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“Speaking in Verse without Knowing It”: Skilled Diasporas from a Mundane Task Manager Perspective

Yevgeny Kuznetsov's picture

‘What is diaspora?’ –  a senior official of the biotechnology department of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology asked me as she was describing how the department engages with India’s technical and managerial talent abroad.  Relevant expertise is drawn upon for peer review of proposals and mentoring of their subsequent implementation. Diaspora members are relied upon as ‘sounding boards’ and ‘antennas’ when decisions are made on allocation of funds for research and technology development. Engagement with diaspora has become a routine part of the department’s organizational practices. A Moliere character was shocked to discover that he was speaking prose without knowing it. In contrast, in this example, the official was making a good practice in diaspora engagement without having a slightest idea of it – she was indeed ‘’speaking in verse’, yet unaware of it. The diaspora talent has become a part of her daily management practice:  a part of the country.

Diaspora as part of the country, or, to be, more precise what the country is capable of becoming is a summary metaphor for the project  ‘How Can Country’s Talent Abroad Help Reform Institutions at Home’ which is funded  by the MacArthur Foundation and which recently had its authors’ workshop hosted by PRMED.      Competent individuals who know the country well, yet not part of the vested interests can be compared to proverbial Archimedean levers to trigger and sustain the change. The search for them often leads to the country’s talent abroad – its skilled diaspora.  In my area of expertise – innovation and competitiveness enhancement – many projects relied on the technology diaspora to make the case, formulate and implement the projects.

This is not surprising. Innovation relies on the best and brightest. Yet the best and brightest has often left the country in search of better opportunities. Typically, a living manifestation of it, operational staff of international organizations is a part of the brain drain phenomenon itself.  Yet, the usual policy focus—encourage return of talent to the home country—is often neither realistic nor necessary: members of skilled diasporas can also engage in joint continuous projects with the home country without permanently relocating to it: a phenomenon called “brain circulation.”

International migration is now well developed field of study, yet as the metaphor of diaspora as part of the country suggests, it is domestic institutions and possibilities of their transformation that merit further research and thus  is the focus of the Mac Arthur funded project.   The project pioneers an instrumental perspective on international migration and diasporas: the focus on pragmatic search for solutions and on diaspora search networks which help to find such solutions. ‘Diasporas for what?’ is a key question of the instrumental perspective, with developing practitioners who are asking this  question when looking for sector-specific solutions (in education, technological innovation, infrastructure provision etc. ) as  the main audience of the project.

Discussions of diaspora contributions to home country developments tend to start with exhortation of appropriate home country conditions: ‘’for diasporas to contribute, investment climate and governance in home country must improve”.  But as Albert Hirschman noticed more than half a century ago, if developing countries had such conditions, they would have not needed external change agents to begin with.  So this project starts from a different premise: the question of how institutional environment of the home country can improve, gradually and incrementally, through participation of diaspora members. 

Analytical and empirical investigation of this question becomes possible due to the recent literature on economic growth which demonstrates that growth is not hard to start:  it almost starts itself, somewhere, sometimes.  But keeping it going is not easy: doing so requires attention to the context of growth-binding constraints and situation-specific ways to resolve them. The same goes for institutions: it is almost always possible to find some that are working: the issue is using the ones that work to improve those that don’t. This hypothesis assumes that there are nearly always opportunities for development in a given economy, and that some actors, private and public, begin to take advantage of them.  But while development in this view is not hard to start, neither is itself perpetuating.

From this perspective, diaspora members are at once antennas to detect better performing and more dynamic segments of domestic institutions and institutional vehicles (as members of so-called search networks) to expand, institutionalize and scale up these better performing segments.    

A term we use to denote this process of detection, institutionalization and scaling up of the dynamic segment  as  “inside-out reform” – a reform which proceeds laterally -- through multiple, incremental changes from diverse entry points --  initiated and sustained jointly by domestic entrepreneurs (public, private and social) and diaspora entrepreneurs. Examples of inside-out reforms were given from countries as diverse as Taiwan, Chile, Russia, Mexico, Morocco, India, Kenya and Egypt.

So what, an enlightened skeptic might say, nice stories are always abound, can they be replicated? What are precise policy implications of the instrumental perspective on international migration? The good news is that policy implications are rich and diverse and many of them are piloted in World Bank operations as we speak. The bad news is that replication of best practice is the most direct route to disappointment: insistence on fads and hype appears to be the key reason why diaspora potential proved so elusive. But I start to ‘speak prose’: in the development field, structuring a process of global search for local context-specific solutions is replacing the old focus on context-free best practices. Diaspora talent is just one agent of such global search for local solutions.