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The Diaspora Mirage

I remember the conversation vividly. I was standing in my Ambassador’s office, reporting on my trip to Australia where I had met with leaders of the Timorese diaspora. Following the Indonesian invasion in 1975, thousands of Timorese fled to Europe and Australia. Twenty five years later, when Timor was finally free, I and others expected these Timorese would return to help rebuild the poor and devastated country. The Timorese diaspora in Australia was relatively successful and wealthy, and had been helping to bankroll the resistance.  When I met with them they were enthusiastic, optimistic and had great plans for reconstruction.

The Indonesian Army's "nation building" in action - 90% of buildings burned down

I recounted these discussions to my Ambassador, and my expectation that they would soon be returning by the hundreds, bringing investment, jobs, and stability. He looked at me with a withering expression he reserved for idiots and asked “Do you really think they will leave their suburban homes, minivans, and well-paying jobs for a third world city that was completely burnt to the ground?” Red in the face, I said I did. The Ambassador laughed at me and dismissed me from his office.

That was one of many low points during my time working for him, but what made this one particularly galling is he was right. The Timorese diaspora did not return except for a couple of notable exceptions. They chose to keep thier kids in school, to keep their jobs, and to visit their homeland every once in awhile to see family.

I’ve since seen this elsewhere. Afghanistan. Liberia. Sudan. In every struggling poverty-stricken or conflict-ridden nation is the hope and expectation that the diaspora will return. In some cases, it has taken on the tone of an Arthurian legend. And in every one of these nations, the diaspora do not return.

In some cases they send money through remittances, a lot of it. ($440b world wide!) But they don’t return and rebuild.

So today, when I saw these comments from the new Foreign Minister in Haiti, I rejoiced a little.

Lamothe said Haiti was also looking to attract visits by Haitian exiles overseas — he said 4 million lived abroad — to bring funds into the nation of over 9 million people.

“There are 4 million Haitians living in the diaspora. For example, if you take 25 percent of that figure, if you have one million people coming here spending $100 per trip, that’s $100 million additionally in foreign direct investments,” he said.

Now this is a reasonable plan. Attract the diaspora home to see family, spend some vacation dollars, and leave behind a little FDI. This makes sense and this is an achievable objective worth planning around.

La Terrasse Bar in Port au Prince, a more likely source for diaspora FDI

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1 Comment

  1. Sebastian says:

    You have great story telling abilities – thanks for this post! And while I know many of the aspects of your post from my experiences (yes, having the Diaspora coming back is really hard!) I would like to add 2 further aspects:

    1) A friend of mine from Liberia said that he is “just too heartbroken to come back”. This is not in terms of the suffering and the injustice that happened during the conflict but in terms of what happened afterwards and how the diaspora is treated. He has saddening story of what happened when he needed to renew his passport (he was asked for bribes along every single step in the process) and then in the very last step was discovered as the child of a very famous Liberian public figure (including the eventual scrambling to try to “make the bribes along the way” go away etc.). So I can imagine that there are situations where – while the overall support to the home country is still very high – you feel heart broken about the country you come from and don’t stand the pain of going back. I’m not saying this is good/bad or desirable/undesirable but it seems to happen

    2) In Kosovo, and yes also Kosovo is relying on its remittances, I have seen also the emergence of a new approach: Along the lines of Chinese going back to China (or Indians to India) for economic reasons, I saw people resettle if “it makes economic sense”. So while I agree that the diaspora has an important role to play in rebuilding a country I would caution against the patriotism or at least an overemphasis of patriotism. People typically do what makes sense for them.

    Just my 2cts,

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