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WEBCAST | Beyond Remittances: Engaging the Diaspora to Meet Africa’s Development Financing Needs

On May 27, 2020, the Wilson Center Africa Program hosted the event “Beyond Remittances: Engaging the Diaspora to Meet Africa’s Development Financing Needs.” This event examined the role of the African Diaspora in contributing to peacebuilding and development in Africa, and how governments can better engage with them.

Date & Time

May. 27, 2020
2:00pm – 3:30pm

WEBCAST | Beyond Remittances: Engaging the Diaspora to Meet Africa’s Development Financing Needs

On May 27, 2020, the Wilson Center Africa Program hosted the event “Beyond Remittances: Engaging the Diaspora to Meet Africa’s Development Financing Needs.” Mr. Ian Gorecki, Africa Program Assistant, offered welcome remarks and introduced the SVNP, under whose banner this event was being held. Dr. Monde Muyangwa, Africa Program Director, moderated the event and was joined by Ms. Sonia Plaza, Senior Economist, Co-Chair, Remittances and Diaspora, KNOMAD, Finance, Competitiveness & Innovation Global Practice, Africa (East), World Bank;  Mr. Richmond Commodore, Policy Analyst, African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), Ghana and Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar; and  Professor Jennifer Brinkerhoff, Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs, Elliot School of International Affairs, The George Washington University. This event examined the role of the African Diaspora in contributing to peacebuilding and development in Africa, and how governments can better engage with them.

Dr. Muyangwa’s opening remarks noted the importance of the topic of diaspora engagement for African development and international relations, particularly as the global landscape evolves as a result of COVID-19 and ongoing changes in global trade. While traditional areas of financing, such as official development assistance (ODA), have declined in recent years, African governments are looking for new and innovative channels to mobilize resources, including through diaspora engagement. She underscored the importance of examining the diaspora more broadly, including both the “new diaspora” (recent African transplants and migrants) and the “old diaspora” that were taken from Africa during the slave trade.

Ms. Plaza set the stage by discussing the diaspora’s importance to Africa’s development and presenting some of the challenges to diaspora engagement, lessons for policymakers in developing engagement strategies, and how the World Bank is working with African countries to leverage their diaspora populations for development. While the diaspora is a key resource, Plaza stated that countries do not have enough data about the (where they are located and their profile) to engage them as fully as they could. Remittances are crucially important, particularly in light of reduced foreign direct investment (FDI) and ODA, but the diaspora also contributes through their philanthropy; skills, technology, and knowledge transfer; and trade, particularly in the areas of e-commerce and e-trade which are particularly important in a post-COVID world. While the World Bank and the U.S. State Department started several short-lived initiatives, she noted that sustained networks are those that are able to build and keep member motivation and build-in structures to support the network. Some of the World Bank’s efforts have been working with African governments to float Diaspora Bonds and facilitate trade and commerce. Post-COVID, the role of the diaspora is key, particularly in areas such as creating awareness on the importance of digital remittances and contributing to digital skilling/re-skilling and she recommended three sectors of prioritization for engaging the diaspora: food security, health, and digital commerce.

Mr. Commodore’s research and remarks focused on engaging the diaspora in channels alternative to remittances. Africa, he stated, is at a development crossroads and usual resources are proving insufficient, prompting innovation on the part of African governments. The prominence of remittances has triggered policymakers to look more seriously at the diaspora (of which approximately 140 million live outside Africa), with remittances exceeding 20% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in some countries. Some of the national approaches have been developing strategies and projects, some of which have been housed in the Office of the President, and developing legislation. Countries have utilized vehicles such as diaspora bonds, diaspora direct investment, and diaspora engagement offices housed in embassies abroad, with varying degrees of success. However, governments face several challenges, including weak state and governance structures and mechanisms that are too often removed from the people; perceived corruption and lack of trust of government officials; political transitions and the lack of continuity in programs or follow-through on diaspora engagement activities once a new administration comes into office, and poor marketing of diaspora initiatives to garner support. He cited examples of Nigeria and Ethiopia’s Diaspora Engagement commissions and Mauritius’ “one-stop” investment offices as examples of innovations by governments to overcome some of these challenges. Commodore’s top recommendations to African government’s looking to engage their diaspora more effectively were to 1) focus on building trust between the governments, the diaspora, and citizens, 2) expand their view to include the diaspora residing outside Africa as well as intra-African diaspora, 3) introduce accountability and transparency measures, and 4) engage with private-sector vehicles, such as crowd-funding, to mobilize resources.

Professor Brinkerhoff spoke to the role that the diaspora could play in supporting peacebuilding. This includes lobbying for or against certain intervention policies, proposing various peace agreement options, supporting or making philanthropic contributions—such as those to support disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, or education and livelihood assistance for ex-combatants—or leading reconciliation efforts within diaspora communities. Diaspora can contribute to post-conflict or post-humanitarian crisis governance and reconstruction efforts, can sustain livelihoods during conflict, and enable long-term resilience and economic growth. Brinkerhoff underscored how mobilization around identity is different from mobilization around material interest. Mobilization based on identity tends to generate passion and has greater staying power than that based on material interest. In post-conflict contexts, however, diaspora can still be motivated by economic gain or a desire to gain influence or prestige within the diaspora or country of origin. The key lessons for diaspora engagement in peacebuilding to remember are that individuals matter and policymakers should not focus solely on the diaspora groups or just the numbers of diaspora; that cautious optimism should be exercised as sometimes peacebuilding gains are short-term and intentions evolve; and that occasionally diaspora can exacerbate tensions. Her key recommendations were to engage but not privilege diaspora, citing the example of Ethiopia where some Ethiopians felt frustrated by the privileging of diaspora in government trade incentives; to treat diaspora as a hypothesis and not take their support as a given as diaspora engagement is not a panacea and can at times exacerbate tensions; and to target the mobilized rather than mobilizing the targeted, drawing upon networks with existing commitment.

In the subsequent discussion, participants posed questions via Twitter and email regarding ways to incentivize diaspora collaboration and knowledge exchange, embassy and diaspora engagement, examples of diaspora engagement in countering violent extremism (CVE), and ways to resuscitate or amplify former diaspora engagement initiatives and networks.

The SVNP is a continent-wide network of African policy, research and academic organizations that works with the Wilson Center’s Africa Program to bring African knowledge and perspectives to U.S., African, and international policy on peacebuilding in Africa. Established in 2011 and supported by the generous financial support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the project provides avenues for African researchers and practitioners to engage with and exchange analyses and perspectives with U.S., African, and international policymakers in order to develop the most appropriate, cohesive, and inclusive policy frameworks and approaches to achieving sustainable peace in Africa.

This event was livetweeted and webcast. Follow the Africa Program Twitter account @AfricaUpClose and catch up on the conversation #AfricanDiaspora


Hosted By

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.–Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our blog Africa Up Close, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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