For 20 years, BP Agrawal led research and development at such companies as General Dynamics, ITT, GTE, and Hughes, helping take new technologies from lab to marketplace. US-based Agrawal and his diaspora peer had a number of discussions on how they can make an impact in home country (India), and concluded that it is not their financial contributions that would make a difference but rather new commercial models of public service provision. In 2006, he won Development Marketplace awards for River from the Sky, a system of community water provision in draught-stricken areas and in 2007 for, Clinics for Mass Care, a system of mobile, kiosk-based clinics.
Recognition of the poor as a major market opportunity has produced bottom-of-the-pyramid innovation, the hallmark of which is global search for home-grown solutions. Diaspora members are natural vehicles for both global search and diffusion in the local context. In reality, diffusion is all that matters. Thanks to Agrawal’ patience, perseverance and persistence, he was able to enter into partnership with a local government which significantly speeded up the diffusion.
In the diaspora discourse, these are rare examples of projects of high institutional development impact. They are usually developed by an entrepreneur who combines commercial objectives with a passion to counteract obstacles she encounters. The synergy between interest and passion is crucial. It would be useful to draw a parallel between a venture entrepreneur developing her high-risk high return venture and a diaspora member constructing, with support of her own problem-solving networks, a portfolio of projects with her home country.
Experience shows such a portfolio consists of three segments:
Low risk- low impact initiatives: for instance, traditional charity and cultural agenda. Conferences, workshops and diaspora databases are also in this category: they are useful but in itself are unlikely to generate significant institutional development impact
Medium risk- medium-impact: activities which help to bring FDI to the home country, initiatives to promote skill transfers and export linkages, help in the image building and improvement investment climate. Support for educational and health reforms can also be in this category.
High risk- high impact projects when diaspora members become agents of change in triggering institutional transformation (starting locally, like in our example, but then diffusing) in the home country
Such a portfolio-based approach to home country- diaspora interactions eliminates the need to identify ‘silver bullets,’ the perfect combination of policies and programs to promote home country development and enables policy-makers to engage in a process of natural experimentation, introducing and observing variation in the policy context, economic outcomes and the connection between them.
The key question for policy makers and donors is how they can support, i.e. help to design, finance and grow such portfolios of projects of diaspora members in their home countries. For instance, contest-based initiatives emerging in countries as diverse as Mexico, Russia and India create an institutions space for domestic champions (NGOs and other organizations) to draw on diaspora to jointly develop new institutional, social and technical solutions addressing local challenges.