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.
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.