Canada is one of the most multicultural nations in the world, home to dozens of significant diaspora groups including some of the largest East African communities outside that region. There is great potential in their participation in development efforts. Indeed, it could signal a sort of reverse brain drain – a brain gain if you will – where highly educated individuals are reconnecting with their country of origin. Their crucial cultural competencies, namely language skills, networks and cultural fluency, place them in a unique position to undertake various initiatives. These abilities are channeled along with their years of experience and not-insignificant capital towards starting up new businesses or funding various independent projects.
Diaspora engagement can take many different forms: alumni groups run fundraising drives for scholarship programs they have established at their alma mater in Addis Ababa; members of the Somali diaspora set up policy think tanks in Mogadishu and are planning the restoration of the National Library, including the recent shipment of over 20,000 books. A growing number of first- and second-generation Canadians from the Horn of Africa are also planning long-term (and sometimes permanent) stints in their countries of origin. This is no extended vacation – instead, most hope to continue their professions or venture into new areas with the aim of playing a part in the country's development. The opportunities for investment and growth are certainly there. Expanding service, construction and technical industries means opportunities for entrepreneurship, filling the gaps in often-struggling and under-developed economies.
The economic clout of this population is not to be taken lightly. A look at the remittances of these communities demonstrates their economic potential. According to the World Bank, Canadians remitted $5.83 billion in 2012. In 2013, Ethiopia received $656 million in remittances from abroad, Sudan $461 million, and Djibouti $34 million. The importance of remittances to the Somali economy has been widely acknowledged; the nation receives $1.6 billion annually from Somalis around the world. Eritrea’s situation is slightly more complicated, but money sent back from relatives abroad is still crucial to the local economy.
Governments in 'home countries' are also picking up on this trend, actively calling on diaspora communities to assist in development efforts while touting their impressive GDP growth rates and relative political stability. The Ethiopian government has in recent years introduced various incentives for expatriates to return, including relaxed visa requirements, rights to invest, and even the construction of Western-style residential subdivisions. Somalia’s recent popular election, and the international community’s recognition of the new government has convinced many that the nation has reached a turning point in its history. Indeed, the atmosphere of change and the chance to make a real contribution has been a major factor in mobilizing the diaspora. The very different and extremely daunting bureaucratic culture, and the business risks more generally, are tempered by emotional attachment and a sense of duty.
NGOs have also picked up on the potential of diaspora communities, and many organizations are developing programs that aim to incorporate these advantages into their own initiatives. CUSO International for example, operates a flagship diaspora volunteering program, putting skilled professionals to work in their countries of origin and tapping into their unique skill set. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has identified diaspora communities as a key means of addressing South Sudan’s dire healthcare needs. An online database is up and running, scoping out potential partners among South Sudanese medical professionals living abroad. CANADEM has partnered with the Ottawa-based Djibouti Diaspora Network (DDN) for a similar initiative focusing on socio-economic development. Many people also work with local civil society organizations on an individual basis, volunteering their time and/or providing financial and technical assistance.
The role of the diaspora in development is not without tension. Successful initiatives require real collaboration between returning groups and local communities, and it is easy to wonder how a group of people, who have been relatively disconnected from the situation on the ground, can truly understand the needs and issuues. Concerns have also been raised that a wealthy returning diaspora will snap up most opportunities, effectively pushing out locals and their initiatives.
These are valid points, and it is important to maintain an awareness of these issues when discussing the diaspora’s role in development. While the road ahead will be challenging, it is also promising. Diaspora communities present an important linkage between the developing and developed worlds, an opportunity to bring the regions together, increase cooperation and encourage partnerships. It is this duality that is allowing for an exciting new take on Canadian engagement abroad. Whether volunteering, relocating, or simply sending money back home, Canadians are becoming more and more involved in their home region. It is time that Canadian institutions – both public and private – recognize this potential and start working together with diaspora groups to see how these assets can be best mobilized and optimized.