For some time now, I have been fascinated with the concept of social remittances, a term coined by sociologist Peggy Levitt, who argued that, in addition to economic contributions, migrants export ideas, behaviors, identities, and social capital back to their home communities. These exchanges occur in a number of ways: through the interpersonal communication, letters, videos, blogs, phone calls, television and other forms of communication. This concept has not received as much attention as economic remittances, as pointed out in an interesting piece published by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) entitled, “It’s Not Just About the Economy, Stupid: Social Remittances Revisited.” The paper provides some compelling examples of how social remittances have contributed to development, including influencing ideas around good governance. In this blog post, I will examine the impact that social remittances can have on diaspora communities that are using communication technologies to develop their home countries, especially those engaged with social media and other online forums.
The financial contributions that diasporas make to their countries of origin have received an enormous amount of attention. It’s not surprising with figures like $372 billion, the estimated amount of remittance flows that developing countries received in 2011. Indeed, this is a significant contribution that warrants our attention, but there is another type of currency that diasporas provide that has received much less consideration—the political capital attained through citizen activism.
In countries facing governance challenges, diaspora communities, particularly those living in more democratic countries, have a number of advantages over local activists in their home countries. For one, their economic contributions often provide them with influence over important social and political issues. Their organizational power is another important contribution, one that Steven Vertovec writes about in his piece entitled, The Political Importance of Diasporas. He notes that diaspora based associations can lobby host countries to change polices in favor of a homeland and influence homelands in support of or in opposition to governments.
Last week in Manila, Philippines, I attended an international conference on communication and diasporic communities entitled "Boundaries and Belongings: Transnationalism, Identity, and Communications." Hosted by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Communication, the event featured research on diasporas around the world and the role of communication in their day-to-day lives. Examples ranged from differences in the use of international and domestic news sources (e.g., newspapers and television news) among local and international students, to the roles of new information and communication technologies, such as blogs and webcams, in helping individuals living abroad maintain a sense of connectedness to their home countries, families, and friends. As should be expected of an academic conference, both positive and negative arguments were raised regarding access to, use, and effects of these old and new technologies.