Diaspora: Agents or Tools of Humanitarian Response in Crises?
Large networks are powerful. They are even more so when people share a common goal or experience. This is why diaspora networks around the world are incredibly influential.
Diaspora are usually the transporters of cultural soft power, bridging gaps between their native and host or settled countries. They build new networks and communities of solidarity and contribute to rich transnational cultural diversity.
In her key-note address at the Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination summit in May this year, Paddy Siyanga Knudsen perfectly described diaspora action as a ‘way of life which natural extends in times of crisis’.
When it comes to moments of crises, in the humanitarian sector they are usually the principal responders in the face of crises, protracted displacement and conflict. In it for the long run, diaspora usually remain immersed in a plethora of way for the duration of a crises. Responding and reflecting the needs of those affected with empathy, nuance and ally-ship.
In the Horn of Africa for example, remittances alone have proven to be the difference between life and death reaching the most marginalised communities. This is true in times of emergency but also post-emergency settings, where many larger international humanitarian tend to disappear once the immediate crisis dissipates.
Diaspora organising is effective in 3 key ways:
- Authentic access to real-time information and updates in affected spaces and communities
- Empathetic person-centred approach to humanitarianism often strengthened by strong cultural and language skills
- Harnessing of privilege responsibly to wield access, technology to advocate and galvanise financial and non-financial support.
Diaspora organisations are also complex agents of change. Diaspora groups generally tend to avoid the contentious ‘neutrality trap’ so closely tied to modern diplomacy and conflict resolution. Take for example the humanitarian principles of ‘humanity, neutrality and impartiality’ — I would argue diaspora agents live and breath humanity because they are not always neutral. However, although diaspora organisations and individuals can be positive agents for peace in emergency setting, they can also contribute to the proliferation of conflict and inequality in unassuming ways too. Large INGO’s and multi-lateral institutions could learn a lot from shifting the power to diaspora groups based on their willingness to drop the “neutrality trap”. Know that this also requires a level of courage from large donors to embrace the new ways of doing things whilst supporting diaspora groups to strengthen their impact.
One of these challenges in the positioning of diaspora as ‘opposition’, viewed with suspicion by communities experiencing crises. Often this results in operational challenges from central and local government actors due to a lack of trust.
This challenge strengthens diaspora actors as they learn to navigate complex situations however it weakens their effectiveness when those local relationships can’t be built.
Often, relationships with diaspora agents are massively exploitative and transactional relationships. At the DEMAC conference, Trumanitarian podcast host Lars Peter Nissen suggested that humanitarianism should actually move from talking about ‘coordination to collaboration’.
This is important. When crises occurs, communities consumed by the conflict are deemed too ‘dangerous’, ‘biased’ or ‘risky’ to involve in direct design of humanitarian assistance. So a third, ‘safer’ model is utilised by way of diaspora groups and agents to become the bridge between the affected and those with the funds to make a difference. This does work, but it doesn’t decolonise the humanitarian aid system and it certainly doesn’t make it work better for the challenges of the future.
Asides from utilising diaspora groups as simply centres of information — funding should be directed to these groups to scale up their ability to develop their relationships and influence with more structure. The following key 3 top recommendations seem to resonate with most participates during the summit:
- Increased funding for capacity-building not just emergency projects or coordination. Investing long-term in diaspora expertise is how you solidify commitments to shifting powers and prioritising collaboration over coordination
- Diaspora organisations need better access to donors to advocate for their impact and scale. Gate-keeping in the humanitarian aid sector means many groups never actually get the opportunities to showcase their know-how, skill and potential.
- Systemic challenges in banking policy and anti-terror laws make it difficult to offer emergency support in situations where this conflict as well as crises. Advocacy must be scaled at all levels of the humanitarian chain of influence to push for change in this space to allow diaspora actors to support communities that large INGO’s don’t have access to.
The Summit provided a unique opportunity for diaspora organisations to connect, exchange experience and build new relationships. Following the summit, a new pan-European alliance amongst Somali diaspora organisations to respond to the severe drought crisis spreading across East Africa in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. A WhatsApp group has been created with ideas already shared about how organisations could pool funds to provide emergency responses to the growing crises. It’s early days, but working together now could form the basis for stronger existing relationships between organisations when the next crises occurs.
Other reading and resources: