Much has been written about the migration from Africa and the Diaspora’s remittance. However, very little has been done to organize and leverage the Diaspora’s social and financial capital inputs to their full potential. In fact, the African Diaspora is as fragmented as the continent itself, if not more so.
However, despite our global separation, we should not be looking at this as a deterrent to development. Actually, it is an untapped resource: the varied locales in which we find ourselves provideindustry-specific, best-in-class knowledge and hands-on experience. The sheer breadth of our professions makes us a virtually untapped pool of talent. So why aren’t we being put to better use? What are obstacles preventing the Diaspora from realizing its full potential as a tranformational force?
There are three major reasons why we are not engaged in development projects beyond mere remittances. By “mere,” I do not mean to belittle the estimated $40 billion in annual remittances we send to Africa. However, I do believe that $40 billion dollars can have a far greater effect on development if it were structured differently. While there are many reasons for this lack of coordination there are three specific obstacles I wish to highlight which explain, in part, why the diaspora is not more involved in greater numbers and on bigger projects beyond remittances and personal wealth accumulation.
LACK OF GOVERNMENT VISION
The first reason is quite easy to grasp. The unfortunate reality is that if you mention Africa and government in the same sentence, that very same sentence is likely to end with the “blind, corrupt, grossly inept, criminal.” The truth is that many African governments do not have policies in place to attract or support Diaspora-led development efforts. Very few African governments grasp the full potential offered by their own Diaspora populations. Institutional grid-lock and corruption also block Diaspora engagement. In fact, it is the one area of African development where I can lump all of Africa’s countries into one category. Very few countries are actively seeking and organizing the Diaspora.
Rwanda, for one, has pulled out all the stops in an all-out effort to streamline its institutional processes. It has figuratively rolled out the welcome mat and opened up an office catering specifically to the needs of its Diaspora. There are rumors that the Ugandan government is slowly beginning to court the Diaspora. Somaliland has an extensive and very active Diaspora population in Europe and Eastern United States.
LACK OF ADEQUATE DIASPORA FUNDING OPTIONS
Additionally, outside of the their own personal capital reserves, it is hard for the Diaspora to access investment capital sized appropriately to their projects. Most of the projects that the Diaspora engage in require less than $1,000,000. Often, these projects demand as little as $100,000; a micro-micro loan by global financing standards.
However, the World Bank generally seems averse to small-scale projects, limiting Diaspora potential. Furthermore, if there are grant & loan facilities available to handle small amounts, the requirements to apply for these funds make the whole process irrelevant.
Take for example the newly launched Diaspora Market Place, a joint venture between Western Union and USAID. In order to be a funding candidate, they require that you already have matching capital on hand. Which begs the question, if I already have that capital, why do I need you? We need a better financing environment specifically targeted at these projects and an investment climate that will attract more diaspora-led projects. Financing institutions should build investment vehicles fashioned after successful micro-finance model such as Gramin and Kiva to both foster collaboration and reduce risk to the financiers.
ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL
Finally, as a diaspora, we need to start organizing our efforts. If a financing model were built to cator to the needs of the diaspora, it would foster organization and reduce duplication of efforts. We need to organize our projects, share best-practices, and build a cohesive voice. The Internet has reduced the globe to a village. Communication is instantenous, mobilizing is as easy as a click of a mouse. We need a place to converge, converse, and share our successes. There is strength in numbers, and a centralized meeting place would create an echo chamber that would galvanize a stronger movement. Social media tools are easing the process of discoverability. We are starting to see regional organization of the Diaspora. Naijaborn is one such example, a social media portal for the Nigerian diaspora. Facebook is becoming the de facto tool for organizing the diaspora around a cause or raising funds. Twitter is the digital water cooler where everyone has a voice and is able to broadcast their ideas and get immediate feedback.
There are many more reasons why we don’t engage, but the ones listed above offer us the best chance for greater engagement. Addressing government policy, designing targeted financing vehicles that address our project needs, and finding a way to organize our efforts, are the three biggest obstacles to a more engaged diaspora.
What are some other ways we can engage better with Africa’s development?
Oh dear! How could I have overlooked this one. Africa Rural Connect (ARC), as my dear colleague points out in the comments, IS in fact, a great starting point in terms organizing diaspora projects. It allows discoverability and subsequent collaboration. Look for more on ARC at Africa Gathering later this month.