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date: 20 March 2018

Diasporas and Development

Summary and Keywords

Global restructuring across the developing world can have profound, if uneven, political, economic, and social consequences. As such, the relationship between diasporas and development is necessarily complex. The diaspora spans all of the local, national, regional, and global levels, its networks and communities set apart from other migration flows in terms both of geography and time. It is contended that these groupings are constituted by three main elements: dispersion across or within state borders; orientation to a “homeland” as a source of value, identity and loyalty; and boundary maintenance, involving the preservation of a distinctive identity vis-à-vis a host society over an extended time period. Yet each of these core elements has been contested, most especially that of continued loyalty to a homeland and an enduring transnationalism that evokes a regularized range of interactions between the host country and homeland. Moreover, there is no one paradigmatic concept of diaspora. While none of the interpretations in the mainstream scholarship is necessarily wrong, they tend to be grounded in a very basic categorization of diasporic identifications and groupings, thus leading to new questions about how to tackle the issue of diaspora in the development process. And although many of the central traits of diasporas are apparently well understood, new interpretations of the shifting politics of the diaspora in the context of broader liberal processes of globalization are needed.

Keywords: migration, globalization, diaspora, global development, state boundaries, transnationalism, diasporic activities, homeland, host society, politics of the diaspora


The exceptional growth in significance of the diaspora as a development actor during the past decade poses a range of complex analytical and policy challenges. Changing migration flows and networks in the developing world have ensured that diasporas remain at the center of policy debates, with the links between migration, development, and security coming under particular scrutiny since September 2001 and the end of the Cold War. Migrant numbers have continued to expand globally with the United Nations (UN) estimating that there were 191 million migrants worldwide in 2005, up from 176 million in 2000 (United Nations Secretariat 2006). These rising figures have not only given rise to disquiet at the imbalance of migration flows, in particular net skilled emigration from developing world countries (Dumont and Lemaitre 2005), but are also suggestive of the vast, largely untapped potential of certain migration flows in facilitating development. Most obviously, it is the diaspora as well as the dramatic increase in remittances from migrant workers to developing countries, which are estimated to have reached US$206 billion in 2006 (World Bank 2006), that have attracted the greatest attention.

That said, the relationship between diasporas and development is necessarily complex. The diaspora spans all of the local, national, regional, and global levels, its networks and communities set apart from other migration flows in terms both of geography and time. It is contended that these groupings are constituted by three main elements: dispersion across or within state borders; orientation to a “homeland” as a source of value, identity and loyalty; and boundary maintenance, involving the preservation of a distinctive identity vis-à-vis a host society over an extended time period (Brubaker 2005:5). Yet each of these core elements has been contested, most especially that of continued loyalty to a homeland and an enduring transnationalism that evokes a regularized range of interactions between the host country and homeland (Kearney 1995; Portes 1999; 2003). Thus it is contended that transnational practices “may be constant, periodic, or just occasional; likewise, they may occur consistently between multiple social domains – politics, economics, or culture – or may be limited to just one” (Waldinger 2008:5). Equally, the notion of a homogeneous grouping with a sustained, unique identity has been strongly critiqued for the lack of diversity it implies (Anthias 1998:564), given the many internal divisions and subgroups that inevitably make up any such grouping.

Nonetheless, during this period, the relevance of migration as a means of promoting regeneration and development across the developing world has become increasingly widely accepted. Certainly, the Chinese and Indian diasporas have recorded prominent developmental successes, where the contributions of typically highly skilled diasporic networks have stretched from technology transfers, most notably in the case of India’s software industry (Kapur 2001; D’Costa 2003), supplying foreign direct investment (Saxenian 2002; Smart and Hsu 2004), shaping development strategies, and even promoting liberal economic reforms (Kapur 2004). According to the World Bank, India and China were the top remittance-receiving countries during 2007 receiving US$27 billion and US$25.7 billion respectively. Mexico (US$25 billion), the Philippines (US$17 billion), Bangladesh (US$6.4 billion), Lebanon (US$5.5 billion) and Nigeria (US$3.3 billion) were likewise among the top remittance-receiving countries. However, as a percentage of GDP, the top remittance-receiving countries during 2006 included Tajikistan (36%), Tonga (32%), Lesotho (24%), Lebanon (23%), the West Bank and Gaza (15%), the Gambia (13%) and Uganda (9%) (World Bank 2008). The Chinese diaspora has provided the bulk (approximately 70%) of inward investment since 1979, which totaled US$72 billion during 2005, making China the largest recipient in the developing world and among the world’s top three recipients (UNCTAD 2006:12). These inflows are held in large part responsible for the competitiveness of Chinese firms and the provision of foreign exchange.

In the wake of these accomplishments, the governments of other developing world countries have proven keen to emulate this version of what has been termed “diaspora capitalism” (Lever-Tracy et al. 1996). Most notably, Rwanda launched its development program Vision 2020 proposing a strong role for its expatriate population in the creation of a knowledge-based economy (Mwangi 2006), while Ghana’s Joseph Project encourages investment and technology transfer, and the South African government has put considerable funding and political energies into enlisting the efforts of their diaspora. Within the Asian region, the governments of South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Thailand are developing diaspora networks to promote joint development projects to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and capacity development (Wescott and Brinkerhoff 2006). More recently, a range of actors including not only states but international, pan-continental, and regional organizations as well as non-government organizations (NGOs) and capital have begun to engage with the development potential of migration flows and networks.

The extent of this interest can be gauged by the historically unprecedented High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development at the UN General Assembly during September 2006. According to Resolution 60/227 “International Migration and Development,” which was adopted by the UN General Assembly during April 2006, the aim of the High-Level Dialogue was to “discuss the overall theme of the multidimensional aspects of international migration and development in order to identify appropriate ways and means to maximize its development benefits and minimize its negative impacts.” Dialogue has continued in the shape of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), involving both these state and nonstate actors, in Belgium during July 2007 and the Philippines during October 2008 to “enhance the positive impact of migration on development.” In keeping with this paradigmatic shift, the African Union (AU) characterized migration as a “critical challenge of the new millennium” (African Union 2006a). Elsewhere the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) has called upon the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “promote a regional strategy for managing migration in a coordinated and integrated manner” in order to build a more integrated ASEAN community (UNESCAP 2007).

As this illustrates, progress towards addressing the benefits of migration for development and poverty reduction among different states and regions has been mixed indeed. While certain migration flows and networks can make unique contributions to their home countries, converting these into tangible development synergies and benefits is not straightforward. In part this reflects the diversity of the visions shared by these different stakeholders although there is an overwhelming consensus, as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General remarked to a UNESCAP ministerial meeting during 2006, that: “It is time to pay more attention to better managed migration” (Hak-Su 2006). Thus it is predicted that diasporas will potentially have “substantial long term effects on the economic goals of recipient countries” (World Bank 2007:178); are capable of empowering women, boosting household finances, and improving children’s education and health (UNESCAP 2006); and, “if harnessed properly […] [can contribute to] social welfare, cultural enrichment, health promotion, and political stability” (UNECA 2006:108). In other ways, the unevenness of policy efforts to promote the diaspora in development activities to date is similarly indicative of distinctive local political cultures and the nature of governance in different places.

The sheer diversity of these anticipated development outcomes has been further complicated by expectations that diasporas can play an important and positive role in post-conflict reconstructions (IOM 2002:30; Koser 2003; IOM 2006:11–14), although this is not clear-cut (Collier et al. 2003:85). Building political stability and ending violence in these settings is controversial, not least because the impact of diaspora networks and income is recognized as highly contextual so that the relationship between migration, development, and security is “not uniform in its outcomes” (Davies 2008:216). The result of these various policy shifts has been to depict migration flows as an important axis of economic and political programs aimed at promoting a progressive development agenda. In itself, this expansion into the development mainstream is suggestive both of evolving global and local forms of development governance, as well as changing forms of power and authority. A far broader understanding of this new agenda, and the restructuring of relations between key social forces and the state-society formation, is required to expose the developmental dynamics of the diaspora. This essay seeks to do so by locating the growing debate on diasporas and development in a broader political economy context to provide a historical understanding of how the diaspora, and its contribution to these development outcomes, is shaped by wider global conditions and distinctive local political cultures. To address these issues, the essay examines the profound, if uneven, political, economic, and social consequences of global restructuring across the developing world and its impacts on the opportunities and constraints vis-à-vis the different actors that ultimately shape migration and diasporic activities. In particular, it considers the significance of systems of global governance and the changing nature of stateness in order to evaluate whether diaspora networks and income represent a genuine opportunity to address long-standing development challenges.

Conceptualizing the Diaspora–Development Nexus

There is no one paradigmatic diaspora. While none of the interpretations in the mainstream scholarship is necessarily wrong, they tend to be grounded in a very basic categorization of diasporic identitifications and groupings. The earliest example of a Jewish diaspora consisting of Jews forced from their original homeland has been supplanted by a spectrum of diasporas whose ambiguities confound traditional analytical categories and call for conceptual stretching if a more sophisticated understanding of their politics is to be reached. For development purposes, diasporic networks and transfers cannot be considered the norm, but rather the remit of certain subgroups within the community. Rigid distinctions do not capture the full extent of the unevenness of these connections:

While international migrants from Latin America to the United States do maintain a broad range of “here–there” connections, they do so in a variety of ways. As a rule, cross-border activities and exchanges do not cluster together. Thus, the sending of remittances is most extensively undertaken by new arrivals, with frequency diminishing as settlement in the United States grows. By contrast, better settled migrants, possessing secure legal status, are more likely to engage in those cross-border activities involving physical presence in the home country. For all these reasons, transnationalism is a rare condition of being and transmigrants are an uncommon class of persons.

(Waldinger 2008:24)

Despite this, local political dynamics and interests have for the most part been ignored in the scholarship even while a number of studies have confirmed the usefulness of adopting a country-specific approach that recognizes the complexities of this actor (IOM 2005b:11). In short, this restricted understanding has all but obscured the significance of context.

With the advent of liberal restructuring, many global and local spaces remain unexplored in this equation. Power, and in particular the unfolding transformations of power in the globalized world order, is key to framing the shifting politics of the diaspora. Here the diaspora is best understood as

both a structural and subjective condition determined by historical forces and by the prevailing structure of power relations. That is, a balance must be struck between the agency (or subjectivity) of the diaspora and the structural backdrop against which it is realised […] there must be a balance between these interconnected structural and subjective dimensions so that a proper comprehension of the diaspora within the migration-development nexus can be realised.

(Davies 2007:61–2)

Not only is it linked to a range of power relations, interests, and political agendas, but the diaspora is a far from homogeneous grouping, with factors including class, ethnicity, race, generation, political affiliation, and gender proving important in the emergence and reproduction of diasporic identities and activities against this wider structural backdrop (Davies 2007:72). For the most part, then, the dominant debates have tended to concentrate narrowly on but a few elements of this relationship. These are typically conceived through a dichotomous frame which views distinctions between structure and agency, state and globalization, local and global as sacrosanct. This is due to limitations in both conceptual and empirical understanding which explicitly refute shifting forms of power, authority, and governance.

Symptomatic of this, for example, is the fact that much of the migration-development scholarship has been unable to move beyond an empirical focus on remittances despite some clear exceptions (Conway and Potter 2007; Potter and Conway 2008). The developmental impact of these flows is ambiguous, if well acknowledged. Nevertheless, it is questionable to draw general conclusions that hold true for all remittance-receiving regions, and for all senders and recipients of remittances (IOM 2006:12). Earlier scholarship depicted the importance of remittances in terms of family maintenance and improvement of housing, conspicuous consumption, and, lastly, productive activities including the improvement of land productivity (Nyberg-Sorensen et al. 2002:12). Since then studies have suggested that migration and remittances significantly reduce the level, depth, and severity of poverty in the developing world (Adams and Page 2005), and are widely invested, which tends to promote growth and facilitate poverty reduction (Quartey 2006; World Bank 2006). A variety of forms of nonsubsistence remittances including business, housing, education, and most recently funerals have been identified (Mazzucato et al. 2006). But more empirical investigation is necessary given the fact that migration can strengthen preexisting inequalities, form new social hierarchies and may not be “developmental for the whole, or even the majority” (Bracking 2003:641). Other issues including distinctive local political economy and governance contexts, conflict dynamics, structural constraints, state consolidation, and the relevant development policies themselves have been almost wholly overlooked.

There are, then, a new set of questions to be asked about this nexus that relate to the wider context which facilitates or hinders diasporic engagement with development processes. One scholar has warned that the “universalisation of diaspora, paradoxically, means the disappearance of diaspora” (Brubaker 2005:3). These are not straightforward relationships, and in that sense the multiplicity of diaspora actors needs to be conceptualized against the realities of power on the African continent and within the Asian and South American regions, as well as newer forms of development governance. The appearance and increasing prominence of diasporas alongside other nonstate actors within this changed development regime over the past decade will be explored below. That globalization is fundamentally different in these developing world regions is now widely recognized. What this highlights is that the “particular socioeconomic formations within polities are different in each state and need to be comparatively studied in order to deduce the manner by which each adapts to and is adapted by global processes” (Taylor 2005:1035). Rather than conceptualizing diaspora networks and flows as existing within a policy and structural vacuum, then, they should rather be viewed as part of an ongoing reconfiguration of power, authority, and governance on each of the local, national, regional, and global levels. Such a conception opens up a vastly expanded range of trajectories and consequences of the diaspora as a development actor.

Diasporas and Globalization

Although many of the central traits of diasporas are apparently well understood, new interpretations of the shifting politics of the diaspora in the context of broader liberal processes of globalization are needed. For while there are some common characteristics and shared features, each diaspora, and the various subgroups therein, is unique. There are certain of these traits that challenge widely held assumptions about the role diasporas can play in development and security outcomes. Given that the main body of scholarship has not yet fully engaged with the dynamics of the diaspora within this globalized world order, this section will focus upon building a more expansive conceptualization of the role of diasporas in development. Here the changing geopolitical context and dominant development agenda figures highly. Thereafter, the distinctive local political cultures in which these actors operate will be addressed. By adopting this strongly contextual approach, it is anticipated that the politics behind divergent diasporic engagement in terms of capacity and mobilization – and thus their management for policy intervention purposes – can be properly framed.

A Changing Globalized Political Economy

Since the end of the Cold War and in the aftermath of 9/11, the version of globalization which first rose to prominence during the 1980s has come of age. No longer simply an economic doctrine promoting the free market and Washington Consensus, neoliberal processes are “in the process of being transformed through securitization, as global forces penetrate not only economic but also security policies” (Carmody 2007:6). During these decades, the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) have pursued a “broader and more intrusive agenda,” which has seen a dramatic rise in their involvement in the internal affairs of developing countries (Williams 2004:105). This liberal philosophy is sponsored by several global institutions including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), G7, G22, European Union (EU) and various UN agencies whose policies variously promote sound macroeconomic fundamentals, the liberalization of trade and finance, and the development of private enterprise as solutions to the problems of underdevelopment. Nearly a decade after its introduction, and in the wake of various crises of legitimacy, the neoliberal project was remodeled somewhat in order to confront the early failures of structural adjustment and conditionality. Instead, the so-called Post-Washington Consensus approach, which emerged in the late 1990s with the introduction of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) approach by the World Bank, strengthens the state by encouraging institution building and good governance. In an awkward blend of “national developmentalism” and “neoliberal economic policies,” the state is to provide certain services, most notably education and healthcare, and to aid with the development of infrastructure. It would, however, be mistaken to regard these shifts either as evidence of a broader framework to address pressing development issues including income distribution, poverty, and self-sustained growth, or as an attempt to address fundamental asymmetries of power at the local, national, and global levels (Onis and Senses 2005). To the contrary, building liberal structures of governance, albeit now with the involvement of a far wider range of regional, nonstate, and even private actors in various development partnerships, remains at the heart of the liberal project.

The geostrategic environment has likewise proven important in terms of reshaping development paradigms and engagement with different developing world regions. New security imperatives have become part of the rethinking of development assistance since the 1990s as the link between poverty and security was made explicit (Woods 2005:394), and assumed a new urgency in the wake of the global war on terror (Duffield 2002; 2005; 2007). Today development policy seamlessly combines the issues of development, democracy, and peace, pushing international development assistance into a “more coercive form challenging established principles of territorial sovereignty” (Hettne and Soderbaum 2005:451). Current peace-building practice is founded on assumptions which “adhere to and are conditional on a universal liberal model which is not negotiable” (Richmond 2004:88). The central tenets of the liberal project include democratization, human rights, and neoliberal development, and invoke a clear if evolving nexus between security and development. Thus today the phenomenon of the “failed state” has captured policy makers’ attention in both the United States and the EU as a grave security threat.

Against this backdrop, there has been an overt securitization of migration flows and, in particular, an awareness of the potential for diaspora networks to support and even generate conflict both in their homelands and host countries (Tirman 2004). Problematically, however, the available empirical evidence suggests diasporas can act both as “peace wreckers” and “peace makers” (Smith 2007). The “failing” states of Zimbabwe and Somalia are a case in point. The latter’s economy is more dependent on remittances than any other in the world (Maimbo 2006), but these are seemingly used for “constructive purposes rather than to subsidise conflict” (World Bank 2005:25). On the other hand, in Zimbabwe the diaspora has proven crucial in preventing economic collapse and inadvertently promoted the longevity of Mugabe’s regime by leading to “an internationalized, informalized system of social welfare based in personalized migrant remittances” (Bracking and Sachikonye 2006:40). It is estimated that one-third of Zimbabwe’s population (4 million Zimbabweans) have gone abroad for work and their remittances have now replaced tobacco as the country’s single largest source of foreign earnings (Guardian 2008). In practical terms, then, the workings of the global liberal project and distinctive local political cultures supply the context against which the engagement of the diaspora, in particular development and security outcomes, should be assessed.

Globalization and the Developing World

While the impact of this liberal restructuring is global, it has been felt with particular resonance in regions of the developing world. Its legacy has been perhaps most profound in Africa where the implementation of liberal reforms occurred virtually continent-wide, transforming social relations and every relationship of power from the state down to the local level. Even today, African political elites are “contributing to making neoliberalism accepted as the ‘only’ macroeconomic framework and development strategy within which they can work” (Taylor and Nel 2002:177). Yet it is now widely accepted that this reformist project has been perhaps the most significant reason for the continued failure to redress the marginalization of sub-Saharan Africa. While the continent has enjoyed high economic growth over the last six years, this has for the most part been concentrated among oil-exporting countries. There are few suggestions that it will translate into long-term, sustained economic growth and diversification (OECD 2008). Equally, sub-Saharan Africa’s share of global trade (excluding South Africa) has fallen to 0.3 percent of global exports in the face of a dramatic rise in international trade since 1990 (UNDP 2005:117). Most tellingly, income inequality is rising in the region, which has important implications for the sustainability of the current growth rates (UNECA 2008:110).

By contrast, in many Asian states, the Cold War and lower levels of international debt left state planning and industrialization virtually intact so that the “ideology of free trade fared far less well” (Harrison and Stoneman 2007:222). Each of the newly industrializing countries (NICs) used selective state interventions in key export sectors to aid successful industrialization. Here the transformation of relations between key social forces and state-society formations was perhaps then less pronounced, with industrializing processes supported by significant policy autonomy and existing institutional strengths (Quibria 2002:78). Several decades of exceptional economic growth have seen GDP growing annually by more than 7 percent on average between 1990 and 2003, with the region’s share of world trade doubling over the same period to 21 percent of global exports (UNDP 2006:3, 31). Despite bringing genuine improvements to an array of development indicators, the region is still marked by significant intraregional income inequality, which has worsened in some countries including China, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka (UNDP 2006:38). It would appear that gains in poverty reduction have thus far been driven by rapid economic growth that has not always been accompanied by improved income distribution or necessarily proven pro-poor (Quibria 2002:13). Nonetheless, there are still indications of genuine policy autonomy and it is clear that today,

popular pressure is pushing governments into experiments in economic nationalism, not a radical rejection of global economic integration, but a reshaping of relationships in an attempt to secure national interests and, in some cases, to devote more resources to welfare.

(Grugel et al. 2008:499–517)

Indeed, Malaysia’s achievements in terms of the reduction of poverty and income inequality in an era of trade liberalization using pro-poor domestic policies are illustrative in this regard (UNDP Malaysia 2006).

The nature of contemporary globalization in different regions, then, varies considerably. That said, the complexities of this globalization are not always well told vis-à-vis the dynamics of diasporas. As the figures on rising income inequality in both Asia and Africa demonstrate, there are clearly winners and losers in this equation. Any reconfiguration of power on such a scale involves

the relations – class, economic, social, gender, financial and political – that are generated by the impulses associated with the globe-wide diffusion of capital’s power in our current epoch.

(Taylor 2005:1028)

As a result it becomes important to examine how local contexts and the new global division of labor and power (GDLP) “merge and interpenetrate” to shape migration patterns (Mittelman 2000:64). For example, the development of contemporary African diasporas demonstrates that there is a historical relationship between the structure of capitalism and diasporic opportunities (Mohan and Zack-Williams 2002:211). In particular, the position of different diasporic constituencies and subgroups should be analyzed more closely in light of the fundamentally uneven nature of the opportunities and constraints provided by the globalized neoliberal consensus. This is because:

Rather than absolute poverty, a certain level of socioeconomic development, combined with relative deprivation in the form of global inequality of development opportunities, seems to be the most important cause of migration.

(De Haas 2005:1271)

The more complex, globalized inequalities at the core of this division that constitutes the contemporary restructuring of global capitalism, production, and social relations means that a core workforce of highly skilled people able to take advantage of opportunities afforded by the global economy rests at the top of this new hierarchy (Cox 1999:9). Different subgroups are then differently constrained or empowered therein. Mittelman characterizes those able to take advantage of liberalization and increased access to foreign markets as the “globalizers” (Mittelman 2000:3–4), while equally perceptive toward those subjects (trade union movements, the unemployed and underemployed, and the marginalized) who are to some degree excluded by these globalizing processes.

Migration Patterns in a Globalizing Era

Migration patterns have become increasingly complex in this era of increasing globalization, yet remain defined by strong regional characteristics. In this respect, Asia’s vast migration flows are marked by three distinctive features: (1) migration is a more legally organized industry than in other world regions involving many migration-promoting government programs; (2) several countries are at the same time significant exporters and importers of foreign labor; and (3) the population size of the region’s main sending states is considerable, with China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines accounting for nearly half of the world’s population (IOM 2005c:103). One of the most significant recent shifts in this region has been the increase in labor migration to intraregional destinations, echoed by an increase in irregular migration and the feminization of this migrant labor (IOM 2005c:109). Asia provides 14 percent of the world’s total migrant stock and is currently the most important source of family and authorized economic migration to the majority of the world’s immigrant receiving countries and regions (IOM 2005c:103). China, the Philippines, and India are among the largest source countries.

Although African migration has been marked by a similar diversification of migrant movements, internal migration has long been a strong feature of the region. Conflict and political instability have helped ensure that the majority of migration in sub-Saharan Africa – where there were approximately 13 million refugees and asylum seekers, 21.8 million internally displaced persons, a total of 34.8 million uprooted and 4.28 million newly uprooted people around the world during 2003 (IOM 2005c:34) – remains cross-border. At the same time, international migration has become more dynamic as the brain drain has strengthened, most especially in the health care sector where it is causing significant problems for countries including Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Ghana. It is estimated that approximately 23,000 African professionals leave the continent each year for better wages and prospects overseas, and that around one-third of the most qualified African nationals have settled outside their country of origin (World Bank 2000). Almost half the highly skilled populations of Mozambique, Ghana, and Tanzania depart (Dumont and Lemaitre 2005).

As this illustrates, each region’s global economic integration and unique migration patterns pose a range of different development challenges. One of the most pressing concerns appears to be that global processes and hierarchies can accentuate existing class, kin, educational, or other inequalities. In such contexts, certain countries, regions, groupings, and/or individuals are better integrated into the globalized economy. For sure, some people are able to move and adopt migration as a livelihood strategy, potentially adding to the income and opportunities of their particular household and thus reducing poverty. But there are others whose

social, cultural, economic and political exclusion make them unable to move and those who choose not to move because of, for example, social and cultural ties which bind them to their home place, physical immobility, gender and age and who subsequently stay put albeit in an environment characterized by out-migration. The absence of certain types of social capital and knowledge about other places and networks or contacts with prospective employers may also limit the extent to which migration is an option available to poor households. The level of access to and control over human, social, cultural, political, economic and environmental capital characterizes the intensity of exclusion from, or inclusion in, processes of migration. Furthermore, others may stay behind because they do not perceive advantages to be gained by migrating.

(Kothari 2003:645–6)

Staying put or migrating can simultaneously both increase and alleviate poverty depending on the interaction between individual agency and the wider structural backdrop against which this association is experienced. Migration is not then always the solution to enhanced development outcomes, and may indeed contribute to existing environmental, economic, and security difficulties, so much so that it should be accepted as having contradictory political, economic, and social effects.

The Importance of Context

It would appear that context dictates the extent to which the link between migration and these development outcomes in terms of diaspora engagement is sound, or liable to be disrupted and ultimately even unsuccessful. By moving toward a wider contextual focus, this essay aims to unravel the complex relations between global conditions and distinctive local political cultures in accounting for the developmental dynamics of the diaspora. The nature of stateness and local forms of power and authority in sub-Saharan Africa are instructive in this regard. Thus at the start of the twenty-first century, it was claimed that “Africa and the African diaspora stand fused in ways that have immense political, economic, and social possibilities for the new millennium” (Akyeampong 2000:214). Doubtless a similar case could be made for other regions. Yet one implication of the new geopolitics in Africa has been a strengthening of support for certain political elites who “are again protected and strengthened regardless of their domestic governance shortcomings” (Boas and Dunn 2007:20). Certainly, diaspora networks and income have had a role to play here (Kothari 2003:608; Davies 2008), even as the continuities evident in the nature of the African state and exercise of power themselves contribute to migration characterized both by this crisis of stateness and the politics of exclusion which has seen the size of the African diaspora increase considerably.

As the continent’s links with the globalized economy continue to increase at the same time as this broadening of space at the local level, so a more careful exploration of the constitutive effect of the diaspora in terms of development outcomes is required both here and in other regions. It is suggested that diasporas span both the local and global levels and can best be conceptualized as transboundary phenomena which

link global, regional, national and local forces through structures, networks and discourses that have a wide ranging impact, both benign and malign, on Africa [and elsewhere], as well as on the international community itself. Above all, they play a major role in creating, transforming, and destroying forms of order and authority.

(Callaghy et al. 2001:5)

It is not possible to separate, other than analytically, the various internal and external “structures and relations” in the emergence and continued evolution of these formations. However, these are probably the most overlooked aspect of current efforts to mobilize diaspora networks and income for different policy goals. Recent decades have demonstrated that the difficulties of meeting development and security challenges in developing world countries are immense. Viewed thus, not only does there need to be a greater analytical emphasis on the system of global governance, but also the distinctive political economy of particular regions. Without this context, the increasing reputation of diasporas within a transformed global development regime and their developmental possibilities cannot be fully understood.

The Shifting Politics of the Diaspora

Analyzing the developmental dynamics of the diaspora means that it is necessary to bring context back in, but the sheer wideness of the spectrum of contemporary diasporas and diasporic activities complicates such broad contours of analysis. This section aims to develop a conceptual understanding of this spectrum of diasporic engagement in terms both of mobilization and capacity. Although the associated empirical discussion will focus primarily on the African continent and Asian region, it is intended that it extract lessons which might likewise apply to different geographic contexts. Because of the intensity and diversity of the external interventions and development agendas carried out by the international community in these regions during the past three decades, they are held to be generally illustrative of the constitutive effect of diasporas as well as the consequences of this involvement. Where this framework differs is in the status it accords diasporas as transboundary relations and ultimately – depending on context – formations, capable of achieving certain development and security outcomes. Nonetheless, this complex actor needs more careful examination if the considerable degree of optimism, increasingly tempered by pessimism, which typically greets discussion about its developmental capacities is to be settled.

Rethinking the Dynamics of the Diaspora

The foundations upon which this rethinking of the politics of the diaspora is based emerges from the reconceptualization of diasporas as transboundary phenomena, and will be evaluated more fully below. Firstly, it accords considerable significance to far-reaching if uneven processes of liberal globalization. Particular diaspora networks and subgroups have been variously empowered by the economic, territorial, and cultural resources that this profound structural change has wrought. In this way, globalization should be considered as one of the “foremost explanations for the structural realignment and possible reconfiguration of diasporas” (Davies 2007:67). Secondly, the advent of a new development agenda and structures of global governance has allowed nonstate actors such as diasporas to acquire legitimacy, capacity, and status in dealing directly with issues including poverty reduction, conflict prevention, and democratization. This fundamental shift has been in part triggered by a widening, radicalization and reinvention of development as a strategic tool of conflict resolution and social reconstruction (Duffield 2002; 2007), where “diaspora institutions, inter-organisational flows, people, commodities, skills and political capital” (Henry and Mohan 2003:611), now matter. And, finally, it charts the emergence and potential of these transboundary phenomena not simply in terms of their hybridity which, while it counts, is not telling vis-à-vis specific development outcomes. The transboundary conceptualization enables a focus beyond the orthodox reliance on dichotomies (state and globalization, local and global, public and private) which have dominated so much of the scholarship to date. Instead, diasporic activities should be analytically linked to the unprecedented global restructuring of social relations, and diasporas viewed as actors capable of a variety of political effects at any number of intersections of local, national, global, and other forces.

The global character of the current world order means that the structural context within which politics occurs has been transformed. Indeed, the preceding section demonstrated the significance of this changed backdrop whereby it was established that diasporas are both an integral constituent of and contributor toward liberal restructuring. Over the last three decades as globalized hierarchies have expanded, so particular patterns of labor mobility, opportunity, and exclusion have emerged in a range of local contexts. Neoliberal transformations have shaped conflict dynamics, local political interests, state consolidation, the rise of new elites, the renewal of institutions, and development policies, as well as the organization of local forms of power and authority. It is precisely these contexts which are key to understanding the manifold motivations for migration, the composition of various diasporic constituencies, subgroups, networks, and identifications, and which of these, if any, are most salient in terms of developmental obligations. For many, migration represents at best a survival strategy to escape economic, security, or ecological pressures; a means of seeking benefits from outside of widespread informal support systems; and even of using particular skills in the most difficult of circumstances, as the “insurgent diaspora” of West African guerrilla fighters attests (Human Rights Watch 2005, cited in Boas and Dunn 2007:30). For others more privileged, their mobility and participation in a globalized skilled labour market are reason enough for departure, and the size of African-, Asian-, and South American-born populations living overseas is large and growing.

An Expanding Role for the Diaspora?

At the same time, and at the heart of this changed context, is a development regime which accords diasporas a not inconsiderable and growing role in promoting regeneration and a development program which aims at democracy, good governance, human rights, political stability, and economic growth. This policy push has thus far been most pronounced on the African continent, where recommendations have been made to establish a common policy on migration and development at national, continental, and interregional levels (African Union 2006b), and factor migration into national and sectoral development initiatives (IOM 2005b:79). More broadly, new forms of development governance have placed growing emphasis on nonstate actors to stimulate development, and most recently to foster stability and state consolidation. To begin with, it was primarily NGOs which were charged with substituting for state services and easing the social costs of adjustment programs, but the political significance of nonstate or private actors grew hugely in the aftermath of neoliberalism’s legitimacy crisis in Africa and South America during the 1980s and 1990s (Carmody 2007:4–5). Now at the forefront of a revised neoliberal ethos and new development aid regime, NGOs, civil society organizations, private security companies, multinational companies, and diasporas alongside states and donors are all intended to contribute to a range of multilevel development “partnerships.”

Casting the net this widely has led to claims that the development regime has effectively been privatized under the auspices of the good governance agenda. Processes of economic and political liberalization are viewed as conceptually allied, and an array of private actors are now heavily involved in development initiatives, which are, in turn, contributing to new forms of development governance. Thus the multilateral allocation and distribution of foreign aid has been one notable casualty of these shifts in the global development agenda, with major donors choosing instead to “create their own new mechanisms and pursue their own priorities” (Woods 2005:393). This transformation can be clearly seen in the emergence of substantive policy interest in the migration–development nexus, which stretches to encompass all manner of concerns including the role of diasporas in supporting development and security outcomes.

The relevance of these migration flows in terms of their contribution to developmental problems and as a means of promoting regeneration has become widely accepted (De Haas 2005). Nevertheless, given that development is perhaps the most important challenge facing the countries of Asia and the Pacific, South America and Africa, there is no clear role for these flows and networks. Arguably there is little historical precedent for the singular role currently pursued by the diaspora in Rwanda, where the government is led by and largely composed of returnees (Davies 2008). In addition, there is considerable ambiguity about the role that diasporas play in the transformation of war-torn societies where

the impact of diaspora and migrant remittances on conflict is highly context-specific: it can fuel conflict but it can also act as a brake on violence and mitigate destabilising socioeconomic tensions and divisions within a society.

(Berdal 2005:694)

This lack of clarity has meant that there is a tendency either to exaggerate or to underestimate the capacity of migration flows. Local dynamics and different political, economic, and governance contexts are seldom considered even while studies have confirmed the validity of adopting a country-specific approach to the study of development, security, and migration (IOM 2005b:11).

Underscoring this point, the challenges of socioeconomic transformation, reconstruction, and sustainable peace building are myriad. The dynamics of the development regime mean that different countries with different material capabilities, located in different world regions, with different histories and state–society relationships engage with a variety of development issues (Payne 2005:245), all of which shape the likelihood of successful outcomes. As transboundary phenomena, diasporas cannot be analyzed apart from these dynamics. Indeed, in raising the significance of context, this analysis points toward the efficacy of diaspora subgroups and networks not only in terms of their transformative potential and accountability, but also in respect of tensions and overlaps between their various functions and the employment of their resources. Thus in Africa, the significance of the patrimonial networks and uneven spread of globalized liberalism which make up the continent’s distinctive political culture is not to be underestimated. In the case of Zimbabwe:

Remittance income primarily enters and expands the informal economy creating a liberalised market which escapes, and thus weakens, authoritarian state control. However, informally held monies also represent a potential for expanding formal fiscal revenue available to the state for welfare provision, which is currently being lost.

(Kothari 2003:608)

Neither of these contradictory political effects can be satisfactorily explained without recourse to this context.

The Spectrum of Diasporic Activities

In keeping with this analytical focus, the conceptualization of diasporas as transboundary phenomena offers a more nuanced purchase on the complexities of context. From this perspective, the developmental and other political possibilities of such phenomena are to be understood in terms of their connections with existing structures and relations of power. As might be anticipated, then, there are distinct regional variations between the character of African, Asian, and South American diasporas even while they share common features. Without an understanding of the realities of power in local, national, regional, and global politics, there can be no understanding of the dynamics of transboundary relations and formations. This means that where diasporas do demonstrate considerable political effects, this does not necessarily signal a concomitant weakening of state or institutional power – rather that newer forms of power and authority, and overlaps between each, might be emerging. Equally, the diversity of these phenomena, which stretch from illicit and trading networks, through political alliances, social movements, militias, distribution systems, and even ethnic groups, cannot be discounted.

Expressed another way, transboundary phenomena are best identified on a spectrum which stretches from mere transboundary relations to genuine transboundary formations. The most important criterion for determining position therein is the extent to which particular diaspora subgroups, networks, flows, and institutions are integrated into and shape existing political structures and relations. Thus at one end of this spectrum sit diaspora actors who tend to activities including the transfer of household remittances and engagement in cultural activities such as the promotion of language traditions, while at the other rest those actors capable of effecting political, economic, and social change and conceivably establishing political stability or authority. Of course, this does not determine the nature or duration of such change nor the character of this order. These are questions which go directly to the capacity of the diaspora as an agent of transformation and can only be answered by reference to different political economy and governance contexts.

Directions for Future Research

Each of these three foundations – the importance of changing structural context, the emergence of a new development agenda, and a wider understanding of diasporas as multilevel actors – points towards the emergence of a strongly interdisciplinary research agenda which should be capable of satisfactorily framing the development dynamics of the diaspora. This agenda begins by sounding a note of caution that context be taken seriously. For the diaspora and its contribution to development outcomes cannot be grasped simply as a zero-sum equation. This underlines the necessity of examining wider global conditions and distinctive local political cultures, as well as the variety of actors which intersect to make the transboundary politics of the diaspora. The lack of contextual understanding here is damaging. Indeed, over the past decade, the policy optimism regarding the ability of diasporas to address a broad range of economic, political, and security problems has frequently obscured the very arenas in which this politics takes place. For example, encouraging the participation of the diaspora in developing Africa has reached official policy discourse:

However it is questionable whether this has gone beyond a desire of the African political elites to access the financial resources of migrants. Although there have been some attempts to encourage successful migrants to return, there is little evidence of any desire of the African political elite to encourage other forms of input by migrants into African societies.

(Henry and Mohan 2003:620)

It is suggested that local political cultures can militate against as well as promote, to varying degrees, the developmental input of diasporic organizations, subgroups, and networks.

Another angle is to uncover the politics behind divergent diasporic engagement in terms of capacity and mobilization, and thus their management for policy intervention purposes. Diaspora management strategies should be guided not only by reference to the pressures of the development agenda, but also by the unique characteristics of each diaspora and different subgroups therein. There are very real challenges to realizing the potential of this actor, and it may well be that certain of these are not suitable or can only make a limited contribution to development outcomes. Although this essay has focused primarily on issues of context, it is evident that the scholarship is only at the beginning of understanding the vast activities of diasporas. It is on this point that a concluding thought emerges. No challenge to mainstream understandings of the significance of the diaspora as a development actor should be attempted without an equally careful examination of the nature of the transformation that is being sought. It may very well be that a more fundamental transformation of the current development ethos is required if issues of inequality and sustainability are not to be overlooked. Needless to say, this goes far beyond the remit of the diaspora.


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