Diaspora organisations as development agents

By Nauja Kleist, Danish Institute for International Studies

Since the early 2000s diaspora organisations have come to the attention of European development aid agencies as development agents. Most interest in the development potential of migrant and diaspora involvement pivots around migrant remittances to developing countries, which doubled official development aid (ODA) in the early 2000s and tripled ODA in 2013. However remittances are private flows, sent by migrants to their families, which delimit how they can be channelled by development aid agencies. Diaspora organisations, in contrast, generally focus on the local community or broader parts of the population through supporting social service provision, infrastructure, or civil society. Likewise, diaspora organisations are sometimes perceived to constitute linkages between Western societies and their homelands in some development circles. They have, therefore, emerged as development agents.

The term diaspora derives from Greek and means ‘the scattering of seeds’ or to ‘sow over’. Originally a term referring to the expulsion and scattering of Jews and other expulsed groups, the term became more widely used from the 1990s as referring to transnational communities that are dispersed from an original homeland. This understanding of diaspora category has deeply resonated in academic, policy and public discourse. Today the diaspora category is employed by academics, development aid agencies, international organisations, political actors and migrant groups and their descendants alike. The notion of diasporas as collective and transnational development agents is based on the idea that affiliations with and involvement in both the country of origin and residence (and possibly more places) make diaspora groups bridgeheads between the established development industry and developing countries through their acquisition of skills and ‘exposure’ to Western countries on the one hand and involvement and knowledge of the local cultures and languages in their (ancestral) country of origin on the other.

Diaspora organisations include hometown associations, branches of homeland political parties, cultural associations, migrant youth associations, and many more. Their activities span social service provision, humanitarian assistance, advocacy work, political lobbyism, or civil society involvement in the (ancestral) country of origin as well as cultural events and integration-related activities in the country of settlement. Contributions to development, relief and reconstruction are thus just one aspect of what diaspora organisations do, and they often go hand in hand with activities focusing on the country of settlement.

Diaspora support models in European development cooperation

The role of diaspora engagement in development is mentioned in the EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM) as well as in several European development aid strategies, including Norway, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and the UK (the co-development strategies in especially Southern Europe are not included in this article). Diaspora organisations are generally recognized as actual or potential partners for development aid agencies, however actual support and collaboration remains quite modest. Focusing on North Western Europe, three kinds of diaspora support models are identified: general co-funding schemes for development NGOs, special diaspora initiatives, and support to diaspora networks and platforms. Table 1 provides examples of these models, which are further elaborated below.

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General development NGO support schemes

The most common way European development aid agencies support diaspora organisations is through large general funding schemes targeting small and medium-sized development NGOs involved in development activities. Support to development projects usually consist of matching funds and requires self-funding, sometimes with the opportunity of self-funding ‘in kind’, such as equipment or self-coverage of per diem. Likewise there tends to be emphasis on capacity building. Diaspora organisations have been recipients of such grants since the middle of the 1990s but it varies from initiative to initiative whether special support is or has been offered to diaspora applicants. For instance, the British Common Ground Initiative explicitly states that it targets diaspora organisations. On the other hand, funding schemes do not specifically mention diaspora organisations, nor do they offer any special support to them, based on the objective that diaspora organisations should be ‘mainstreamed’ and compete on a par with other development NGOs, i.e. without any special treatment or advantages

Special diaspora initiatives

In contrast to the mainstreaming approach, some development aid agencies have established initiatives exclusively targeting diaspora organisations, also consisting of matching funds with emphasis on capacity development. There is a tendency that such funding schemes delimit their target group to organisations focusing on selected countries, offering context-sensitive programmes and activities. They are often funded short-term, expected to show quick results and with the objective of making the involved diaspora organisations able to participate – and compete – in regular programmes and funding schemes though there seems to be a trend towards longer programmes. Furthermore, they usually target larger migrant or refugee groups originating from states that receive substantial official development or humanitarian aid.

Examples of special diaspora initiatives include the Danish Diaspora Programme, funded by Danida (the Danish Development Cooperation Unit) and administered by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). The Diaspora Programme was established in 2012, following a two-year pilot program phase, and runs until November 2015. The program offers matched funding and capacity building to Somali and Afghan diaspora organisations – two groups that are among the largest refugee populations in Denmark and whose home countries are significant recipients of Danish development aid. In addition, the Diaspora Programme is able to offer direct support to project implementation on the ground in the recipient contexts. Eligible projects can focus on social service and civil society development. Two boards with respectively seven representatives from Somali and Afghan diaspora organisations have an advisory function in the selection processes. The Diaspora Programme has granted 5.840.000 DKR (approximately 685.000 Euros) to altogether 26 projects in Somalia/Somaliland and Afghanistan between 2012 and 2015. A mid-term evaluation from 2014 showed positive results, concluding that the majority of funded projects have a visible impact for the beneficiary communities and that diaspora organisations are perceived as important development actors in the countries of origin. The evaluation thus highlighted the position of diaspora organisations as transnational development agents.


Finally, the promotion and establishment of networks between different diaspora organisations and between diaspora organisations and other development NGOs constitutes a significant trend. Network support ranges from bringing different groups of participants together, such as diaspora organisations, other development NGOs, policy makers and development professionals, to offering special support to proposals submitted by diaspora organisations in partnership with other development actors. More explicit support takes place through the establishment of or support to diaspora organisation platforms, networks or umbrella organisations. The most striking example is the Africa-Europe Development Platform (AEDP), an EU-funded network of African diaspora organisations in the EU member states, Switzerland and Norway involved in development in Africa. The AEDP is funded by the European Commission, the Swiss and German development agencies (SDC and GIZ, respectively) and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has the aim of improving and enhancing the capacity and impact of African diaspora organisations in relation to development, furthering partnerships between Africa and Europe, and influencing development policy and practices. AEDP held its first Diaspora Development Forum in Copenhagen in November 2014 which was attended by diaspora participants from the Nordic countries as well as representatives from business organisations, NGOs, and ministries.

Untapped potential or unfounded preferential treatment?

There is no overall agreement concerning the benefit of supporting the development activities of diaspora organisations, let alone on how to best do so. This is not surprising, perhaps, giving the heterogeneity of diaspora organisations and their activities. While emphasis on the importance of local anchorage of proposed projects, good selection processes of recipients and the importance of capacity building are emphasised in evaluations and guidelines, such recommendations generally apply to development support. On the one hand, diaspora groups are mentioned in a range of policy documents on development, implying that the diaspora rhetoric is still important in European development circles. On the other hand, special diaspora support programmes are characterised by relatively low budgets and by being pilot or temporary projects, and though diaspora organisations can apply to general funding schemes, their success rate tends to be lower than ‘native’ development NGOs. Specific diaspora support thus seems to have low political priority, especially after the 2009 financial crisis, when a range of diaspora support initiatives fizzled out. Instead, diaspora support is replaced by emphasis on mainstreaming and network approaches. Diaspora organisations thus seem to be perceived as relatively unimportant development actors in the eyes (and institutional setups) of development aid agencies, though there are exceptions. However, a newly instituted network of five diaspora grant-makers, DiaGram, consisting of GIZ, Danish Refugee Council, Comic Relief, Forum Syd and Development Fund Norway, may make diaspora engagement and diaspora support initiatives more visible among development aid agencies and in mainstream development circles.

From the point of view of diaspora proponents, the current state of affairs indicates a huge untapped potential for further collaboration with and support of diaspora organisations. Diaspora groups are seen as holding a distinctive and competitive development potential that development aid agencies have not fully realised. This potential both relates to strengthening and ameliorating existing programmes and to develop new approaches and partnerships, not least in relation to a participatory approach and policy consultation. A participatory approach accentuates the importance of mutual learning processes in development aid agencies and diaspora organisations, establishing mutual interests, objectives, and monitoring procedures throughout the process. In a similar vein, policy consultation emphasises the importance of including diaspora organisations in policy-making processes, rather than merely implementing projects. A consequence of this approach is to dissuade a top-down approach where diaspora groups are perceived as ‘tools’ to be mobilised according to a pre-conceived agenda – or as possible, ‘political messengers’.

Dr Nauja Kleist, DIIS
Dr Nauja Kleist, DIIS

Conversely, diaspora sceptics argue that the relative lack of attention to diaspora organisations reflects their ambivalent or questionable role as development agents. Such scepticism often seems to be grounded in an understanding of development interventions as ‘planned’ and professionalised activities. While concerns of amateurism may apply to small grassroots development NGOs as well, some parts of the development industry seem to worry particularly about diaspora organisations, especially in relation to their involvement in their countries of origin and the possible grounding in local, family and personal relationships. Some development professionals may be anxious that migrants and diaspora groups lack a ‘professional distance’ to development problems and thereby risk being too emotionally or politically involved in development projects in their homelands. In these cases, the diaspora position as special development agents may appear as an impediment to adequate development engagement. Furthermore, diaspora organisations from countries affected by conflict are often characterised by political fragmentation which may result in a high number of internally competing diaspora organisations, possibly with different political agendas, and proclaimed leaders claiming to represent the diaspora. Such situations may make collaboration with diaspora organisations time consuming and demanding, especially if donors’ development ideals are based on notions of professional distance and apolitical involvement.

The contested nature of diaspora organisations thus points to the question whether diaspora organisations should receive preferential treatment vis-à-vis ‘native’ development NGOs in the country of residence. This is a difficult question and the jury is still out. The predominant thinking in European development circles seems to be that any ‘special advantage’ should only be rewarded if it is competitive vis-à-vis other development NGOs and does not require any additional support to be realised. This vision is central in the mainstreaming approach, where diaspora organisations are supposed to become mainstream development agents over time. However, it also implies that opportunities for extending and rethinking the nature of development and of development actors may be lost.


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