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. Now is the time to overturn outdated perceptions, writes Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete, and for Africa to utilise its diaspora’s potential.
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 in to 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, by some miracle, are 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 carefully tapped rather than embraced.
They are resources, of course. 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 concede on them 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 reports.
But while diasporas may be resources, 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? They are and they can be so much more, especially when diasporas have achieved great things for the human race. Why can’t their potential gained from exposure, experiences and education overseas be brought back home encouragingly and be 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 elsewhere?
Coming from Ethiopia, I can speak of so many Ethiopians who have influenced the world beyond their adopted or original borders. I can speak of the late Ethiopian space scientist, Kitaw Ejigu, who was NASA’s Chief of Spacecraft and Satellite Systems. I can speak of the Ethiopian agricultural scientist at Purdue University, Gebisa Ejeta, who developed Africa’s first commercial hybrid variety of sorghum tolerant to drought and parasitic weed. I can speak of 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. I can speak of Professor Tilahun Yilma of the University of California, who developed a genetically-engineered vaccine for the fatal cattle disease rinderpest, and who invented the 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.
Why, then, do we still measure our diaspora’s worth by their hand downs when it is their brains that could create infinitely more value back home? Is it the case of the prophet being ‘not accepted in his hometown’? To me, the diaspora might just be the card Africa has hidden under 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, as another organ of the continent’s body is a good beginning to recognising and unleashing their full potential. Second-guessing the disapora’s loyalty to the motherland, as we did of Billene Seyoum in Ethiopia, is no means to win their hearts back home.
Behailu Shiferaw Mihirete (@behailus) is a former journalist and communication specialist from Ethiopia. Currently, he studies Politics and Communication at LSE’s Department of Media and Communication. Behailu is the runner-up of the LSE Africa Summit blog competition 2019.