Enabling Diaspora Development Contributions: Policies and Caveats

Enabling Diaspora Development Contributions: Policies and Caveats

Illustration Human Diaspora


by Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff

Actions at all levels, from the global to the local, are needed to fully enable diasporas’ contributions to the development of their homelands. This paper summarizes policy options for homeland governments and donors, as well as caveats to these recommendations. It concludes with a review of selected implementation issues. The analysis builds from my work in the policy arena, most especially Brinkerhoff (forthcoming).

Enabling Diasporas and Development
Generally, an enabling environment for non-governmental actors’ participation in development requires: a) effective policy, legal, and regulatory frameworks; b) institutional capacity across sectors and at various levels; c) an inclination for governments to seek out and respond to citizens’ needs and preferences; d) a range of oversight, accountability, and feedback mechanisms; and e) public resources and investments (D. Brinkerhoff, 2007).  In the case of diasporans’ contributions, questions for assessing an enabling environment for diaspora contributions include:

  • Does the regulatory environment support economic opportunities?
  • Do diaspora members have access to positions of authority and respect within society, both for influence and for obtaining these positions for themselves?
  • Do they have access to and the ability to influence decision makers?
  • Do they have access to the information necessary or supportive of their effectiveness for a particular agenda?
  • Is their cause perceived to be legitimate?
  • Do they have access to material resources?

The role of government in fostering an enabling environment can be categorized as consisting of the following actions: mandating, facilitating, resourcing, partnering, and endorsing (D. Brinkerhoff, 2007). Table 1 looks at these general roles and provides illustrative actions. These roles can originate from a variety of places within the homeland government, as following table suggests.


Mandating refers to the legal and regulatory framework that affects diasporas, all the way from citizenship rights (e.g., dual citizenship, voting), if granted, to basic rights that allow for diasporans to initiate activities in the homeland independent of state control and laws governing the creation and operation of NGOs (diaspora philanthropic organizations) and businesses.  Examples of mandating range from waiving visa requirements (as in India), to dual citizenship, voting rights, and formal political representation (as in Mexico).

In its facilitating role, government provides incentives for diasporas; for example, recognizing diasporas as important constituents and protecting or seeking to improve their quality of life abroad, providing a networking function among diaspora groups, organizing diaspora summits and diplomatic visits, and creating specialized government agencies and initiatives to interface with the diaspora.  The Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs offers a range of diaspora informational assistance and some incentives. It provides information and guidance on: investment and entrepreneurial activities in India through its “Handbook for Overseas Indians”; and educational opportunities in India and diaspora-specific income tax policies through its webpage. 

Resourcing can involve direct public funding, as in the case of matching grants for diaspora philanthropy or investment in diaspora business development. Government resourcing also includes the establishment of financial incentives that encourage diaspora contributions, such as tax and tariff policies that provide exemption to diaspora initiatives. The best known example of diaspora resourcing is Mexico’s 3 for 1 matching program, which in some areas now includes an additional match from the private sector (Western Union). This program is also an example of partnering in that each contributing actor agrees to selected projects to be implemented and provides additional facilitation as needed.

Partnering is a role that brings government into relationships with DOs based more on mutual interest and shared benefits, which capitalize on the comparative advantages of the partners. Government can establish mechanisms and procedures that allow public entities to enter into partnership arrangements with DOs. For example, through a partnership between the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ghanaian medical diaspora in the Netherlands, and the International Organization for Migration, The Hague (Welcker and Gulam, 2007) diasporans serve between two weeks to three months in country, or provide technical assistance virtually. Hospitals nominate staff for training in the Netherlands, the MOH and IOM vet these nominations and match a diasporan health professional to that hospital to cover capacity and knowledge transfer needs.

Endorsing refers to actions that publicize, praise, and encourage individual diasporans and DOs. Government’s role here relates to reinforcing cultural values and influencing attitudes. Government endorsement confirms the value of diasporans to the homeland society, enhancing their legitimacy as homeland constituents and development actors, and contributing to their social status. For example, in 2006, Ghana’s investment promotion agency honored 20 diasporans with “Planters of the Seed” awards for setting up business units in Ghana (Riddle et al., 2008). Wescott and Brinkerhoff (2006) provide additional examples from China and the Philippines.

These are all actions that homeland governments can take, and they also provide guidance for targeting donor assistance. The international donor community could make significant contributions to enhancing the capacity of governments to respond to these opportunities, both through technical assistance for legal frameworks and policy and programming, and through direct capacity building and resourcing of government agencies and personnel, diaspora organizations, and potential intermediaries from the NGO and private sectors.


Several caveats merit attention. Diasporans seeking a greater role in their homeland’s development would be wise to take note of these, temper their expectations, and inform their diplomacy accordingly. One means for overcoming government resistance is to build legitimacy directly with homeland residents. Citizen demands for improved quality of life establish clear incentives for governments to enable diaspora action.

First, the framework takes for granted that homeland governments will be neutral to welcoming vis-à-vis diaspora contributions to development. Not all diaspora contributions may be constructive and effective, and even when they are, the homeland government may view the diaspora as threatening or competing with its own legitimacy and effectiveness.  This caveat is particularly relevant with respect to diaspora policy influence. For the poor countries of the globe where democratization is nascent, partial, or nonexistent, the incentives for government to enable interest aggregation and policy advocacy are less clear-cut and in some situations are limited or negative. The additional constraints to enabling diaspora policy influence for countries emerging from or with a history of intra-ethnic conflict are obvious. Many developing and transitioning country governments view diasporas with suspicion and antagonism, fearful of their potential for fueling political opposition and jealous of their host country political access and other advantages, even as they turn to diasporas to make philanthropic and investment contributions.

Second, diaspora involvement may only selectively benefit individuals, families, and communities; it may create additional tensions within differentiated societies, especially when it exacerbates income gaps, potentially leading to civil unrest; it may lead to additional political unrest or persecution of communities on whose behalf diasporas are advocating (see, for example, Elgindy, 1999); and, it may be at cross-purposes with the government’s and the international development industry’s development priorities and programming. The International Organization for Migration, in its review of the migration-development nexus, concludes that migrants’ contributions may replace, supplement or even undermine aid, and thus call for “a case-specific approach, where donors… invite international NGOs and diaspora organizations for transparent dialogues on the overall resource flows to the country, including to possible conflicting parties” (Nyberg-Sorensen et al., 2002, 39).

Third, diasporas are not, and perhaps should not be privileged. Even in mature democracies, the existence of an enabling environment for non-governmental activities does not override the realities of differential access to power and influence, the pervasiveness of interest-group politics, and the persistence of a marginalized and relatively impoverished underclass in the democracies of the industrialized world. Diasporas will realistically be seen as additional interest groups vying for power and resources alongside other resident actors.

Implementation Issues

The framework says little about how to prioritize among the plethora of policy and program options and within each of government’s principal roles. Some might even argue that given governments’ limited resources; they might do better to focus on a more supportive enabling environment for everyone, not just for diasporas’ contributions. While this may be true, the general and more targeted enabling environments are not mutually exclusive and the premise of this framework is that diasporas may, in fact, have important contributions to make to the broader enabling environment. Furthermore, not all diaspora-specific enabling environment interventions are exorbitantly costly.

While each country case should necessarily be tailored to the specifics of that government, its diaspora, and their relations status, some general suggestions for prioritization are possible. First, given governments’ limited capacity and resources, a low-cost starting point is to focus on their mandating role. Policies and programs in this arena constitute macro-policy reforms, or stroke-of-the-pen policies, which typically do not require the wholesale creation of new bureaucracies or the injection of significant resources to support implementation. Second, diaspora outreach activities are a relatively low cost investment, many of which can be added on to other initiatives, representing incremental costs, for example, meetings with diasporans during scheduled diplomatic visits to priority host countries. Websites and databases, once developed are not terribly costly to maintain. Third, homeland governments can lobby host country governments for bilateral aid to support these efforts, arguing for win-win strategies for the two countries. Such support could facilitate capacity building, technical assistance, and the creation of new structures and initiatives.

Perhaps the most important lesson, previously identified (Brinkerhoff, 2006), is to target interventions to those diasporans who are already mobilized, willing, and able to contribute to priority development aims. In short, governments should target the mobilized, and not seek to mobilize the targeted, suggesting a need to carefully craft selection criteria for each initiative. To that end, many diasporas are themselves fairly well-organized and can be effective partners in further facilitating diaspora contributions to homeland development.

A critical issue for the enabling environment is whether societal actors, both in and outside of government, have the requisite capacity to establish and sustain appropriate enabling conditions to support diaspora efforts that will advance development.  Several national and international policy discussions have addressed the capacity of the diaspora to contribute to development (such as the Global Forums on Migration and Development Civil Society Days), but scant formal attention has been given to governments’ own capacity to interface effectively with their diasporas on the full range of potential contributions. Government capacity to interface with their diasporas was highlighted by the Global Commission on International Migration (2005). To date, few, if any, donor-supported investments in such capacity building have emerged.


Diaspora relations require new thinking, new structures, and new policies. Diaspora development contributions typically are not integrated into considerations of state-society relations nor are they supported in legal frameworks and government modalities even in relatively more mature democracies. The framework provided here is intended to encourage and inform this evolution, both in terms of replicating aspects of other countries’ experiences, and pioneering new ways to provide resources and incentives to diasporas and secure their development contributions.


  • Brinkerhoff, D. W. 2007. “The Enabling Environment for Achieving the Millennium Development Goals:  Government Actions to Support NGOs.” In J. M. Brinkerhoff, S. C. Smith, and H. Teegen, eds. NGOs and the Millennium Development Goals: Citizen Action to Reduce Poverty. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 83-101.
  • Brinkerhoff, Jennifer M. “Creating an Enabling Environment for Diasporas’ Participation in Homeland Development.” International Migration, forthcoming.
  • Brinkerhoff, Jennifer M. “Diaspora Mobilization Factors and Policy Options.” In Clay Wescott and Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff, eds. Converting Migration Drains into Gains: Harnessing the Resources of Overseas Professionals. Manila: Asian Development Bank, 2006: 127-153. Available at:
  • Elgindy, K. “Diaspora Troublemakers: Is the Organized Coptic Community in the U.S. Doing more Harm than Good?” Cairo Times, 1999, 2 (25), 4 February 1999.
  • Global Commission on International Migration. 2005. Migration in an Interconnected World: New Directions for Action. Geneva: Author.
  • Nyberg-Sorensen, N., et al. “The migration-development nexus: evidence and policy options.” IOM Migration Research Series, No. 8. International Organization for Migration, 2002.


Porträt Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff

Jennifer Brinkerhoff is Associate Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs and co-directs the Diaspora Research Program at George Washington University.

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