Global Development Institute Blog

Oliver Bakewell, Reader in Migration Studies, Global Development Institute

For over twenty years, African diasporas have been increasingly recognised as important actors in development across the continent. A question that often remains unasked is: who is part of this diaspora that makes this contribution to development? The importance of this came out in the discussions at a recent research project workshop in Nairobi, where it became clear that when we talk about diasporas, we may have rather different ideas in mind.

This workshop was organised as part of the Transnational Lived Citizenship project, which explores how diaspora populations establish different forms of political belonging orientated towards their homeland, their current place of residence, and across a wider transnational network. The project has focused on Eritreans and Ethiopians who are long-term residents of Nairobi and Khartoum and Eritreans in Addis Ababa. Many of these people have refugee status, and few see little prospect of a return to Eritrea or Ethiopia, even if they hope for it. Instead, they are focused on building their lives where they now live or trying to secure resettlement in Europe or North America.

As expected, we found that they maintain links with their homeland, whether Eritrea or Ethiopia, and also have strong networks among compatriots, both in their neighbourhoods and others scattered around the world. So far, so diasporic. Indeed, by virtue of being in exile from a country to which they could not return, this looks more like the diasporas of the classical age – living in a foreign land but connected by a shared language and culture and common dream of being one day in Asmara or Addis Ababa.

Nearly all our respondents had some connections with the homeland, with direct links through regular calls home to family and more indirect links by following the news from home. Many also had critically important ties with family living in wealthier countries, on whom they relied for the remittances that these family members sent, either as their primary income or a vital supplement to fill in the gaps. However, for many, their mode of diasporic connection was relatively passive – they received news and money through the diasporic connections but seemed to be in no position to put much back into these networks.

A contrasting mode of connection was evident in a presentation of the WIDU programme, funded by the German development organisation GIZ, that supports diasporic investment in small businesses across Africa. Here diaspora members in Europe are connected with an entrepreneur in their homeland who has a business plan that needs investment. The investment funds raised by the diaspora member and the entrepreneur are matched by WIDU, which also provides business training for the entrepreneur.

This is one of many initiatives that have been launched to integrate African diasporas into development cooperation. In 2003, the African Union recognised the African Diaspora as the sixth region of the continent and stressed its role in the development of the continent. Through the 2000s, many African states made concrete attempts to reach out to their diasporas, changing rules of dual nationality, voting rights and preferential access to investment opportunities. Likewise, diaspora members have formed organisations that support development across the continent, and development organisations have created departments and programmes (such as WIDU) that seek to promote diaspora engagement in development.

When we hear of diaspora in all this flurry of activity, what generally comes to mind are migrants from the homeland or their descendants living in relatively wealthy countries, able to save up some money and send it ‘home’, with access to education, picking up skills, attitudes and practices associated with the ‘developed’ world – ideas of democracy, gender equality and so forth. There is, of course, huge variation in the situation of the members of these diasporas. Still, they are seen as sharing the capacity, to a greater or lesser extent, of contributing to the homeland.

Somewhere between these two extremes of ‘contributing’ and ‘passive’ modes of diasporic connection, my previous research among Somalis, Malians and Nigerians in Lusaka gave a different picture. Here, we found that for many, their diaspora engagement was essential for their livelihoods and their place in the city. Through the diaspora connections within the region or across the world, these foreign residents in Lusaka were able to source capital for their businesses, create trading links and sustain ongoing exchanges, including, for many, regular travel. During this research, I also came across Eritreans and Ethiopians who had established a niche in the hotel and leather industries in Zambia and seemed to be drawing on transnational connections similarly. For many, these exchanges were not presented in terms of development – and they had no involvement with development organisations – nor necessarily even as an affective bond; it was an issue business and livelihoods.

There are many possible explanations for this variation in the modes of diasporic connection. Nicholas Van Hear and Robin Cohen have written of the different forms of engagement of ‘distant’ and ‘contiguous’ diasporas, shaped by geography, wealth, class and legal status. Another critical factor raised in the workshop was that of time, with diasporic connections affected by when people left Eritrea or Ethiopia – pre or post-Eritrean independence and the fall of the Derg in Ethiopia – and how long they have been living in Nairobi, Khartoum and Addis Ababa. This is a subject for further analysis.

The more immediate question is are we talking about the same thing when we use the term diaspora? My colleague Kiya Gezahegne observed at the workshop, in Ethiopia, the diaspora is only used to describe those of Ethiopian origin in particular, mostly wealthier regions of the world – Europe, North America and (perhaps curiously) South Africa. It does not include those living elsewhere in the Horn of Africa or the large population of Ethiopian migrants in the Gulf. This has the merit of making explicit a division that remains implicit in many discussions about diaspora and development. This workshop discussion prompted the question of whether it makes sense to use the same term – diaspora – to refer to such a wide array of transnational social connections.

The research on which this blog is based is part of the projectTransnational Lived Citizenship: Practices of Citizenship as political belonging among emerging diasporas in the Horn of Africa (2020-2023), funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, Grant number: ES/S016589/1

The project is led by Prof Tanja Müller (PI) with Oliver Bakewell (Co-I). The partner in Nairobi is Dr Linda Oucho from the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMAPDOC).

Photo of Nairobi. By Joecalih on Unsplash




Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.