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.
The benefits of this activism are illustrated by Katrina Burgess in the book, New Patterns for Mexico: Observations on Remittances, Philanthropic Giving, and Equitable Development. In her chapter, she examines the impact of migrant philanthropy on local governance in Mexico by asking three critical questions: Are hometown associations holding public officials accountable in new and more effective ways? Are they challenging elite control of authority and resources at the local level? Is participation in hometown associations causing social investment to be channeled to previously underserved populations? At the end, she finds that the collaboration between local governments and hometown associations produces a more equitable distribution of projects within municipalities.
On the other hand, activism among diasporas can also have a negative impact on countries of origin. A study published by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) shows how highly organized Sri Lankan diasporas organizations exerted political influence on the country’s civil conflict. There are divergent views on the role these diaspora groups played in Sri Lanka’s conflict, but the victims of these interventions are commonly local counterparts in the home countries.
Some of the fallacies of activism are illustrated in this MPI report in a quote by Margaret Trudy, who writes, “distance can make the heart grow fonder. Thousands of kilometres of separation and relative safety in a new homeland can generate romanticized notions and can obscure reality about the nature of homeland conflict. Diasporas do not suffer the consequences of violence, nor are they in day-to-day contact and accommodation with the enemy.”
On the whole, citizen activism among diasporas is a critical issue. It is not a new phenomenon, but it will have an impact on the policies of both home and host countries in distinct ways. So, no matter where we stand on the issue, the political influence of diasporas is likely to gain more currency well into the future.
Picture credit: flickr user Collin David Anderson