By Paul Clewett
Current development debates on migration go by and large like this: financial remittance flows often outweigh overseas development assistance and in some places even foreign investment, making them incredibly important for tackling poverty and spurring development. In addition, migrants who can be enticed to return have skills and worldly experience gained abroad that could be useful for development ambitions at home. The upshot of this is that the ‘brain drain’ fears that dominated discussion in the past are all but out of fashion (though some would disagree). In this scenario, diasporas have moved from traitors who undermine national development strategy to a lucrative resource “waiting to be mined.”
The policy question thus posed is how you get ‘diasporans’ on board with national development goals. The development industry has spent a lot of money trying to work this out, and has successfully encouraged many governments in the global south to adopt policies that aim to ‘tap’ or ‘leverage’ their emigrants abroad. While this is to an extent a valid pursuit – why shouldn’t willing individuals be encouraged to support the lives of others? – it also has the effect of making us lazy in our analysis: instead of trying to deepen our understanding of how transnational communities are changing the way the rich north interacts with the south, we are painted a picture of diasporas as development machines, on ‘stand-by’ and awaiting mobilisation to realise the goals of elite policymakers.
In my research, I looked at a selection of multi-ethnic churches in Newham, east London, in which ‘development’ projects are commonplace. Church members work tirelessly around their day jobs to bring about change through a dizzying array of projects: from vocational training in Zimbabwe and gender advocacy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the liberation of brick kiln workers in Pakistan and peace and reconciliation efforts in Nigeria’s troubled northern and central regions. These are just a few of the cases from a single church community in the London Borough of Newham.
What is interesting to note is that the teams carrying out these projects comprise a mix of diasporans and ‘indigenous’ church members. The diasporans play a key role in determining the projects that receive support from the congregation: they take the lead because they have the drive to make a change in places they call home, and a localised expertise that the modern day professional development worker often lacks (see the writings of Uma Kothari for more on this). Other, non-diasporic church members see an opportunity to support projects led by people they know and trust who have direct links to the sites of intervention. There is a sense of impact that is not felt with the monthly donations to large development charities that have often been the norm, and placing resources in the hands of diaspora leaders confers legitimacy on projects, even mitigating the sometimes uneasy collective memory of Britain’s colonial legacy in many of the same regions.
The ‘diaspora’ tag is one that the diaspora leaders of these projects are rather ambivalent towards: there is a sense of solidarity with those at ‘home’ but little in the way of the pressing sense of national duty, belonging and obligation that underpins the rationale of diaspora engagement in the professional development world. The motivation for carrying out charitable work in far-away places comes from a general motivation to do good that sees the church running a large number of social projects locally too. The involvement of diasporans in a project is relevant, but only to an extent: project ownership spills well beyond the boundaries of ‘diaspora’ that often constrain policy debate. In this sense, tagging a project as ‘diasporic’ above all else can prevent us from fully understanding everything that’s going on. ‘Diaspora’ constitutes just one element of a fluid identity that competes with other markers of identity that may be more or less important for the individual, such as ‘Londoner’, social entrepreneur, nurse, accountant, or ‘Christians’ – to name a few.
This fluidity of identity is largely missed by attempts to capture the diaspora in development programmes. In Comic Relief’s DFID-funded ‘Common Ground Initiative,’ eligible African diaspora organisations are stipulated as those where “a majority of the trustees define themselves as being of African heritage.” The diasporan in charge of projects at the church in question is generally outnumbered on her board of trustees by non-diasporic church members. The non-diasporic members of the board – equally passionate about change and social justice – serve as pools of social, cultural and financial capital: their professional experience, often greater affinity with British institutions, and stable incomes would be a fillip to any venture. But the Common Ground Initiative, imagined as a resource for exactly these kind of projects, excludes them for lack of diasporic purity.
The point here isn’t to discredit the efforts of development actors to enhance the efficacy of diaspora actors – I think that really is a worthwhile pursuit – but to press home that the sometimes implicit portrayal of diasporas as dormant or naïve emigrant populations needing to be awoken to do their patriotic duty does a disservice to the reality of a vibrant amateur development scene. And it risks making a moral judgement about where the priorities of those with national or ethnic ties to poorer countries should lie. Beyond asking what diasporas can do for their countries’ national development plans, we should be looking at how they are unsettling the assumptions inherent in the development debate.
The blog is based on the author’s dissertation ‘Diaspora-led development in Newham’s Multi-ethnic Churches,’ submitted for the MSc in Global Migration at University College London and available on Academia.edu.
 Whilst fully aware of the substantial debate one could have on this choice of terminology – a lot of terminology in this piece, in fact – I use ‘indigenous’ to refer loosely to ‘white British’ or – perhaps more accurately in this context – ‘those who do not profess to have a ‘home’ outside of the UK.’
Paul Clewett obtained his master’s in Global Migration from University College London and his fondness for talking about development from his time in the school of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. He is currently programme assistant at the Migration Policy Institute Europe.