses on multilateral institutions as a main provider of help. But I believe that to effectively assist the poorest people who are now facing crisis upon crisis, local embeddedness and more personal networks and support systems are even more important. That is why we promote a much stronger engagement of locally embedded NGOs which can be achieved more effectively -especially given the current constraints- by collaborating with the diaspora and using their channels.
This is not the first time that the subject diaspora inclusion is on the agenda. Are you not afraid that some form of ‘diaspora fatigue’ will arise in the sector?
To be honest, I think that this fatigue has been around for some time. When I joined Partos in 2014, I noticed a growing distance between diaspora organisations and development organisations. This was partly due to financing. In the preceding period, different development organisations had funding available for diaspora organisations and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was also paying attention to the diaspora. A few meetings with the diaspora were organised, but after some time both the funding and attention to the diaspora dried up. I think that it is now time for a new approach.
In a recent FMS-meeting with members of the African diaspora, one member of the diaspora said: “If we want to be connected with organisations then we should not come with our problems, but provide solutions. We have a lot to offer instead of asking for help.” This was an eye-opener for me and this notion of ‘having a lot to offer’ should be at the heart of our relationship. I do not believe in unilateral help; I believe that when two parties collaborate, both have something to bring to the table. So yes, I have seen the so-called diaspora fatigue within the sector, but I do not think that it is getting worse nor that it cannot be overcome. On the contrary. I believe that, if both the Dutch development sector and the diaspora itself recognise the enormous value and assets of diaspora organisations, a very fruitful collaboration can be realised.
The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently decided that it will not consider the diaspora as a special target group for migration and development policies. According to Minister Kaag, diaspora organisations can connect to established policy instruments. Is this a missed opportunity or does it also provide the sector with the opportunity to cooperate with the diaspora?
It is difficult to say whether it is a missed opportunity because, in previous years, some efforts were made to collaborate with the diaspora, but they appeared ineffective. What we need is a new operational framework, one that is formulated by the diaspora and the development sector together, not by the government. I do not think that policy should be leading in this collaboration; rather, it should be facilitating. We should organise ourselves first, come up with joint propositions, and then policy will follow. A good example of this way of thinking is the different pilots on circular migration, where migrants wanted to start a business in their home country and found support with Dutch companies. These bottom-up initiatives however, were unfortunately complicated by policy: When members of the diaspora go back to their home country, they lose their rights in The Netherlands. The task for policymakers, as this example shows, is to create an enabling environment that allows for collaborative initiatives like this to come to fruition.
Finally, I think we should look beyond institutional frameworks and catch-all concepts such as the diaspora and the development sector. The danger of focusing on these institutional frames and catch-all concepts is that we lose sight of the enormous diversity of the people behind them. Real change starts with direct interpersonal contact; when people, from the diaspora and development organisations, sit at a table and connect. At present, there are very few occasions where such connections can grow, although the annual Afrikadag is a good exception. At Partos we have limited means to organise such events, but the government could play a facilitating role there. Regular opportunities for the diaspora and the development sector to meet and connect will foster creativity and lead to new opportunities. Once interpersonal connections are formed, valuable collaborations are just around the corner.