Agents of change? Staging and governing diasporas and the African state

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During the last decade, African diasporas have emerged as agents of change in international development thinking. Diasporas are being courted by donors, sending states, and NGOs for their contributions to development in their countries of origin, praised for their remittances, investments and knowledge transfer. In this blog, Nauja Kleist, senior researcher in the Global Transformations research unit at the Danish Institute for International Studies, examines this trend.

In a recent cluster of African Studies that I  guest edited with Simon Turner, we critically scrutinize how diasporas are staged, categorized and governed by, and in relation to, African states. Below, I present some of the points from the introduction, outlining the theoretical and political implications of the emergence of diasporas as development agents in relation to questions of neoliberalism, hybridity, and (de)politization.

The current celebration of diasporas is often presented as a new phenomenon but the interest in the development potential of migration has a longer history. Migrants’ potential contributions to development were recognized in the developmentalist optimism in the 1960s but reversed in the 1970s and 1980s, following economic and political crisis. As a result, migration became conceptualized as a problem in development circles and literature. Likewise migrants’ status changed from potential patriotic citizens to traitors or deserters in the eyes of many sending governments.

While the idea that migration is a problem to be fixed remains dominant in some development and policy circles – and indeed in the political debates concerning immigration in many countries – there has been a huge policy interest in diasporas since 2003, when the World Bank realized that migrants send twice (today thrice) as much in remittance payments to developing countries as they received in official development aid (ODA). A range of policy initiatives, diaspora ministries, and migration units have since been established around the globe to govern and involve non-resident citizens or their descendants, for the benefit of national development in their ‘homelands’. Sometimes these endeavours have enjoyed  economic or logistical support from donor agencies or international organizations. Most of these initiatives are directed towards (especially highly educated and legally residing) migrant and diaspora groups in western countries, who are expected to have economic and human resources.

Diaspora and neoliberalism

In our introductory article, Simon Turner and I  argue that the emergence of diasporas as development agents fits well with neoliberal policies at two levels. On the one hand, it reflects the failures of state-centred development approaches. Diasporas become possible and attractive partner for development institutions which, disenchanted with state bureaucracies, are looking for ‘authentic’, accountable, and locally connected collaborators or brokers. One of the perceived qualities of diaspora groups is exactly their local rootedness, appealing to communitarian ideals and their emphasis on community and solidarity – with the added bonus of exposure to Western development thinking. Diasporas might thus appear as an alternative to the state as a development partner.

The policy perception of diaspora groups as being rooted and authentic as well as having been exposed to life in western countries, celebrates a specific type of hybridity. It is assumed that members of the diaspora have a special advantage as development agents because they know the language and culture of the beneficiaries. Likewise, they are seen to have an advantage over the beneficiaries due to their exposure to western rationalities. The language of exposure is also adopted by diaspora groups themselves – and sometimes the beneficiaries as well – when it is claimed that life in western countries generates privileged access to knowledge, resources and ideas that those in the homeland are not able to access or develop. While the state and policy interest in diaspora thus seems to reflect a celebration of mobility and hybridity, it often still relies on ideas of localized belonging and simplifying notions of the west and the ‘homeland’. Just as problematically it often assumes that persons with a diaspora background have a desire – or even a moral obligation – to assist the ‘homeland’.

On the other hand, the inclusion of diasporas and other ‘non-state actors’ in development processes can be seen as part of ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism, where logics of self-governing and governing at a distance are important. Through processes of inclusion, recognition or instrumentalization, diaspora groups become central actors in providing service delivery or welfare provision which – in principle – is a state responsibility. While involvement in such processes is often a result of diaspora groups’ own initiatives it can also be supported or mobilized by the state or international organizations. The distinction between the state and ‘non-state actors’ is thus blurred; diasporas are not only partners to the state but also become parts of the state.

The present trend for states to reach out to ‘their’ diasporas can thus be perceived as a means to include them in the polis of the nation-state. The question is: to what extent? Do diasporas gain power vis-à-vis the nation state or, conversely, is the power and importance of the state in relation to diasporas underestimated? Certainly states are reaching out to diasporas, not only to attract development and investment but also to contain and control them. For as long as the diaspora remains outside the reign of the sending state, it remains political; not in the sense of claiming rights and recognition from the state but in the sense of being able to question and challenge the hegemony of the state. Once granted full membership of the state, they must play the by the rules of the state – even when opposing it.

The question of politicization and depoliticization also relates to if diaspora groups are recognized – or claiming to be – actors with specific political or partisan agendas. This question might be specifically acute in (post-)conflict situations where the state divides diaspora groups into ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ populations. Likewise, some donor agencies fear that diaspora involvement creates or exacerbates conflict, preferring diaspora groups to focus on development and civil society purposes, rather than getting politically involved. Diaspora is thus not an innocent or neutral concept; it gives recognition to certain actors, which creates concrete economic and political effects, while ignoring or excluding other populations.


The articles

The articles in the cluster examine the questions outlined above. Through a range of case studies they explore the limits and implications of diasporas as agents of change in various concrete contexts, grappling with the ways in which diasporas and sending states stage one another and perform accordingly, and how this affects state sovereignty and the political room for diasporas.

Selenia Marabello presents a case study of a Ghanaian diaspora organisation Ghanacoop in Italy which has successfully employed the ‘diaspora as development agents’ discourse, and which stages itself as a development broker between Ghana and resourceful migrant entrepreneurs in Italy. Cindy Horst examines the clash between the reality of conflict situations in the Horn of Africa and the ideals of development donors, who prefer diaspora organisations to be apolitical development actors. Victoria Bernal explores how the Eritrean diaspora, particularly in the US, acts as if it were the state through a case study of an online memorial for war victims, In this way, the diaspora performs what the state ought to do and hence takes the sovereign position of the state in the process. Simon Turner shows how the Rwandan state divides diaspora groups into undesired and desired populations and establishes its sovereignty through programmes to convert the negative diaspora into a positive one. Finally, my own article examines Ghanaian diaspora mobilization since independence, claiming that while shifting diaspora policies have resulted in limited policy changes, they function as political spectacles through which the state demonstrates its interests in diaspora groups.


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