Is the African Diaspora the Continent’s “Secret Weapon”?

Diasporas are often treated as foreigners in their adopted homes and as traitors in their place of birth, despite often hidden cultural and economic contributions. In this post, first published on the LSE’s Africa Centre blog, Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete writes about the potential hidden within the African diaspora across the globe.  Behailu is a is a former journalist and communication specialist from Ethiopia.

On 5 November 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed Billene Seyoum as the Press Secretary of the PM’s Office. We all celebrated, because somehow there appeared a consensus on her merit. Two days later, somebody ‘disclosed’ on social media that she held a Canadian passport, and the tone changed completely. The debate escalated. It was as if the PM had let a stranger into the annals of Ethiopia’s political secrets.

Diaspora-ness is a tricky state of being. In their adopted homes, diasporas are referred to as ‘immigrants’, a term that often elicits a sense of unwelcomeness. In their original homes they are thought of as ‘runaways’ who want the best of both worlds – the first to trace their roots when it’s convenient and exotic but also the first to pack and leave when the going gets tough.

But these same diasporas, are continuously expected to make a contribution both in their adopted and original homes. Hypocrisy arises because no matter how much their adopted homes look down on them, for instance, they do not waive their taxes. And even when they are referred to as ’them’ in the third person, the original homes do not refuse their remittances. By their adopted and original ‘homes’ alike, diasporas are treated as resources that should be assiduously tapped rather than embraced.

Credit: Flickr, Cresi Africa, Creative Commons

And they are resources in some respects. Remittance flows to many countries in the Global South are larger than the official development assistance received from ‘the West’ and more stable than private capital flows. And in some countries, even the ones that have respectable economies, the contribution of remittances to GDP is growing. During the period from 2004 to 2017, it grew from 0.93% to 7.47% in Ghana, from 12.31% to 18.70% in Liberia, from 2.59% to 5.85% in Nigeria, from 7.88% to 13.67% in Senegal and in Egypt from 4.24% to 10.06%.

In most African countries, the diaspora’s economic contribution is rarely spoken of openly, because most leaders do not want to admit their financial dependence. Many governments actually either underreport the contribution of the remittances to GDP or ‘fail’ to report it for fear of the figure empowering diasporas to influence local politics. Even in countries such as Somalia, where a quarter of GDP comes from remittances, this barely figures in any media reports.

But while diasporas may be considered resources by many, it is problematic to look at them as just that – resources – and nothing more. Why do we boil down their worth to the few hundred dollars they send to their families every month, when they are so much more? Why can’t their potential, gained from exposure, experiences and education overseas, be brought back home encouragingly and deployed for the betterment of their homelands, so that the next generation of Africans and the generations after them will not have to leave home to find better education and opportunities elsewhere?

Coming from Ethiopia, I can speak of so many Ethiopians who have influenced the world beyond their adopted or original borders. There is the late Ethiopian space scientist, Kitaw Ejigu (right), who was NASA’s Chief of Spacecraft and Satellite Systems. The Ethiopian agricultural scientist at Purdue University, Gebisa Ejeta, who developed Africa’s first commercial hybrid variety of sorghum that is tolerant to drought and parasitic weed. Noah Samara, who founded the world’s first satellite radio network, which aims to reach and empower the entire global South with educational and informational content. Professor Tilahun Yilma of the University of California, who developed a genetically-engineered vaccine for the fatal cattle disease rinderpest, and who invented an inexpensive rapid testing kit for the same disease. I can go on and on, and I am sure each African national can name similarly dazzling diasporas originating from their respective countries.

To me, the diaspora might just be the card that Africa has hidden up her sleeve for far too long.

CNN once called the African diaspora the continent’s ‘secret weapon’ and this, I think, is not hyperbole. The African Union Commission defines the African diaspora as ‘peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality … who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent and the building of the African Union’. The Commission considers the diaspora the continent’s ‘sixth region’ after the East, West, North, Central region and South.

That inclusive definition and characterisation of the African diaspora, estimated at about 170 million people, as another organ of the continent’s body is a good beginning to recognising and unleashing their full potential. Second-guessing the diaspora’s loyalty to the motherland, as we did of Billene Seyoum in Ethiopia, is no way to win their hearts back home.


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5 Responses to “Is the African Diaspora the Continent’s “Secret Weapon”?”
  1. Brilliant piece, and thanks very much Behailu. I was born and raised in Ethiopia, at the epicentre of the 1970s and 1980s famines. I left the country twenty years ago and adopted Japan as my country. I’m now a “migrant worker” in Switzerland — you would call me an expat if I were different and worked in Africa! Two points I would like to make:
    1: Throughout my journey, I struggled to internalize and come to terms with three concepts: origin, home and identify. The first one is fixed, as I happened to be borne in Ethiopia. The second one is where my kitchen and bed are — where I work and socialize. When I arrive back in Zurich from a trip, I feel relieved with the feeling that “I am home”. The toughest one is identify: it is negotiated with Ethiopians and Japanese. Language and cultural affinity are critical. It gets complicated when one leads life in Switzerland because of questions of co-existence, integration or assimilation. None of them are the best, but all these three are better than “isolation”.
    2) On the contribution of diaspora communities to the development of their countries of origin — beyond sending remittances — has been short of its potential. Diaspora communities, in general, are not “magic bullets” to solve complex development problems and are unlikely to alter structural constraints or reconstruct fragile states on their own. However, with a good understanding of the root causes and well-defined strategies, such initiatives may contribute to the long-term to economic development and progress. There is emerging evidence, for example in Eastern Europe. See here a short blog on this….
    Best wishes, Zenebe Uraguchi

    • Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete

      Dear Zenebe,
      Thank you for the great feedback. Yes, I do agree with you completely. While origin is fixed, homes shift and identity is continuously negotiated. Your feelings are reasonable and your expressions spot on.
      I also agree that the diaspora are not magic bullets to all our problems. But I believe their combined exposure (education and experience) around the world could help find solutions to “some” of those problems. There are norms that we need to introduce or nurture in Ethiopia, and some of those norms do not really need an extremely high level of financial and technological investment, at least from the government. For example, while it is still suffering a huge deficit, the service sector is benefitting greatly from the growing participation of the diaspora in the hospitality business. Bad service at a hotel can influence how a tourist will remember and talk about Ethiopia for a long time. Hotels run by diasporas (ownership or management) do have higher expectations from their workers when it comes to customer service. This may seem like something commonsensical that does not need exposure. My lived experience in Ethiopia showed me otherwise. Having lived in the UK for the last seven or eight months, I have tried to consciously look out for experiences from the education sector, health care, arts, media etc. that could be replicated with the right contextualization back in Ethiopia. Imagine what people that lived here for five, ten, 15 years can bring.

  2. Jane East

    Yes! The value of the diaspora “peoples of African origin living outside the continent, irrespective of their citizenship and nationality … who are willing to contribute to the development of the continent”. Willing to contribute to the development of the continent. I work for an international development agency, and I keep making the case for us to target the diaspora in our mobilisation efforts, both advocacy and fundraising. You can send remittances home to your family, extended family, community, and make a big difference in their lives. But that ain’t gonna change your country. And after you stop sending remittances, will your children and your children’s children be expected to? Our pitch has to be to enable the diaspora to play their part in challenging and changing the systems and structures that perpetuate poverty, injustice and inequality in their own country. Not sending home money for school fees, but campaigning in the UK and funding campaigning in their home countries for a fairer division of the national wealth, and government funding for education.

    • Zenebe Uraguchi

      My two cents on remittances: Yes, remittances contribute to the wellbeing of those who are receiving them. Yet in most cases remittances are spent on unproductive things (buying a car, building a house). In countries where remittances are as high as 30% of GDP (eg Moldova), you’ve “jobless growth” — the economy seemingly growing because of just numbers but in reality not contributing to stimulating growth and hence creating jobs or better incomes.

  3. Maereg Tafere

    This is indeed an interesting agenda. Yes, countries in Africa need and want to leverage the resources available among the diaspora community. And they do contribute. Look at the number of Africans whose livelihoods are dependent on money sent from relatives in the diaspora (which by the way can be seen as positive or negative). The question is, can the sporadic and uncoordinated contributions be better managed and redirected for more impact. However, it should also be noted that disagreements are common between the politicians at home and the more vocal diaspora. Some intellectuals in the diaspora play a rather negative role. We often hear them criticize African governments without even having the decency to critically scrutinize the contexts African countries operate. I do not understand some Africans in the diaspora enjoy blaming and insulting the politicians back home. They may deserve to be blamed, but how does that improve the situation? No one with a sane mind would think such negativity can bring anything good. Hence, the diaspora is as diverse as the contexts they live in and work. To get the best out of the diaspora, local governments need to be deliberate, and systematic in approach. The diaspora, especially those who are influential in the countries they live in should be able to use their position to rally their connections in support of Africa

    Toronto, Canada