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Powerful Diaspora Engagement: 10 Tips for Government

By Martin Russell and Loksan Harley

We’re delighted to be bringing this article to you and when we sat down to think about this introduction then we quickly realized that our opening lines sounded something like a dodgy joke. You know the kind……A British-Chinese chap and an Irishman walk into a bar! 

But this article comes at a time of little laughter and we know that words have weight.  Diaspora engagement can now be words that represent a “moment of lift,” to adopt Melinda Gates’ terminology, to offset the pressures weighing heavy on the shoulders of many in our societies. Many of our friends are wilting under this pressure over the past few days and months so we hope this article provides some guiding light.

Diaspora work is fast emerging as central for many local and global economic recovery plans post-pandemic. Harrowingly, diaspora communities are now also “front and centre” of the cultural, moral, social and political volatility that have engulfed our halls of power and those who are inspiringly beating the pavements over the past few days on inequality and racial injustice. As discord and disadvantage permeate the fabric of our societies, diaspora engagement has moved along the dial from choice to necessity.

Governments have no choice but to take up the diaspora movement and moment. If they don’t, they risk being left behind or even worse, being accused of failing to meet diasporas where they are to inspire a new dawning of hope. Not doing either is unforgivable.

Whilst diaspora engagement has a rich historical tapestry, governments are often new kids on the block to the terrain so let’s buck the trend for a moment and stand with governments as they embolden their work in this terrain. They should not be expected to have all the answers. That is the spirit of this piece. 

It is a conversation between us to provide a short, sharp chat from our collective air miles to share some tips on diaspora engagement for the hard yards ahead. The Good and Bad News of Diaspora Engagement One of us regularly opens our public speaking with an age-old quip that captures the audience’s attention in a heartbeat. Let’s begin with that quip: bad news or good news first folks? We’re eternal optimists so let’s finish with the good news!

Bad news: Most diaspora engagement from a government lens only scratches the surface of its potential impact. A safe deduction here is that governments and the organizations around them are then complicit in these limitations (some by accident, some by design). It is the mature thing to do for us to admit this, so let’s put it “on record” here.

Good news: Do not let this deter you as the level of interest in diaspora engagement is skyrocketing and, luckily, diaspora engagement is not rocket-science. So, the answers are out there. If it were rocket science, we wouldn’t be writing this article! 

Diaspora engagement’s power as a force for positive change is hidden in plain sight by the simple fact that with a bit of hard work (and like most things in life, a little luck), meaningful impact is within reach. Therefore, time for some tips so that your diaspora engagement can flourish, not flounder. 

Fair warning, the good and bad news above is not exhaustive – keep an eye out for those red flags but remember, the future is bright for the diaspora world. In fact, the future for diaspora can be an amazing reaffirmation of what is special about humanity.

Diaspora Engagement & Government: Tips for Success

Tip No. 1: Think Purpose not Polity It can be difficult for government policy or strategy on diaspora engagement to balance the political and purpose driven demands of the engagement framework. Or, in other words, to accommodate both government and diaspora interests or ideals. The rigidity of policy often fails to translate to the reality that diaspora engagement is an agile and reflective journey. Policies often read as set-in-stone prescriptions when diaspora policies, as an early Professor on the topic noted years ago, need to be “light in touch.”

This can make a government nervous but try to keep purpose not polity central to your thinking. There are some really simple tips to help you on this journey. 

Firstly, understand the difference between diaspora policies and strategies; more on this later as the latter need tailoring to bring the policy to life. The focus on purpose not polity does not mean that you do not need some robust institutional apparatus – well funded, well run, with well-trained staff – to guide the journey.

Diaspora engagement from a policy level is then about seeing engagement as a means to an end versus as an end in itself. It is a contact sport and it is within those contacts that ideas, innovation and impact reside. 

Tip No. 2: Facilitator Versus Implementer The elephant in the room in diaspora engagement is “what is the role of government?” Every diaspora is different but let’s remember that everything we are speaking about here is not happening in isolation. Public trust across the public, private and third sector is nosediving. Sprinkle in a context where many diasporas may have complex historiographies or contexts to their formation, and you have a tinderbox of emotion ready to ignite. The trick is making sure to ignite it for positive output!

We implore you to remember that the role of government in diaspora engagement fits more towards the facilitation end of the spectrum than the implementation end. Of course, there will be moments when the market is not delivering what is envisaged and the government will need to step in to lead (aptly seen in the remarkable stories of how some governments stepped up with diasporas during the pandemic).

But think facilitation first! And this brings us nicely to the next tip – the leadership table.

Tip No.3: Pull up a “leadership” seat – Open the Door to your Diaspora Buckle up. We’re about to hit some turbulence.

Diaspora engagement, sadly enough, is in its infancy from a government or institutional point of view. And by extension, those who are sitting around the leadership table helping to shape diaspora work with governments must then be held accountable for the bad news shared earlier. This is not offered for the purpose of retribution but for the purpose of reframing who is sitting around that very table to push greater delivery.

Put simply, diaspora work has talked the talk but very rarely walked the walk.

When the latter has happened then the big organizations and names you would expect to see have not been as central to the success than you would think. And this brings us to another important piece of the jigsaw that has been unearthed in the previous few months with the pandemic.

We have had unlimited numbers of webinars on diaspora in the past few weeks where the great and the good of the policy world have aired their forecasts, ideas and innovations on diaspora. Upon reflection of these events, the report card from the diaspora world would read “must do better.” Part of the rationale for this article, for example, was the paucity of young voices on these platforms.

It reminds us of something a mentor once told one of us – the quality of the name on the building does not mean that quality is matched by the people sitting inside the building! If we do not open the leadership door to the diaspora on the design and operations of the engagement process then we will sleepwalk into failure.

We cannot just talk a good game on this, we must act on it to ensure we deliver on our commitments to diversity, inclusivity, and transparency. Whether we like it or not, the world is being reframed not rewound. Success in the past will be no guarantee of success in the future and the people you will need around the leadership table for successful diaspora engagement will not solely be the names of the past. Some of those names will fight you on this; make sure to win that fight for the wellbeing of your diaspora engagement.

The “lighthouse” organizations of diaspora engagement have found the past few months to be choppy waters. This is a good thing as it will breed creativity! Many have been talking about diaspora engagement as if it is diaspora engagement’s divine duty to dig out the failure of the migration challenges of the pandemic; it is not. 

Recurring themes including tackling remittance shortcomings through diaspora savings, the allure of diaspora investment, and digital diaspora. Let’s stop right there. Much of these debates and designs are coming from behind desks. Many, to be frank, have been “talking at” diasporas rather than “talking with” them. We have done this before and we would ask: how did that work out? 

This could be fatal for those folks when they go to engage, and governments can learn here. Diaspora engagement no.1 – listen to your diaspora, this takes time and humility. Remember that in diaspora engagement, a bad day on the road beats a great day in the office. For every challenge, we have many solutions at our fingertips. We just have to be brave enough to bring them into the leadership room.

Part of the wider problem is a reticence to truly demarcate diaspora engagement as a stand-alone sector, related but separate to the migration and development world that many of these folks work in and where diaspora engagement tends to “get housed.” We must have the belief and confidence in the diaspora world to stand on its own two feet. 

That is the opportunity of this diaspora moment and let’s not lack “the bottle” to go for it. Doing this will unleash the energies, ideas and investments to formalize diaspora engagement into a sector where people can build careers, education and expertise on the topic. In other words, the ingredients to ensure what we do will work.

We did not hear this mentioned once in all those webinars. This section might sound harsh but sometimes the truth hurts. It is better for the future of diaspora engagement to say this now. Tough love over, back to the tips for a brighter way!

The world has moved on where people’s time is one of our greatest commodities, so we encourage folks to think beyond the traditional “opening of the doors''. One of the authors of this piece got a chuckle on a recent diaspora webinar when a speaker was talking about being part of a global public-private taskforce of about 30-40 organizations that has quite swiftly agreed to a decision on some aspects of the diaspora road ahead. A quick heads up for that taskforce – if 30 or 40 orgs agree quickly on a decision like that during a pandemic then it is probably the wrong decision!

Opening the door to your diaspora for leadership cannot be done in a hierarchical manner anymore; the real diaspora stars you will engage won’t stand for it and they will see right through you. Networks and Agency matter now; that’s a key part of how you can open the door of leadership in a contemporary and compelling way.

Tip No. 4: Creating a “Culture of Engagement” – Effective Policy Frameworks What does an effective policy framework look like for the specific and cross-cutting characteristics of diaspora engagement? Straightforward tips on this are to “look inward and outward.” It was mentioned already on the need for well-resourced institutions and staff. With the opening of the leadership door to the diaspora then important internal considerations around governance of engagement are important.

Spend time working this out. Many diaspora engagements come back with reduced impact because they rush to market and initial success is built on quicksand rather than solid foundations. Really nail your governance planning as the diaspora will be asking you some tough questions on it. It is important to have the answers.

In looking outward towards engagement, we have touched on some of the main points already around facilitation and leadership. Also remember to start small and build quick wins. People are attracted by success; diasporas are no different.

Put some of the softer engagements up front early. The hint is in the name of this tip as culture is one of the most powerful aggregators of impact in diaspora engagement. We know, of course, that one of the main reasons that governments want to engage diasporas is economic development (the diaspora know this too!).

You have to earn the right to have that conversation with them through establishing systems of scale and impact. Or, to adopt the parlance of the day, to ensure equitable, participatory successes built over time. We have interactive design templates on this for diaspora policies and strategies that we are happy to discuss with you or to help you on your way.

Time and patience are so important in all of this. Begin your engagement with giving to your diaspora. Don’t confuse giving to the diaspora with solely financial support. Giving them your attention, time or insight can be just as powerful. The countries who have done diaspora well have tended to start there. Envision your first diaspora policy or strategy as the first of many, not the “golden ticket” quick fix.

Tip No. 5: Know What You Should NOT Do – Audit Other Countries Diaspora engagement is non-competitive, someone who wants to help India does not want to help Ireland! Knowing what you should not do has a couple of important layers. It means informing yourself at a top-tier around what not to do in diaspora engagement. Because it is non-competitive, you can audit other countries or even better, just share your story. Knowing what not to do also means nailing the vision and mission so you do not get distracted away from your overarching purpose. Your mission is so important, it is the mechanics or glue through which people can “see themselves” in your vision or work.

There are more nuances to this that we can discuss at another time but what this is essentially telling us that it is important to have a research & development (R&D) component built into your engagement journey or planning. This will mean you can track your impact awareness to tell people what you are doing really well and also make yourself accountable to being really good at knowing what NOT to do at an executive, operational and technical level.

Tip No. 6: Understand the Power of Targeted Diaspora Engagement  A country’s diaspora comprises a range of profiles, which are as diverse in their ethnicities and perceptions of their heritage country, as they are in terms of net worth, age, gender, and many other characteristics. This diversity implies a preference for differentiated engagement strategies over a one-size-fits-all approach. Yet many governments seem to focus on the latter. How often do we come across catch-all diaspora engagement summits/salons/conferences (and now webinars)? 

Time and time again governments try to target policies towards ill-defined and broad diaspora constituencies, while considering engagement as an end in itself instead of ­a means to achieve something greater.

It is therefore vital that governments define specific diaspora profiles and then develop tailored strategies and communications approaches to reach them. For instance, first-generation migrants may be more connected to traditional diaspora associations and diaspora media, and may be easily reachable through government consular networks and traditional media outreach. 

Conversely, later-generation millennial diasporas may hold different views about their heritage country and its institutions, and consume entirely different forms of media (often the newer, more social forms). Governments may need to use (or support other actors who are better placed to use) new media and new messages in different languages to connect with these profiles. Lebanon’s Libanity campaign, for example, has encouraged the diaspora to take up Lebanese citizenship and invest in the country, using YouTube videos, social media and mobile applications to reach new and later-generation diaspora audiences.

Tip No. 7: Understand the Power of Diaspora Champions While governments should try to build constructive and long-term relationships with its diaspora as a whole, it is often small groups of diaspora “champions” and “elites” who facilitate the greatest capital transfers. For instance, Irish diasporan, Craig Barrett, former Chairman of Intel, was a key facilitator of the tech giant’s $7 billion investment in Ireland, which helped catalyse further US tech investment that transformed the country’s economy into the “Celtic Tiger”. Specific outreach strategies can bring into play the enabling roles of these “critical few”. 

Diaspora-focused business networks can serve as a space for these “champions” to congregate, while supporting cross-pollination amongst private diaspora business initiatives. One recent example of this is the Scottish Business Network (SBN), a privately-run membership-based initiative which recently conducted a survey of the Scottish business diaspora. Another example is the Copenhagen Goodwill Ambassadors, an initially private-sector but now government-sponsored network of business leaders and other prominent diaspora Danes who promote Denmark and Copenhagen globally while providing advice to the government on competitiveness and other economic and branding issues. The network’s success has birthed a new Diaspora Denmark initiative. 

Tip No. 8: Decentralise Diaspora Engagement to the Lower Levels Central to effective diaspora engagement is leveraging the power of affinity and the many connections and sentiments that people have with respect to their country of origin or heritage. In many cases, these notions of “affinity” and “belonging” are tied to specific regions or communities. Consider, for instance, the regions of the world known for their migrant-sending traditions: from India’s Gujarat and Punjab states, to China’s Guangdong and Sichuan provinces, and the Kayes region of Mali. When diasporas engage, they often choose to do so with their community of origin.

This implies opportunities for local diaspora engagement. In more concrete terms, and as a complement to national strategies, local governments can integrate diaspora engagement into local development plans and develop their own targeted diaspora initiatives that can support locally-relevant objectives. Some examples of this include work done by Senegalese municipalities to develop local migration profiles to better understand their diasporas; Morocco's work to train local officials on pension access challenges faced by elderly diaspora seeking to retire to Morocco; Gujarat’s recognition of prominent overseas Gujaratis through the Jewels of Gujarat award (awarded to current UK Home Secretary Priti Patel in 2015 (see picture below)); and IFAD-supported work in Mali enabling the diaspora to crowdfund rural development initiatives in their region of origin. In Ireland, the government has even funded counties to develop local diaspora engagement strategies. In fact, much of Ireland’s much vaunted diaspora engagement work has been at the local level. The Global Limerick Network, for example, has been credited with attracting overseas politicians to visit Limerick County.  Diaspora officials at national level need to consult sub-nationally to ensure a joined up national-local approach, while looking at what support local municipalities might need. Local governments need to be proactive in working through some of the steps that national-level diaspora engagement often requires (get to know your diaspora, build trust with them, and then engage) in order to determine the added value of diaspora engagement. 

Tip No. 9: It’s Not All About the Money When we’ve worked with governments on diaspora engagement, we frequently come across the term “tapping into”. “How do we ‘tap into’ our diaspora? How do we maximise their development contributions? How do we increase diaspora investment?” These are all common questions and understandable preoccupations which speak to national policy priorities and the very real potential of diaspora investment. But such an approach risks putting the cart before the horse. 

Let’s go back to the basics of diaspora engagement: get to know your diaspora, build trust with them, and then engage. While this is not a linear process, effective (and high-yielding) engagement is about long-term relationship-building. It’s about building the ties between a country and her diaspora. And when we talk “diaspora”, it’s vital to clarify whom we are referring to (we advocate the widest possible definition that covers migrants and their descendants). 

Many diasporans do not want to be seen as cash cows. They’re also more willing to give and invest when they have confidence in their country and when they perceive their country to be on their side in their times of need. A central theme of Ireland’s diaspora engagement has been supporting the Irish abroad in times of need. And contrast how France offers its nationals political representation and health coverage abroad and how Morocco’s Operation Marhaba (“Welcome” in English) physically welcomes back overseas Moroccans returning for summer holidays (see picture below) with the UK government’s approach of cutting voting rights and access to the National Health Service for citizens no longer deemed residents. Diaspora engagement is a two-way street and in the long run for governments, addressing diaspora vulnerabilities might be just as profitable as tapping into diaspora investment. 


Tip No. 10: Begin or Build The final tip is also our conclusion. Governments who are active in diaspora engagement must continue to build. Those who are not need to begin. You risk being left behind if you don’t and here’s why:

Diaspora engagement has a pertinence and power for today and the future that exists in very few policy terrains. In local, regional, and global landscapes that are being ripped apart by contests of difference, diaspora engagement is a vehicle of purpose to set a new movement to work for the betterment of humanity along with the advancement of societies at home and abroad. 

In many ways, diaspora engagement has arrived at the moment it has been waiting for. We must act accordingly with creativity, courage and a little bit of common sense. Stay well and reach out if you would like to learn more.  Loksan and Martin

Martin completed his PhD on Diaspora Strategies & Conflict Transformation at the Clinton Institute (University College Dublin) where his work focused on diaspora networks, media, philanthropy and politics. He was also a visiting fellow at UNU-MERIT and is currently affiliated with The Networking Institute which provides teaching, training, and consultancy on networking, philanthropy & fundraising, public speaking, & diaspora engagement.  He has trained, spoken, and written on diaspora engagement for a range of public and private sector clients across Africa, Caribbean, Central Asia, Central and Latin America, Europe, Middle East, North America and the United Kingdom. He has a wide publication record on diaspora engagement including several diaspora policies and strategies. He also serves in an advisory/board capacity for African Diaspora Network based in Silicon Valley, Ireland Reaching Out, and in the near future, TURKISHWin (Turkish Women's International Network). 

Outside work, you are most likely to find him in London supporting his favourite soccer team, Tottenham Hotspur, or having a beer with friends trying to get over the disappointment of said football team!

Loksan is an independent migration and development expert with extensive experience working with the United Nations, governments, and non-profits in research, project management, capacity-building and technical assistance across Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific.

He holds a BA in economics from McGill University and an MSc in public policy and management from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he has also lectured on migration policy. He also happens to be a fan of Tottenham Hotspur FC.

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