A discussion of the various roles that diasporas may play in relation to their homelands and the non-migrants who live there.


In order to analyse the role of Diasporas in relation to their homelands, a brief understanding of what represents a Diaspora is useful. With the aim of circumventing the vast literature on the conceptual debate, which is not the main purpose of my argument, I will understand Diaspora in similar lines as Robin Cohen (1996). His nine reference points, more than providing a rigid threshold for a community to be considered a Diaspora, equips us with a list of common features that are analytical and flexible enough for us to progress with our argument. His criteria includes, among other points: dispersal from original homeland; a collective memory; and a sense of empathy, solidarity and strong ethnic group conscience (1996:515). This means I do not see Diasporas as comprising only “groups that are barred from direct participation in the political system of their homeland” and issues of sovereignty and security (Ostegaard-Nielsen 2003:763). These broader lines allow us, for example, to look at the case of Cape Verdean Diaspora in addition to the one of the Tamil Diaspora.

Diaspora-homeland relation can be understood within the system of the “triadic relationship” referred to by Vertovec (1999). This system comes about in a discussion over transnationalism, of which Diasporas are naturally a part of. It looks at how they belong to three core relationships between: (a) globally dispersed yet collectively self-identified ethnic groups, (b) the territorial states and contexts where such groups reside, and (c) the homeland states and contexts whence they or their forebears came (1999:449). The focus will be on this last link between the Diaspora and the homeland’s states and contexts. The roles that Diasporas play in relation to their homelands will be understood as being comprised of three overlapping and interacting dimensions: psycho-cultural; political; and economic-developmental.


“The most important thing in my life is to emigrate”

(Cape Verdean migrant quoted in Akesson 2004:167)

This first dimension is characterized by the psycho-cultural implications of the divide between those in the Diaspora and the “stayers”. The exchanges between those who migrated and those who stayed behind represents a dialogue holding in itself a “moral economy of social being” (Ghassan Hage quoted in Carling 2006:7) that needs to be analysed if Diaspora is to be understood in relation to the homeland. The psychological processes affecting those staying in the homeland as well as the migrants themselves are important in order to understand the dilemmas their decision-making implies.

Firstly, the Diaspora can propagate and replicate a common past linked to the homeland that reinforces cultural, psychological and historical connections by preserving “identity values” (Fuglerud 2001:196). Distance however, can also bring about asymmetries in information between migrants and non-migrants with perceived imaginaries of homeland and destination that can gain a “life of their own”. For example, the success stories of migrants in “el Dorados” can generate unfounded expectations while the memory of departure places as backward might create a sense of superiority on those who have migrated. There are often very high expectations from the relatives, sometimes because of under-evaluation of the hardships migrants are faced with in the new environment. Reading Stephanie Akuei’s (2005:11) study of the Sudanese Dinka Diaspora clearly shows how “outbound responsibilities can have the impact of limiting refugees’ ability to settle successfully in the local environment”. Moreover, recent work on the generational gap of Diasporas makes evident substantial differences between different waves of migrants moving from the homeland at different times as well. Differences also exist between 1st generation migrants that are closely attached to the homeland, and 2nd and 3rd generation. In fact, migration causes changes and conflicts between generations over time (Fuglerud 2001:197; Gunaratna 2003:213). These asymmetries materialize in what Jorgen Carling describes as the cropping up of “transnational moralities” (Carling 2006:2). These moralities are formed through relations of exchange constructing the perceptions of how life is in the Diaspora and in the homeland where “the access to the transnational sphere becomes an important dimension of social stratification, intertwined with socio-economic status.” (Carling 2004:120). Transnational moralities concern, for example, what differentiates the “exemplary” migrant that materially, culturally and politically contributes to the homeland from those who have been ungrateful. The Diaspora also has a role in setting up what are the moral obligations towards their homeland and actively creates and replicates the psychological and cultural interdependence between the two places. The existence of a Diaspora has therefore a vast cultural and psychological effect on non-migrants to the extent that it can even define the culture of the homeland itself. From reading the stories and the migration mechanisms in Carling’s (2002;2006) and Akesson’s (2004) work one can quickly realize that it is impossible to understand what it means to be Cape Verdean with its life, culture and politics if you disregard its Diaspora. It is impossible to understand why Sao Vicentians “view themselves as ‘experts’ on migration and cultural integration” (Akesson 2004:21). It is impossible to fully understand the continuous repetition of the expression “faze nha vida” (to make my life) in the everyday conversations of Cape Verdeans (Carling 2002:18).


“It is also important to stop and listen at the Hyde Park Corner of transnational politics, even if central policy-makers rarely pass by”

(Ostegaard-Nielsen 2003:780)

Political life in the homeland does not end after a migrant packs his or her suitcase and submerges into the Diaspora. In fact, it is often the very opposite that occurs, with migrants in the Diaspora discovering a whole new political environment in which they have to navigate with due challenges and opportunities. Current literature on transnationalism reveals that the political participation of the Diaspora comes in many different shapes and can be placed on a continuum going from ‘narrow’ to ‘broad’. This continuum allows researchers to come to terms with the diverse levels of intensity of participation in political life by different members of a Diaspora. ‘Narrow’ will refer to “actual membership of parties or hometown associations while ‘broad’ refers to occasional participation in meetings and events (Ostegaard-Nielsen 2003:761).

As the Diaspora expands and develops, both ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ relations can become more influential in the domestic and foreign policy of the homeland. Hometown associations together with recent developments in communications, such as the internet, the mobile boom, and cheap travelling and money transfers, have been instrumental. These tools have facilitated exchanges and keep creating hubs for potentially more intense political engagements between, on the one hand political associations in the homeland (such as parties, government and lobbying groups) and, on the other hand, organized groups and movements in the Diaspora (such as hometown associations). Diasporas have actually been reinforced by the internet’s communicational and organisational potential, not diluted in a supposedly cacophony of cyber‑cosmopolitanism. It creates an umbrella covering scattered Diasporas that protects and reinforces the political and emotional links to the homeland (Eriksen 2006). In these terms, Diasporas can act as “pro-active peace-promoting” platforms for conflict-resolution as has been the case with a few migrants from Cyprus, Somalia and Sudan (Zunzer 2004:11,42). Although research is still in its early stages on the subject, Diasporas can form what Ostegaard-Nielsen describes as ‘transnational civil-society’, a society that can challenge and improve democratic self-awareness in the homeland. The mechanisms for this comprise directly participating in elections, policy-making and community-life decisions back home. Alternatively, the Diaspora can also advance its agenda by indirectly influencing host governments, lobbying the foreign policy of the Diaspora’s host country. As Ostegaard-Nielsen (2003:775) observes, “an analysis of U.S. policies towards the Middle East, Haiti, Cuba, or Northern Ireland, would be deficient without considering the efforts of Jewish, Arab, Haitian, Cuban or Irish Diasporas, respectively.”

This apparent beneficial role of the Diaspora to the homeland is however not entirely straightforward. Not all Diasporas become automatically democratic after migrating to a place with a long-standing democratic tradition. Not all migrants in the Diaspora migrate to democratic countries. The case of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is illustrative. Instead of promoting peace, the LTTE established a comprehensive transnational network fuelling the war efforts for a Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Although the Tamil Diaspora is not homogeneous, Gunaratna (2003) managed to compile a set of ways in which the Tamil Diaspora contributes to the maintenance of the LTTE as an institution and therefore towards sustaining the armed conflict. These are: “through individual contributions; illegal and quasi‑legal ventures; the narcotics trade; and managing and supporting international and domestic investments, trade, and businesses” (2003:202). The calls for these contributions put many elements of the Diaspora under pressure and are accompanied by problems of accountability. In fact, the exercise of some political freedoms is sometimes threatened by some autocracy and centralization of the LTTE that leaves little room for any alternative Diasporic frameworks. Fact remains that at the individual level, the production of the Diasporic community is not always ‘imagined’ and voluntary but is at times structured and “imposed” (Fuglerud 2001:211).


“Remittances represent far more than simple financial transactions; they are the outcome of the separation of families, the disruption of national economies, and the exodus of creative and hardworking adults from poor to rich countries”

(Orozco & Wilson 2005:392)

Development and economic relations between the Diaspora and the homeland are inextricably linked. Estimates that around “175 million people have moved from poorer to richer countries across the globe” makes the question of the economic effects of the Diaspora in the homeland worth noting (Orozco & Wilson 2005:378). Migration policies are now starting to be looked at as untapped platforms for development. As Chikezie (2006) notes: “the World Bank, in its Global Economic Prospects 2006 conducted by Sussex University indicated that global benefits of a further 3% increase in migration from developing to developed countries could yield a $365 billion increase in global income, dwarfing aid or Foreign Direct Investment”.

Conversely, it is also important to acknowledge some of the problems of brain drain in the homeland, a phenomenon indicating a loss of qualified labour from of the homeland to those places hosting the Diaspora. This loss is nevertheless all but permanent. It is a primary task of a vigorous Diaspora movement to make sure that those abroad contribute, at least periodically, to the economy of the homeland. The ways to do this vary. One of the most visible economic interactions between the Diaspora and the homeland are migrant remittances. The onset of financial institutions specialized in the transfers of remittances lowering prices together with traditional cash-in-hand exchanges have helped a recent estimation that remittances are now “double the size of aid” (Sorenson et al 2002:54). The actors partaking in the exchanges of these remittances vary but they have traditionally been family affairs. The case is very often that the channels of remittances constitute authentic lifelines for those who stayed behind. At the same time, the nature of this micro-level relationship leads some authors to echo some fears of “Dutch disease”. Besides the fact that remittances’ end-use is very often hardly traceable by senders, the inherent inequalities between positions of sender and receiver can lead to some forms of dependency by those on the receiving end. The use of remittances in rituals of circumcision is often looked at as a financial burden by Sri Lankans in the Diaspora. This is an example of the moral, ethic and economic tensions of these relationships (Van Hear 2002:216). What it means to spend remittances in “conspicuous ways” can be subjective and dependent on your standpoint as a sender or a receiver, representing an ongoing en jeux for both non-migrants and those in the Diaspora (Orozco & Wilson 2005:137).

As mentioned, although remittances have been essentially micro-network family affairs, authorities in the homeland have slowly been acknowledging that those in the Diaspora increasingly constitute a vital set of resources that need to be tapped into. By managing homeland-Diaspora loyalties, these authorities foster not just political engagement by establishing overseas constituencies for voting, allowing for double-nationality but also by lessening tax burdens on migrant commercial exchanges, and targeting policies at attracting investment from the Diaspora. Connected to these are the translocal relations between hometowns and home town associations. These associations linking for example small towns and villages in Mexico, with neighbourhoods and communities in the United States, represent a form of interaction that cuts across nation-state allegiances but is still embedded in the Diaspora. They link places at the micro-level and have been successful in carrying out projects developing health, education and other infrastructure (2002:54).

Simultaneously, the ‘migration-aid to development nexus’ is increasingly at the centre of academic and political debate (Sorensen et al 2002). While some of the Diaspora’s successes can stimulate further migration, foreign aid and migration have been interacting in not always synchronized ways. Non-migrants are faced with a situation whereby foreign donors’ aid, together with remittances from the Diaspora, stimulates the material conditions and opportunities for migration. At the same time migrant receiving countries in the developed ‘North’ tightened up their respective migration policies and make ‘South-North’ mobility more complicated, even leading some to call the contemporary era an age of “involuntary immobility” (Carling 2002). In this sense it is important to keep in mind that aid and remittances cannot be mutually exclusive as their mechanisms and effects are distinct. The private and localized character of remittances means that they are no “substitution for pro-growth policies, investment in education and in skills”. Calls for looking at the two as complementary instead of mutually exclusive are therefore justifiable (Sorensen et al 2002:55).


The overall picture left by the analysis of the three dimensions of the roles of the Diasporas in relation to the homeland and non-migrants is one of dualities and complexities. The material conditions of globalisation keeps generating new opportunities for interaction between those in the homeland and those in the Diaspora as communications and travelling improve and become cheaper.

The three dimensions analysed showed themselves as overlapping and interdependent, meaning that you cannot understand one of them without the other two. To understand the cultural and psychological processes of those in the Diaspora it is essential to understand the economic and political path that led them to move in the first place. To understand individual attitudes and conceptions of family and of ‘self’ it is key to understand what are the contradictions non-migrants and migrants face between mechanisms appealing and repealing the ambition of migration.

The opportunities and challenges for the families and communities that stayed behind and for those in the Diaspora are “two faces of two different coins”. Although there is fluidity between the two ‘worlds’ they constitute essentially two very different situations. Two different places, in constant communication, whose perceptions of each other and of themselves rarely match bringing about inherent conflicts and tensions as time goes by and change naturally accelerates. The overall picture shows that the Diaspora, through its political and social networks that are linked to the homeland, has the potential to influence domestic politics. This can be both in the support of the reigning government or in the opposition, in the form of secessionist, nationalist, pro-regime movements, anti-regime rebel movements and others. Diasporas can undoubtedly “advance national development from abroad” (Sorensen et al 2002:54) but can also advance sub-national development and set up movements that subvert and challenge the established status-quo in the homeland.


Chikezie, C. 2006. “Make poverty history? Make migration Easy!” in Open Democracy (online edition), 10 January. http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-africa_democracy/poverty_migration_3166.jsp (30 September 2006)

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