Diasporas: How to make the most of their peace-building potential

Working with diaspora communities to improve conditions in their home countries constitutes a considerable challenge for policy makers and practitioners alike. While the constructive potential of such cooperation may be widely recognised, there is little practical advice available for those who seek to develop it. Moreover, the process of engaging diaspora communities is not without risks. Fortunately, those seeking advice on how best to involve these communities in peace-building and development efforts now have a valuable point of reference.

The DIASPEACE research project has produced a handbook offering policy makers and practitioners straightforward suggestions for cooperating with transnational communities. Relating the experience of numerous international initiatives (many of which are ongoing), the publication highlights the need to develop a long-term strategic approach. Without such an approach, the researchers warn, both governmental and non-governmental actors risk doing more harm than good.

Bringing together six partners from Europe and two from Africa, DIASPEACE explored how diasporas affect the dynamics of conflict and peace in their countries of origin. The empirical focus of the project was on the Horn of Africa, a region where decades of violent conflict have displaced more than two million people. Illustrating how important diasporas are for this region, the researchers note the example of the Somali transnational community whose financial remittances to their home country is estimated to exceed both development aid and export revenues. Somalia was one of two African countries (the other one being Ethiopia) where the project conducted fieldwork. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, the consortium concentrated specifically on diaspora networks that (a) are operating in Europe and (b) extend their transnational activities to the Horn of Africa.

The project’s key policy-relevant results are elaborated in the 2010 publication entitled Participation of Diasporas in Peacebuilding and Development (for further information see: http://www.prio.no/Research-and-Publications/Publication/?oid=61886751). Described as “A Handbook for Practitioners and Policymakers”, the booklet is designed to provide individuals and organisations with the tools they need in order to work with diasporas effectively. The publication relates lessons learned from development and peace-building projects in Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. Individual case studies are accompanied by specific policy-oriented observations.

The researchers identified 10 overall recommendations, summarised below:

  • Adopt long-term strategic approaches to diaspora participation - Initiatives create expectations, and governmental and non-governmental actors who wish to establish relationships with diaspora individuals or groups risk doing more harm than good if they do not adopt a long-term strategic approach.
  • Sustain diaspora participation in all phases of the process - Diasporas should have a role in agenda setting, knowledge creation, analysis, planning, implementation and evaluation of development and peace-building engagements.
  • Recognise diaspora participation as civic participation - Knowing about and acknowledging the ways in which diasporas participate in development and peace-building activities independently is crucial, as is supporting these engagements as an integral part of mainstream peace-building and development cooperation initiatives.
  • Address fragmentation and politicisation – Address the root causes of the conflict in a constructive way. Finding ways to create de-politicised spaces is one way to do this.
  • Support professionals by improving recruitment policies - Staff members with a background from the countries in which key European development and peace-building actors do most of their work are currently underrepresented within those organisations.
  • Support voluntary efforts through an integrated approach – Approaches could combine capacity-building and organisational support with funding schemes.
  • Support bottom-up umbrella organisations – Bottom-up approaches need to have pragmatic and internal objectives, rather than existing for the purpose of political lobbying.
  • Understand capacity-building as knowledge-exchange – Peace-building and development can be facilitated by capacity-building. This can be achieved through training and providing opportunities to apply acquired skills. As such, capacity-building can be seen as a form of knowledge-exchange.
  • Invest in temporary return programmes for professionals – Voluntary programmes that enable diaspora members to return to their home countries on a temporary basis can be used to facilitate knowledge-exchange.
  • Acknowledge the links between diaspora engagement and integration – Develop an approach to discover the relationships between development, cooperation and foreign policy, and also between integration and immigration. Developing ways to enable the diaspora community to engage with their countries of origin can facilitate inclusion in the host country, for example.

The publication will contribute to the goal of facilitating increased participation of diasporas in peace-building and development. Exiled populations have a huge stake in the fate of their countries of origin and have an important role to play in an increasingly interconnected world.

DIASPEACE collaborated closely with another EC-funded project called INFOCON (Involving Transnational Communities - Civil Society Forum on Conflict) - also covered in this issue - and the two projects held a joint final conference:

DIASPEACE - Diasporas for peace: patterns, trends and potential of long-distance diaspora involvement in conflict settings. Case studies from the Horn of Africa (duration: 1/3/2008 – 28/2/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 4 “Europe and the world”, Research area 4.2 “Conflicts, peace and human rights” (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.diaspeace.org

Contact: Liisa Laakso, liisa.laakso@helsinki.fi; Cindy Horst, cindy@PRIO.NO