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What's the Diaspora Got to Do with It?

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In response to this intriguing question, raised by Dele Fatunla on the Diaspora Debate blog at African Arguments Online, we believe the Diaspora is a rich source of much-needed human and financial capital that ought to be better leveraged to benefit Africans on the continent. According to World Bank estimates, there are 30 million Africans—three percent of Africa's population—living outside their home countries. In addition, there are many millions of people of African descent around the globe whose ancestors were involuntary migrants but who, nonetheless, feel connected to Africa. Remittances from African migrants via official channels reached roughly US$40 billion in 2010—2.6 percent of the continent's GDP. Actual numbers are likely to be much higher. These figures are simply too significant to be written off or ignored. The African Diaspora is a rich resource that has the potential to catalyze Africa's development.

Like other immigrant groups, Africans in the Diaspora are involved in a variety of activities that benefit their home countries. Remittances provide funds that keep younger family members in school, buy medicines and put food on the table. These additional resources also help friends and family members start or expand businesses, build homes, and undertake self-financed projects and investments.

Moreover, recent World Bank estimates indicate that members of the African Diaspora save approximately US$53 billion annually in banks outside the continent. If only 10 percent of Africans in the Diaspora invested $1,000 in their countries of origin, it would generate an additional US$3 billion annually for development financing. This number would rise significantly if the large involuntary Diaspora in the Americas also invested at the same rate. However, the Diaspora's contributions are not solely financial.

The African Diaspora also mobilizes globally through social networks, hometown associations, ethnic associations and charitable groups. These networks are involved in a wide variety of activities, from maintaining and extending public infrastructure (schools, hospitals, health centers and roads), to donating clinical equipment, computers, books, generators, pharmaceuticals and other goods. Members of the Diaspora also organize surgical camps, take sabbaticals to teach at universities in their home countries, and engage in other activities that allow them to repatriate their professional skills and share their international experience with their communities of origin.

The reality is that, despite the much-publicized cases of a few Africans who have returned home to take up leadership posts in business or government, the vast majority of Africans in the Diaspora has put down roots in their new homes and is unlikely to relocate to Africa. However, Africans in the Diaspora still care passionately about their African homes and many of them actively seek opportunities to give back to their communities of origin.

There are numerous efforts underway to better harness the Diaspora's contributions and strategically deploy them where they are most needed. In one such project, the Ethiopian government has been successfully tapping Diaspora expertise by using the Internet to facilitate “virtual return” of Ethiopian medical doctors. This project, which is being supported by the Italian government in collaboration with the World Bank, has permitted doctors in Ethiopia to benefit from the skills and experiences of their colleagues in the Diaspora. As Internet connectivity improves across the continent, we are likely to see many similar programs spring up in other African countries.

Thus, the Diaspora is one of the many rich resources Africa needs to tap in order to realize its full potential. Africans in the Diaspora have much-needed financial and technical skills. However, the Diaspora is always most effective when its skills are utilized in a way that complements the skills, experiences and needs of those who have remained in Africa rather than replacing them. Thus, as in any effective team, Africans and the Diaspora are all better off when they work together for Africa's best interests.

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