• 23 Feb 18
  • Posted by Yan Tan
  • Migration

Diasporas and development

People living outside their country of birth can play an important role in the economic development of their countries of origin. But as this column argues, these diasporas can also make a non-economic contribution – for example, influencing new thinking about citizenship, identity and sense of belonging, and providing assistance to their homelands in times of natural disasters and political instability. Governments in both source and destination countries need to work together on diaspora policies that maximise the development dividend and benefit the economic, social and cultural interests of all.

An estimated 244 million people live outside their country of birth, and half of them were born in Asia. Those who live abroad – commonly referred to as “diasporas” – play an important role in the development of their countries of origin.

Migration research has made important contributions to our understanding of diasporas by tracing spatial patterns, migration pathways and linkages between communities at home and overseas. But relatively little has been done in two particular areas:

  • First, moving beyond a concern with diasporas’ contribution to the economic development of origin countries and considering their non-economic contributions.

In this respect, migration research – and migration policy, especially in Asia – has not evolved in a way that aligns with “transnationalism”, which is currently one of the most influential perspectives on issues of migration and development.

Transnationalism refers to the many ties and interactions that link people and institutions across the borders of nation-states while not attaching identity to a single or specific territory (Schiller et al. 1992; Portes et al. 1990; Vertovec 1999; Yeoh et al. 1999; Faist 2000). While more than half of the world’s nations have a formal diaspora policy, Australia, China and many other countries in the Asia-Pacific do not (United Nations 2013).

What does it mean to take a transnational perspective? It means looking beyond the traditional focus on development impacts in migrants’ destination countries. Instead, it means trying to capture the changing nature of global migration by placing emphasis on the nature and implications of linkages between migrants in origin and destination countries, taking account of familial, cultural, economic and political domains of development in origin countries (Faist 2010; Faist et al. 2013).

Transnationalism also means trying to develop a better understanding of the multiple interlocking networks of relationships across borders through which diasporas operate – often described as ‘social fields’ (Levitt and Schiller 2004) or ‘social spaces’ (Pries 2013).

Policy-makers’ interest in the contribution of diasporas to development in origin countries has typically focused on economic matters. For example, the Global Forum for Migration and Development and the United Nations High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development both accord diasporas a central role in economic development and poverty reduction in their homelands.

It has been estimated that international financial remittances in 2015 were US$552 billion, of which US$421 billion went to low- and middle-income countries. At the same time, scholars have discussed how remittances are invested in property, business activities and building public infrastructure projects (Lacroix 2013; de Haas 2015).

Diasporas have also contributed to development in origin countries in non-economic ways. In particular, leaders of diaspora communities have influenced new thinking about citizenship, identity and sense of belonging. For example, India, Mexico and Pakistan have developed quasi-citizenship schemes to offer their diaspora communities a more defined political and social presence (Ho et al. 2015).

Empirical evidence also reveals the role of diasporas in providing assistance to their homelands in times of natural disasters and political instability (Ostergaard-Nielsen 2003; Newland et al. 2010). Scientific and technological developments have enabled more efficient communication, more frequent physical return to the country of origin, and an expansion of ‘virtual return’ – that is, the transfer of migrants’ knowledge and skills to their countries of origin without physical return.

There is still much to learn about diasporas’ non-economic contributions to development or the way in which the various forces operating in migrants’ countries of origin – especially economic, political and social ones – shape the nature of diasporas or affect source countries’ emigration policies.

Why is it important for countries to have a diaspora policy? Diaspora policies serve various aims ranging from facilitating return migration and building connections with diaspora to promoting diaspora integration into destination countries. By granting diaspora members legal status, through such things as dual citizenship and the right to vote, governments can strengthen the nation-diaspora connection by building symbolic nationalism and engaging diaspora members in transnational activities (Faist 2010; Mahieu 2015).

When planning diaspora policies, governments need to realise that transnational social spaces are dynamic, and diaspora policies may need to be adjusted over time. For example, governments that were once concerned about ‘brain drain’ may need to reconsider return policies, given how circular migration and virtual return increasingly provide more effective channels for economic and other forms of remittances.

As researchers, we too have a role to play. We should aim to encourage governments in origin and destination countries (and international society more broadly) to develop cohesive diaspora policy instruments. Ideally, these will benefit the economic, political, social and cultural interests of all, and help to develop regional collaboration for diaspora policies that maximise the development dividend and reduce the likelihood of negative effects.



Yan Tan is Associate Professor of Human Geography at the University of Adelaide, Australia. She is the lead Chief Investigator on a large-scale Australia Research Council-funded Discovery project on diaspora, demography and development.