Role of diaspora in development

I snuck out of the office last week and pretended to be an academic for a day at an interesting event at the Kennedy School. The focus of the event was recent work on governance reforms, including Matt Andrews’ book. The various talks and panels sparked several draft blog posts, which I’ll hopefully get out over the next week or so.

One quick response I had to the event was on the role of returned diaspora members as institutional change agents. The standard aid sector discourse on the diaspora focuses on remittance flows. Those flows are critical, of course. However, by returning home, many members of the diaspora often contribute talent and energies to the development of their home countries that far exceeds their cash contributions. Jennifer Brinkerhoff presented her work on the topic.

Although Brinkerhoff was mostly focused on high-level policymakers and institutional entrepreneurs, I’ve seen similar effects throughout the aid and development sectors. Some of the most effective staff members that I’ve seen at international organizations at any level — as my colleagues, supervisors, or direct reports — are national staff who went overseas for graduate school or for a few years of work, and then returned home. They bring an insider/outsider perspective that allows them to truly operationalize development values like local knowledge and partnership.

Where I disagree with Brinkerhoff somewhat is in describing how they accomplish this. For example, she referred to the back-to-the-future effect, wherein someone knows what the future will bring because they’ve already lived it in the diaspora. I find that framing to be a little reminiscent of the “best practice” mentality that thinks the goal of development is to help developing countries catch up to and copy developed countries.

I think that a variety of institutional forms can serve to improve people’s lives, and that the best forms depend more on the history, economics, culture, etc. of a given country than on the particular forms that currently rich countries happen to have created. Given that, I would put a slight spin on her back-to-the-future effect and simply say that exposure to various institutions in other contexts helps diaspora members see new possibilities when they return home — not because matching developed country institutions is the best route, but simply because new observations spark new ideas.

On the whole, that’s a minor quibble. Her other points about serving as connectors and interlocutors were well-taken. For those individuals I’ve observed, the ability to make local context intelligible to outsiders is critical — as is the ability to make outsiders intelligible to other local actors. Returned diaspora members are translators across multiple dimensions: bilingual in language, as well as culture, work processes, accountability, institutional structures, and more.