Are refugee and migrant diasporas the missing piece of the development puzzle?

Are refugee and migrant diasporas the missing piece of the development puzzle?
Are refugee and migrant diasporas the missing piece of the development puzzle?

The Conversation


There are more displaced people in the world than ever before. And humanitarian crises across the globe are often in unreachable and volatile places.

For example, the United Nations estimates more than 5.47 million internally displaced Syrians are scattered across the country.

Getting assistance to populations in need demands new ways of doing development that are smarter, faster and more efficient. The status quo is no longer an option.

One group whose efforts are gaining recognition are diasporas. Diasporas are composed of former migrants and refugees who can play a role in assisting their countries of origin through fundraising, development work and, in some instances, political action.

What contributions are diasporas making?

With one of the largest South Sudanese diasporas in the world, Australian organisations have been working hard to train and support Australians of South Sudanese origin who can assist with the urgent task of rebuilding their homeland and encouraging peace initiatives.

The Syrian diaspora has been praised for getting aid to parts of Syria inaccessible to the UN and international NGOs.

In closed-off countries such as Eritrea, diaspora organisations play a vital role in raising awareness about human rights in their country of origin.

So, are diasporas the missing piece of the development puzzle? What makes them so valuable? And what can be done to help them to bring aid to people in need?


One of the most visible ways diasporas can assist development is through remittances.

The World Bank reports officially recorded remittances to developing countries reached US$427 billion in 2014. This figure does not include informal remittances transferred through private money transfer groups and goods shipped or sent through family members and friends.

Remittances exceed the aid budgets of many countries. They can provide a quick source of funding in times of humanitarian crisis.

After the 2009 tsunami in Samoa, it was estimated 90% of affected households received international remittances. Of these, 72% received them within a week of the disaster. Formal aid systems are rarely able to achieve such timely results.

During the ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, diaspora groups rallied and even created a Diaspora Ebola Task Force in the UK to help people in need.

And, in Syria, 75% of all aid is being delivered through local organisationsthat are supported by diaspora groups.

International instruments

Recognising the skills and knowledge of diasporas, agencies such as the International Organisation for Migration and UN Development Programrun practical programs to assist qualified diaspora members to return temporarily to their countries of origin and provide training in areas of expertise.

The Danish Refugee Council supports diasporas by co-ordinating emergency responses and providing small grants for development assistance. In Australia, Diaspora Action is pioneering work with communities from countries affected by war and conflict to help them promote peace, development and human rights in their countries of origin.

However, this effort is not without its challenges. Formal aid organisations have raised concerns that diaspora groups may sacrifice fundamental principles of neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence in their work. The integrity of aid work depends on the fulfilment of these principles, particularly at a time marked by attacks on aid workers.

In response, diaspora organisations highlight their deep knowledge of local contexts and closeness to communities. They say international NGOs and UN agencies often treat them merely as service providers, rather than true partners, and that excessive bureaucracy hinders aid responses.

Political importance

What can be done to bridge the divide?

Migrant-receiving countries such as Australia can recognise the sizeable diasporas residing within their own communities. This includes recognising the political importance of diasporas, which may function as an early warning system for changing developments in countries of origin.

Work can be done at the foreign policy level to help affected countries develop policies that allow them to tap into their diasporas. For example, Kenya launched a diaspora policy in 2015. This is a major development for a country that obtains at least 3% of its GDP from remittances sent by its estimated 3 million diaspora members.

And, building on lessons from Syria, the Overseas Development Institutehas called for creative ways of working in complex humanitarian emergencies.

Imperatives for investment and innovation

This echoes calls during the recent World Humanitarian Summit for closer and principled partnerships with local actors.

For example, if diaspora groups lack the know-how and staff capacity to participate in what can be many and complex co-ordination meetings, closer partnership with international NGOs and UN agencies could bridge this gap.

Funding is one of the most important pieces of the diaspora-development puzzle. Diaspora organisations often miss out on funding from traditional donors because they lack the skills to write proposals, or because of donor perceptions about their politicised nature.

Despite adaptations and changes, diaspora groups have shown their longevity as humanitarian and development actors. They bring immense goodwill alongside their specialist knowledge of local contexts. Their efforts can be supported in many ways, including working to improve the knowledge base upon which diasporas, as development partners, are built.

Melissa Phillips is honorary fellow, University of Melbourne and author for The Conversation. She can be contacted here.

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