Towards constructive collaboration with the African diaspora
Earlier this year The Broker and Partos initiated an online knowledge dossier on diaspora inclusion in the Netherlands. This dossier featured authors with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives and was concluded by an online debate on diaspora inclusion. The initiative for this dossier was informed by two key assumptions: 1) the diaspora has an important role to play in development efforts; and 2) much work remains to be done to promote diaspora inclusion in the Dutch development sector. While these assumptions were not debunked or fundamentally questioned, the contributions to the dossier as well as the online debate did provide some challenging insights and nuances to the initial assumptions. First, there is no such thing as the diaspora. And second, better collaboration with diaspora organisations requires actions, both from the development sector and the diaspora community.
Over the years much has been said about including diaspora in Dutch development efforts and a widespread assumption has taken root that diaspora organisations have knowledge and networks that could help make Dutch development programmes more effective. And yet, despite this assumption and after all those years, neither policy makers nor Dutch development NGOs have succeeded in including or collaborating with diaspora organisations in structural or meaningful ways. To spark a new and constructive dialogue on diaspora inclusion, The Broker, in collaboration with Partos, launched an online multi-disciplinary knowledge dossier. By featuring authors from various backgrounds, the dossier brings together perspectives and insights that often remain fragmented. In the end, the contributions serve to inform relevant Dutch development actors on how they can effectively harness the social, human, financial, cultural and philanthropic capital of the African diaspora in The Netherlands.
The value of diaspora inclusion
All featured articles confirmed the assumption that the diaspora can play a positive role in making Dutch development interventions more effective. Different authors argued convincingly that diaspora inclusion is not simply a moral imperative; it comes with huge benefits. To start with a more practical note, Arjen Berkvens, director of Foundation Max van der Stoel (FMS), argued in his contribution that diaspora inclusion will help boost the credibility of Dutch development organisations. Additionally, Berkvens continued, when it comes to organisations’ impact, “diaspora inclusion allows for a better understanding of not only factual, but also cultural and emotional circumstances”. This is the case because, as Georgina Kwakye explained, members of the diaspora have “knowledge of both worlds”. They understand the traditions and developments in their country of origin and at the same time know how to operate in, and translate this information to, the Dutch context. Further underlining the value of diaspora inclusion, Bart Romijn noted that, while governments and big NGOs often operate through big international networks, the fine-meshed, local networks of the diaspora in their countries of origin are indispensable. Especially when it comes to assisting the poorest and most difficult to reach people, the local embeddedness and support systems facilitated by the diaspora are key. Finally, although in the Dutch development cooperation policy the diaspora is not regarded as a target group or priority, Jan Rinzema of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) nonetheless agreed that diaspora organisations can have great added value in realising sustainable and inclusive development in their countries of origin.
The consensus among all authors about the importance of diaspora inclusion did not come as a surprise. The problem lies not so much in the idea of diaspora inclusion, it lies in its realisation in practice. Taking a closer look at two cross-cutting issues that run throughout the seven articles will shed more light on the underlying causes of this problem and help identify ways forward to realise diaspora inclusion in the future. The cross-cutting issues are: 1) the diversity within the African diaspora in the Netherlands; and 2) the roles, relations and responsibilities of (development) actors. In addition to the knowledge dossier, The Broker also hosted an online debate session with twelve diaspora professionals. During this debate these two cross-cutting issues were discussed in more detail. The following sections each focus on one of the cross-cutting issues and synthesise the key conclusions of both the written articles as well as the online debate.
Reflection and diversity
Most of the written contributions highlighted the enormous diversity within the African diaspora in the Netherlands. This diversity, as was confirmed in the online debate as well, can be both a blessing and a curse. As Arjen Berkvens and Gery Nijenhuis note, while the diversity of the African diaspora is common knowledge in the development sector, there still seems to be a tendency to expect the diaspora to speak as one group, with one voice. Such an expectation would not only be unrealistic and unfair; it would also form an important obstacle to effective collaboration. During the debate however, it was questioned whether this expectation of ‘one voice’ is as widely accepted as suggested. Several participants did not recognise this notion and it was argued that the very idea of this expectation was perhaps more hampering than anything else. Rather than making assumptions about the others’ views and speaking in sweeping generalizations, it was emphasised that we should listen and engage in open dialogue. Only in this way can we foster mutual understanding and become familiar with the widely diverse people that make up both the diaspora and the development sector.
In her contribution, Gery Nijenhuis, geographer and diaspora expert at Utrecht University, points out that diversity is not only derived from nationality; there is also a wide variety in the roles, functions and target groups of diaspora organisation. As there is no such thing as ‘the’ diaspora or ‘the’ diaspora organisation, Nijenhuis concludes that “using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to engage diaspora in development will probably not be successful”. Following this logic, it could be argued that the current stance of the Dutch MFA makes sense. That is, targeting the diaspora as one group with one policy would not work. This conclusion, however, might be too simplistic. Diversity in the diaspora might make policy making more difficult; but at the same time this very diversity brings vast opportunities. At least, this is the point Kemo Camara, founder and CEO of the digital platform Omek, brings across in his contribution. According to Camara, diversity and heterogeneity do not mean that the diaspora is impotent or powerless; quite the contrary. It means, Camara passionately argues, that the diaspora comprises a wide range of complementary skills and knowledge that can be harnessed for the benefit of the whole community and, more generally, for inclusive development efforts. During the discussion Camara found wide support for his views: There was unanimous agreement about the idea that diversity should not be problematised but recognised as a strength.
Roles and responsibilities
The second cross-cutting issue, focusing on roles and responsibilities with regards to diaspora inclusion, was hotly debated during the online session. Some participants expressed their extreme disappointment in the current government policy, arguing that the state is not living up to its promises nor abiding by treaties it has signed. Additionally, it was suggested that the Dutch government has the responsibility to more actively support diaspora organisations by providing more funding and formulating targeted policy for the diaspora, regardless of its diversity. Others, however, argued that the diaspora should take initiative and turn the logic around: “When we engage with the government we should not ask them [for their help] but showcase the huge potential within our community”, Kemo Camara stated during one of the breakout sessions. “We will figure out our diversity challenges and tap into our own vast potential”, he continued. “Then the government will come to us and will want to work with us because our value is clear.” This sentiment was supported by various participants in the debate: It is the responsibility of the diaspora to understand its own value and develop its talents and capacities.
At the same time however, there was wide agreement that the government and Dutch development organisations also have an important role to fulfil. They can support talent and promising initiatives within the diaspora community and should collaborate with diaspora organisations as equal partners. Such collaborations are, as Bart Romijn emphasizes, to the benefit of all parties involved. And yet, thus far, many development actors in the Netherlands are not succeeding in establishing sustainable partnerships with diaspora organisations, nor in effectively harnessing and supporting the potential of the African diaspora. Berkvens agrees and further points out that, while Dutch development organisations often describe themselves and their programmes as inclusive, in practice, the African diaspora is often left out.
The way forward
If diaspora inclusion is seen by all parties as a desirable goal, how then can this be realised? What should members of the diaspora, diaspora organisations, Dutch development organisations and the Dutch government do to overcome the obstacles that have stood in the way for so long?
Despite the observed complexity within the diaspora communities and the lack of sustainable collaboration between diaspora organisations and relevant Dutch development actors, both the featured articles and the online discussion proposed ideas on how the potential of the African diaspora can be harnessed for the Dutch development agenda. The central message is that relevant development actors should recognise and leverage the diversity within the African diaspora. This means that efforts to include the African diaspora should have a targeted engagement approach, and not consider the diaspora as a single group. “Without purpose, diversity is useless. With a vision, diversity becomes a force”, as one participant noted during the online discussion.
Gery Nijenhuis further argued that 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.” This abstract notion of ‘creating an enabling environment’ could find translation in Camara’s psychographic segmentation approach. In this approach the diaspora community is grouped according to common passion, shared values, vision, and beliefs. “While resulting in separate categories, the psychographic approach highlights what the African diaspora communities have in common, not what divides them.” During the online debate, different participants argued that it makes sense for policy makers to have a country based segmentation of the African diaspora. While there might be differences within countries, one can always find one or two common goals that bind diaspora organisations. The Dutch government and development NGO could engage with these country-based diaspora groups based on their common goals. Diaspora organisations, in turn, should also find common ground within their own ranks and organise themselves, which would facilitate more effective engagement with both the government and development NGOs. An idea was formulated to establish some sort of ‘diaspora council’ which could operate as an advisory body for policy makers and development actors in the Netherlands.
In the end, what appears most important to realise collaboration is building relationships and trust between people. For diaspora organisations and the Dutch development sector to work together efficiently, they should get to know each other better; learn about their common goals and aspirations; recognise their shared interests; and understand how they can support each other – not despite but because of their different expertise, skills and networks. Building such trust and mutual understanding will only happen by regular and interpersonal contact. And although the diaspora organisations and development actors will have to take the initiative to arrange these meetings, the government can play a facilitating role by providing (funding for) the spaces where they can all get together. “Regular opportunities for the diaspora and the development sector to meet and connect will foster creativity and lead to new opportunities,” Bart Romijn believes. “Real change starts with direct interpersonal contact; when people, from the diaspora and development organisations, sit at a table and connect.”