Eritrean Diaspora Contribution: Dependency or Investment?
Asmara Cafe - Credit Natasha Stallard
By Meala Ghebremedhin
Academics and policy makers increasingly recognize the debate around the role of Diaspora in contributing
to the development of the homeland and the Eritrean Diaspora seems to be one example of this trend.
First, it is clear that the Government of Eritrea is well aware of its significant. In fact, it dated back
from the time of the armed struggle. You have probably seen how every speech or news starts with ‘Eritreans inside and in foreign countries’. Well, this may seem insignificant to many but it is a statement in which only few country recognize the role its Diaspora has.
Why does the Diaspora feel the need to contribute to the country they left? To understand this phenomenon, one should understand its meaning. In fact, Diaspora is often defined as migrant community, which is organized and has a sense of belonging to this community. Diasporas are usually active concerning the well being of the community but also of the homeland and willing to return as Mohan & ZackWilliams explained in the research titled Globalization from Below: Conceptualising the role of the African Diasporas in Africa’s Development (2002).
Accordingly, migrant communities are often willing to help the homeland and often consider it as their duty. The idealized perception of the home country is the tool for diasporic unity in order to support the homeland’s development. Indeed, Diasporas are usually mobile and have the advantage of learning from both resident and origin countries. They often use their skills such as languages to be active in the Diaspora. Hence, scholars are aware of the advantages Diasporas have taken by being multilingual for instance.
The latter explanation is one effect of global connections and networking between Diasporas, consequently, creating a transnational relation. Thus, globalization helps the work of Diaspora in the community and the homeland. Therefore, the term Diaspora can be associated with development in three ways: firstly, the creation of social ties among members of the Diaspora, helping each other for a sustaining existence. Secondly, migrants within Diasporas can use their social networks across the world in order to gain economic opportunities. Thirdly, the country of origin can also enforce transnational relations among migrants. Especially the historical context matters as it shapes the diasporic behavior in whether or not a transnational community would be functional.
Plus, governments welcome more easily projects held by Diasporas than foreign organizations (Kennedy 2000:89). Besides, transnational communities contribute to a sustainable form of development, as they know what is needed in the homeland. The transnational networks among Eritreans also gives the ability to adapt in different places for migrant communities through their sense of belonging to two homelands. Arguably, this transnational trend can contribute to the developmental support of the homeland through transnational activities, which can have political implications as migrants can use their remittances to lobby, finance investments and cultural events.
While globalization is thought to render borders meaningless, transnationalism to render nationhood passé, and the internet to have ushered in an new era of openness and connectivity, the activities of the Eritrean Diaspora and the Eritrean State point to the ways that nations not only continue to matter, but how nations can be constructed and strengthened through transnational flows and the technologies of globalization (Bernal 2004:3).
Accordingly, the money sent back home by migrants could be considerable according to certain countries.
Hence, different policies will be implemented, which reinforce the feeling of nationhood and motivate
transnational communities’ activities. This is specifically reflected in earlier states or newly independent
states in supporting development to strengthen this statement, remittances have become the second
largest source of financial support to less Developed Countries according to Solimano (2004:177). Besides,
the World Bank (WB) suggests that the amount of remittances towards Less developed countries was $164
billion in 2004-5 and $308 billion registered in 2008 (Ratha 2009 citedin Kennedy 2000: 92).
From my previous research undertaken in Switzerland, what is clear is that most Eritreans involved in the development of Eritrea immigrated in the 1970s-1980s. In fact, 20% of their annual salaries were sent to the liberated zones from the 1970s to the late 1980s. The contribution from the Diaspora during the armed struggle was not only financial but also political with the creation of associations such as the National Union of Eritrean Women, Eritrean workers and also the youth and students. Eritreans in the Diaspora started the movement for Eritrean Independence, which started in 1975 in Germany. Transnational networks among Eritreans were growing and increasingly influencing the homeland through congresses conducted once a year in Bologna, Italy with Eritreans from the Diaspora debating the situation in the homeland through seminars and cultural events. Therefore, the Eritrean Diaspora was already active before the actual phase of globalization.
Since the independence of Eritrea, the contribution did not end through the 2% tax for recovery and rehabilitation, the amount of transnational groups such as YPFDJ or NUEW are part of this phenomenon of organized Diaspora entities but also the unofficial method of sending money to relatives. The sense of belonging and duty to the homeland felt by the Diaspora is also strengthened by the state recognition and attractive policies towards its citizens living abroad for instance, allowing the dual citizenship, creating a bond system to buy a house, organizing cultural events and seminars.
Remittances are seen as a means to provide for the living of relatives, which confirm Tewolde’s (2005) findings written in its research entitled Remittances as a Tool for Development and Reconstruction in Eritrea: An Economic Analysis; from the household consumer survey that three quarter of respondents received remittances from abroad and around 89% had relatives in the Diaspora (Tewolde 2005:26-27). The case of the Eritrean Diaspora validates the affirmation by Kennedy (2000) that transnational migration is not just a cultural and political process but one which acts as central agent of economic globalization in its own right. The Eritrean Diaspora is a particular case, due to its significant involvement in the homeland.
Conceptualizing identity in the global era is clearly facilitated, but, as seen earlier, the Eritrean Diaspora shows that interconnection between transnational communities existed long before the “era of globalization”. Indeed, contributing to the homeland depends heavily on the historical context.
Remittances from Eritreans abroad as financial aid form a significant portion of Eritrea’s income and are vulnerable to any fluctuation. Consequently, these remittances depend heavily of the living conditions of those in exile and could create a dependency syndrome reflected onto the homeland. One challenging aspect is also the perception towards the Diaspora created through this dependency, as some relatives in Eritrea do not necessarily understand how the money was gained. In other words, Eritrean communities perceived financial help as a duty and it can be hard to sustain the same amount of money in a regular basis.
The feeling of maintaining their roots is based on a double consciousness of settling down in a new country while at the same time staying associated with another.
The influence of globalization and cultural shrinkage will be the main challenge among the new generation, whose mobilization and contribution to the development of the “homeland” might differ from the previous one. Thus, my question to our dear readers is how could we cut down this dependency syndrome among Eritreans living in exile and those in the homeland? Could it be seen as an advantage rather than depending on international institutions? Could we think of other methods of contributing to the homeland, such as long-term investment? Would the diasporic consciousness and commitment remain among the younger generations? How about the question of brain-gain as the Swiss Ambassador for Eritrea and Sudan, Mr. Martin Strub, stressed that Eritrea has a huge potential and the use of its Diaspora through the notion of ‘know-how’ should be strengthened.
To be continued, while sipping this macchiato.
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