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Transnational opportunities

by Andrea Riester
Diaspora communities from crisis states can support peace building and development in their countries of origin. Systematic use should be made of this potential. [ By Andrea Riester ]

Almost half of all Somali households depend on remittances from friends or family abroad. About 14 % of Somalia’s people have left the country, and they send an estimated $ 1.6 billion back home every year. The UNDP estimates that 80 % of the small and medium-sized businesses active in Somalia today were only started thanks to investments by the diaspora.

Experts agree that diaspora communities are of immense economic importance. According to recent World Bank data, migrants transferred approximately $ 328 billion to developing countries last year. That figure was about three times the amount of the world’s total official development assistance.

Expatriates matter in political terms too, however. Many research projects have been launched in the past three years on the subject of “diaspora and peace”, assessing the influential role played by those who have moved away. Earlier, transnational research, which began in the 1990s, tended to overlook this issue.

Migrants often build bridges between countries and cultures. The role of women is often neglected in expert circles, but it can be of particular relevance. In their host countries, women who have left their home culture tend to acquire a new understanding of gender roles, so they can become important role models for relatives and friends back home.

There are many areas where diaspora communities’ objectives coincide with those of development cooperation. However, migrant activities run in parallel with DC programmes, instead of being linked to the aid agencies’ efforts. German policymakers have therefore begun to draft new strategies and design new instruments to boost the peacemaking potential offered by migration, while reducing the negative impacts at the same time. One of the undesirable consequences of migration, for example, is brain drain – the shortage of skilled workers due to migration.

In the past, public awareness has focussed on reports of diaspora groups perpetuating conflicts. However, there is also a growing interest in positive aspects to their involvement in crisis countries. The GTZ, on behalf of the German Development Ministry (BMZ), has therefore commissioned research on examples of various diaspora groups that are supporting the peace process in their home countries. The report shows that wide-ranging positive engagement occurs at local levels, encompassing a variety of activities such as
- early warning and monitoring through detailed information from the country of origin,
- exerting a moderating influence on parties to the conflict,
- the organisation of dialogue forums and
- contributions to relief and, after a conflict ends, reconstruction – through remittances, donations of food and clothes, personal involvement for conflict reconciliation, peace education and coping with trauma.

West African example

The Children’s Network Sierra Leone (KNSL) is an NGO formed in Berlin in 2003. It is a typical example of a diaspora community’s useful involvement. KNSL is active in the southern Pujehun District that was particularly hard hit by civil war violence.

The KNSL’s goal is to fight Sierra Leone’s poverty and lack of education as well as dearth of prospects. Children from poor families need the opportunity to attend school, and people in general need to be shown how to settle disputes without resorting to violence. Local experts are given training in the area of conflict management, and discussion fora and lectures serve to debate options of community development. Panel and radio discussions are held, tackling issues such as social justice, poverty reduction and youth unemployment. Moreover, there are students’ or women’s evenings.

In 2007, the KNSL set up a library in Sierra Leone and offered the first ever introductory courses in computing, teaching basic skills in internet use and Office programmes. The target group is young people.

General results

The GTZ study shows that any diaspora is normally just as heterogeneous as the population back home. It does not make sense to consider “the diaspora” a monolithic block, with homogenic objectives and interests. Typically, diasporas mirror the conflicts raging in their home country.

Conflict-generated diaspora – the people driven abroad by conflicts – are more likely to get involved in their native country’s affairs than migrants who left looking for work. Refugees’ lives were marked by violence, and traumatisation provides a partial explanation for these people’s different attitude. In any case, the conflict they have experienced must be borne in mind when cooperating with them.

The role of diasporas in reconstruction is not undisputed.
- First of all, personal interest can prove an obstacle in many areas;
- second, diaspora groups are sometimes not accepted in their countries of origin, or not accepted any more, and
- third, the diaspora often does not have adequate experience in reconstruction.

The ability to assess any diaspora accurately is therefore certainly a major challenge. However, cooperation with these people brings many opportunities for promoting peace in crisis countries. The reasons are that
- diaspora communities generally have very good networks, which is conducive to the effectiveness and the sustainability of initiatives;
- they can intervene in all phases as well as zones of conflict thanks to personal contacts in the country of origin and because they are familiar with the culture; and
- members of the diaspora can transfer knowledge and know-how into the country of origin as equals, thus opening up new horizons to those with whom they are interacting with at the local level.

This vast potential must be made use of. Obviously, initiatives to cooperate with the diaspora should be designed to operate over the long-term and follow the “do no harm” principle. Under no circumstances should cooperation contribute to intensifying possible tensions between the diaspora and the people in the home country. Problems and conflicts within the diaspora or between diaspora and country of origin must be addressed. Otherwise, it will prove impossible to cooperate with diaspora communities in a way that is conducive to meaningful development.

Some migrants’ organisations in Germany are involved in peace and reconstruction efforts in their countries of origin. They should link themselves to similar initiatives in their countries of origin. Moreover, many need support to improve their project management and financial management. This holds true both in the country of residence as well as that of origin.

To date, the measures taken by diaspora groups to promote peace at home have been limited to the local level. Nonetheless, they are important contributions to peace and development in the countries concerned. Apart from serving reconciliation purposes, they also contribute to infrastructure reconstruction and the creation of new outlooks once war and strife have ended.