1. Please tell us something more about yourself (background, work experience, active projects) with aspect on how did you become interested in diaspora issues outside of your direct interest in the Irish diaspora.
I have been working on diaspora engagement for many years now and my interest sparked from my academic work considering the role of the Irish diaspora in the peace process in Northern Ireland. This work opened my eyes into how diaspora communities network and can initiate economic and social change at home and abroad. This has led to energy on my end to build the sector of diaspora engagement and to encourage people to share their experiences and ideas.
When I completed my research, I was lucky enough to spend some time researching on a project commissioned by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade looking into how best support the next generation of the Irish diaspora. This was followed by a visiting fellowship at UN University (UNU-MERIT) in Maastricht. All the while, I was helping a dear friend and mentor, Kingsley Aikins, with his work at Diaspora Matters, which brought me into contact with advisory, consulting and strategy work across the globe on diaspora. I’ve had the pleasure of working with great clients in the public and private sector who have afforded me the opportunity to inspire new thinking on diaspora engagement and leave the sector in a better place than when I entered (or at least that’s the hope!). Currently, I am contributing to the development of the diaspora work in areas such as Iraq, something that I could not have imagined writing on the Irish diaspora a few years ago.
2. Are the benefits of the diaspora more than economic?
Of course. Let’s be frank – a lot of attention on diaspora engagement has come from increasing attention towards some of the big numbers of the migration-development relationship. We talk of millions on migrants, billions on remittances and so forth. Therefore, and somewhat naturally, a lot of energy is focused on the economic engagement of the diaspora. Whilst this is important, diaspora capital comes in many forms – not just economic.
I’m a big believer that this work needs to be fun and provide pathways through which the economic debate can happen. Some hard realities of this business are that it is a contact sport and your success will likely be determined by the quality of your connections and ideas. It is a people industry. This works in small numbers and, often, in non-economic realms. Sometimes too much focus is placed on the economic and leads to a “short termism” of transactional mindsets. Get out there and build relationships, embrace your
vulnerability and have lots of meaningful fun along the way. Then you’ll begin to see that the benefits of diaspora engagement are much beyond the economic – on an individual and institutional setting.
3. How do you build a network to find and keep ‘key influencers’ in the diaspora?
Building a network is a mindset endeavor and one that takes effort, expenditure, andexecution. Without question, the market leader in networking (generally and diaspora specific) is Kingsley. Networking is a skill and it is important to treat it as such where you can up-skill yourself or your institutional staff to make it a central component of how they envision their meaning. You also must put in the hard yards and wire technology with touch. But it starts with a mindset, you should be able to invest in this emotionally and make the physical commitment to doing it – don’t go half-hearted; it will do more harm than good if you do. I’m existing proof that this stuff works and I would encourage your network to give Kingsley a call. Networking is now mainstream so invest in it.
In terms of the skills involved, key ones include research, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship. These are, in many cases, the operational steps. But don’t forget the softer needs such as giving and building trust. When engaging with key influencers, they are key influencers for a reason. Spend time getting to know them and figuring out how you may be able to help them on their journey. Be authentic, caring, ethical and reliable – it’s the least you can do!
4. What should a diaspora organization focus on in the long-term?
It depends on the type of organization. In terms of a broad overview, it is true that many diaspora organizations are idea rich but cash dry. Good intentions can only take you so far. So, at the beginning of the journey for many diaspora organizations the long-term needs to be operational development. Try to understand your offering or service, identify partners and other ingredients. Sadly, most diaspora organizations are gasping for air when it comes to human or financial resources; we need to change the culture.
Those who nail this organizational component with the propositional one can do truly transformative work in their sectors. Look at it this way, with the increasing numbers of migrants and negative image of migration globally; diaspora has been a growth industry! Get in the mode of acquiring talented staff (well paid), getting governance indices tight and inspiring your cohort (client or otherwise). In doing so, the long-term focus becomes more easily accessible. One facet of long-term strategy work that has not sat well in diaspora organizations is the need for agility and flexibility. This will be an important organizational currency of the future – make sure your organization is equipped to keep up with the pace of change.
5. How can a diaspora organization have influence on government while remaining
Firstly, ask, “Should they be influencing government?” In other words, don’t unnecessarily over-politicize diaspora engagement. Of course, there’ll be moments where the two areas align – for example in potential legislative reform to build a coherent investment climate from the diaspora and so forth. The interplay of government and diaspora works best when it is light. In many instances, diaspora won’t need government to achieve their endgame and vice versa.
The rise in the number of government policies for diaspora engagement also allows opportunities for governments and the diaspora to talk to each other. In this journey, it is important to be honest and listen (no doubt some folks will hear things that they do not want to hear!). So, this is arguably the natural avenue in which diaspora organizations can influence governments. Any additional work in this regard will depend on the intentions and nature of the organization – for me, if politically neutral is a negotiated need for a diaspora organization then just avoids politics! Another way of looking at it is through the advocacy role of diaspora communities – this can be a powerful tool but it is best done at a community rather than organizational level as it breeds division at the organizational level.
6. What are the best ways to develop diaspora philanthropy?
For me, this is the exciting and important question of our time of diaspora engagement. Thehard reality of the global developmental agenda is that traditional development vehicles cannot afford it. The increasing impacts of private wealth for the public good will continue to build. In terms of diaspora philanthropy, we need to share more stories and spend more energies understanding it. For example, the depth and range of academic work on the topic need upgrading, we’ve had some remarkable early movers in this terrain but they need greater support.
On a more practical support, I am a firm believer that when engaging in an area (philanthropy or otherwise), it is important to immerse yourself in the spirit and practice of that area. I would encourage anyone looking to develop philanthropy – diaspora or otherwise – to spend some time learning about its origins and history. For example, philanthropy is often misconstrued as charity. These are different mindsets and phenomena. Charity is giving to alleviate the consequences of the ills of our day whilst
philanthropy is giving to tackle the root causes of those ills. They’re very different endgames. So, to develop philanthropy, understand it deeply because it is a deep way of giving. Beyond that, it is too detailed to mention but some key skills – be professional along with authentic, caring, ethical and reliable (sound familiar!). Feel free to reach out and happy to discuss more.