I am loving this video interview of Richard Cambridge, Head of the African Diaspora Program (ADP) at The World Bank. I am especially intrigued by the new efforts by the World Bank to tap into the African Diaspora capacity for development. Instead of using highly-paid consultants on projects in Africa he asks, why not tap some of its Diaspora instead?

Of course there are many hurdles still in the way in order to maximize Diaspora participation, but I think many of those can be mitigated by a determined government that sees the value in its Diaspora. Many of the countries in Africa are in various stages of actively courting their Diaspora. In East Africa, Rwanda has made strides to tap into its Diaspora with a very well organized Diaspora office. Meanwhile, Uganda is still trying to figure out how to begin organizing its Diaspora that contributes north of $750 million annual in remittances. Next door, Kenya’s Diaspora is more or less self-organizing. Every time I am in Nairobi, I meet more and more former Diaspora who’ve turned “reaspora.”

Reaspora is a term I like to attach to members of the neo Diaspora who—for various reasons—have decided to move back home in the permanent sense. Where-by “neo Diaspora”, I mean that segment of Africa’s diaspora that started migrating at the end of colonial rule, when most of Africa was newly independent. This is a distinctly different set of migrants than the classic diaspora who were forcibly extracted during the centuries-long slave trade. The end of slavery in 1807 and the collapse of colonial rule in Africa in the 1950s and 60s marked nearly 150 years of cultural separation between the two diasporas by definition.

I welcome The World Bank’s adoption of the African Union’s definition of Africa’s Diaspora as an open-arms approach to welcoming back its citizens. However, I think it is a little too broad of  a definition and is there simply as a hedge not to come across as excluding anyone. For The World Bank’s effort to be more effective, I think efforts should be targeted at mobilizing this neo Diaspora population. It is typically younger, highly educated, mobile and technically savvy. Moreover, they have a traceable direct link to their homes through family members that are still on the continent. Many of us still call our countries of origin, “home.” Most of the Kenyans I know heading back home are in their late 20’s and early 30’s. They decided that their fortunates and careers lay in their homeland. It is a safe argument to make that Nairobi’s telecommunications innovations and subsequent renaissance can largely be attributed to the efforts of its growing tech-savvy reaspora population. Cambridge’s assessment that some members of the Diaspora (including himself) have set up family roots in the West thus reducing mobility is a valid point, but I think that applies to the older first or second-generation Diasporas, his age mates.

They can also go back home for short breaks or vacation. But they have careers here, they have families abroad. The notion that everybody will pack up and go back home is unrealistic. They are going to stay. They are international people, they will go where the opportunities are. They are trained to work in certain conditions. Those conditions may not exist immediately at home. But over time it does.

He also doesn’t account for the growing population of Diaspora who are moving their entire families back home. I currently spend half my time in Uganda and half in the US. My unique circumstances in career choice allow me the flexibility to do so. An internet connection, laptop and power are my only office requirements. Location is purely circumstantial. All to say that technology is making location irrelevant in how we as members of the Diaspora engage in Africa’s development.
Remittance are still a key conduit of financial development assistance, but we need a more streamlined solution to maximize our investments. This is where I think the World Bank is right to put its muscle – investing and encouraging new innovations that will lower the fees on international money transfers.

What is common is that this group, this fifth region, has the skills, talent, and resources to contribute to the continent. Skills, talent, financial resources. As a bank, we of course initially focused on finance. The estimates are that sub-saharan Africans who live abroad send home between 10 and 40 billion dollars per year back to their families on the continent. And those resources, of course, can be leveraged for development in many different ways.

Money Gram, Western Union and the banking industry charge a fortune to transfer funds. With the advent of mobile money facilities on the continent, the last mile is to feed the $40 billion in annual remittances through that delivery channel.

Certainly policies and regulatory frameworks allowing for greater diaspora participation are needed in many of these countries. But I’d be happy with a dedicated Diaspora window at Entebbe Airport. Now that would be a sign of great things to come!

BONUS:
If you’d like to dig deeper into Diaspora investment from a financial markets perspective, check out this ‘Diaspora Investment in Developing and Emerging Country Capital Markets: Patterns and Prospects‘ [PDF] paper by the Migration Policy Institute. Is it worth a read.

  1. Very informative and inspiring post! Thanks for sharing Teddy. I'm encouraged to learn that the AU views the Diaspora as a fifth region worthy of strategic engagement for the development of the continent. I appreciate your insights on families (vs. individuals) moving back home, the ties of the Reaspora to their families and what this means for the future face and mindset of the continent. Like you said: "Many of us still call our countries of origin, “home.” It's a sentiment I believe many in the 20 -30 age bracket resonate with. And I think it'll be interesting to see the kind of partnerships that are forged with the old Diaspora in giving back.

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