DIASPORA: “Emigrants and their descendants, who live outside the country of their birth or ancestry, either on a temporary or permanent basis, yet still maintain effective and material ties to their countries of origin.”[i]
Diasporas are increasingly seen as powerful agents of economic and social development, crisis first-responders and post-conflict partners. They invest in their countries of origin by sending remittances, starting businesses and providing medical and other services.
When a crisis hits or conflict starts, diasporas are among the first to respond by organizing medical missions, sending humanitarian supplies, getting money to family and friends and lobbying governments where they live to provide assistance.
As conflicts wind down, they build peace by supporting or serving as moderate political leaders, technocrats and civil society leaders. They invest their time, capital and skills, oftentimes bridging the gap in services and funding when humanitarian assistance winds down and more formal development programs start up. And, unlike others, their funds and attention are not dependent on political whims, budget cycles or the next crisis.
At the same time, they have a mixed post-conflict record. They can cause conflicts to drag on or restart by funding and lobbying for military action and advocating hard-line positions.
They risk losing touch with on-the-ground realities and legitimacy with those who stayed to tough it out. Voices that resonate most clearly with donors are oftentimes functionally secular and liberal in outlook and may underestimate the compromises those who stay behind are willing to make to feed their children, stop violence and live with a semblance of stability. Recent Syrian exiles, by their proximity to the violence and identity as revolutionaries, risk being blinded to the fact that over time they become more like earlier emigrants and less like those who stayed.
Diasporas from Muslim-majority or troubled states may also be perceived as security risks for financing and supporting criminal and terrorist activity or a potential threat by becoming home-grown terrorists.
Syrian communities outside Syria key for reconstruction
The Syrian diaspora, or Syrian communities outside Syria play key roles in Syria’s conflict and will invest heavily not only in its $200 billion reconstruction but also in rebuilding its society. Especially given the current international climate and dearth of reconstruction funds, the Syrian diaspora will be a key long-term asset. Post-conflict planning should factor in how this energy, capital and experience can best be incorporated into wider reconstruction plans.
Diaspora engagement strategies primarily focus on encouraging diaspora members to send remittances, make investments, establish businesses, work in skilled professions and train or mentor others. Official engagement strategies are costly to set up and maintain, risk diverting resources from more essential tasks and are not necessarily effective. Rather, governments with limited resources should focus on creating an environment where diasporas can remit money efficiently and cheaply, invest their funds and time, and feel welcomed. To encourage capital investments, new Syrian central and local governments should cultivate connections with Syrian communities abroad and create an environment conducive to creating the type of return—be it financial, emotional, or social status, that motivates them to invest.[ii]
Those living in post-conflict environments are dependent on remittances, often for years. Before the war, Syria received remittances relative to government expenditure of over 25 per cent from 20 countries.[iii] With five million refugees outside Syria and six million internally displaced within, ensuring Syrians can receive money quickly and cheaply from family abroad for daily living expenses and rebuilding homes and businesses is key for reconstruction.
This work draws from research by the Shattuck Center on Conflict, Negotiation, and Recovery on the socioeconomic importance of diaspora inclusion in post-war societies.
[i] Working definition for the term diaspora from International Organization for Migration/Migration Policy Institute. Developing a Road Map for Engaging Diasporas in Development: A Handbook for Policymakers and Practitioners in Home and Host Countries (2012).
[ii] Nielsen, T.M. & Riddle, L. Investing in Peace: The Motivational Dynamics of Diaspora Investment in Post-Conflict Economies. Journal of Business Ethics (2009) 89 (Suppl 4).
[iii] RAND. “Mapping Diasporas in the European Union and United States: Comparative analysis and recommendations for engagement.” (2012).