Diasporas, development and diplomacy: How to engage refugees in assistance back home


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Migrants are increasingly recognised as transnational actors who can contribute to the development of their countries of origin without actually returning to them. In recent decades, host countries and countries of origin have begun to look beyond the financial remittances of migrants to social remittances.  Many aid and peacebuilding programs are seeking to leverage migrants’ access to and knowledge of their countries of origin.

Host countries, including EU member states are increasingly engaging diasporas as development partners on policy formulation regarding their countries of origin. Many member states fund diaspora programs under the migration for development theme. However, diaspora fragmentation remains a challenge for donors. This is hardly surprising, given diasporas are formed from different groups of migrants and different phases of migration. The donor response to this diversity is in some cases to encourage the creation of umbrella organisations that bring together and represent each faction. Given the diversity within many diasporas, comprehensive and effective ‘unification’ is unlikely.

What is important to consider is that the different factions have different strengths and weaknesses. Refugee diasporas, who tend to be excluded from development programs have an understanding of power, politics and the potential for peacebuilding. On a political level, they may provide representation to people without voice in their country of origin. On a practical level, they may have a comparative advantage in advising on marginalisation, reconciliation and demobilisation. They may also wield influence or at least provide a conduit for communication to groups back home who must be part of a comprehensive settlement to questions of war and peace.
An element that donors struggle with in engaging refugee diasporas is their tendency to be highly politicised. According to donors, politicisation challenges the tone and effectiveness of development cooperation. Moreover, there can be a tendency for politicised groups to shift away from local development to focus on national government reform.
This complication can be addressed by differentiating more carefully during the selection of partners in development programs that leverage diasporas. A suggestion would be to formulate programs and selection procedures to engage groups in a “diasporas for development” pool. If programs incorporate more overtly political aims – such as conflict resolution, peacebuilding or demobilisation – then these can be separated administratively in how they recruit diaspora organisations as participants, with a “diasporas for peacebuilding” pool. Formalising such a policy may be more efficient than approaching it an ad hoc manner.
Refugee diasporas should certainly not be excluded from development programs as currently tends to happen. Instead, using a bureaucratic division to encourage the evolution of different pools of organisations will support useful specialisation of groups into development and peacebuilding clusters. Refugees and other migrants could then self-select according to their ambitions and skills.
Such an approach that focuses on removing political tension where it is unnecessary may help to ensure that peacebuilding and development activities do not end before they begin.

To learn more, see attached PDF .


Zdena Middernacht

Program Manager, Farsight