Diaspora participation should create more space for community organizations (Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis )

By Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis 1
July 26,2018

The current momentum of change in the Ethiopian political sphere is, to a significant extent, the result of the contribution of the Ethiopian diaspora community around the world, as it is the basis of hope for more participation. This is symbolically encapsulated in the planned US visit of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to meet and discuss with the diaspora, and his recent proposal for the Diaspora Trust Fund as a platform for a pragmatic participation of the diaspora in the socio-economic development of the country.

PM Abiy’s call for one-dollar-per-day pledge from the diaspora has generated a euphoric response reflective of the level of desire of the diaspora to contribute to the ongoing change in the country, and the vast popular support for the PM. While the support for the initiative is going strong on various media outlets, and even some have started posting the receipt of their transfer on social media, some issues and concerns are also arising.

Part of the issue is an operational one. Several individuals are reporting difficulty making transfer to the account announced by the government, while reportedly the account is not yet functional to accept the transfers. Allegedly, some are even asked to pay a commission to third parties for making the transfer.

On the other hand, discussions are also taking place around the legal and institutional arrangements for the Trust Fund, as well as the broader diaspora participation. Since the initiative has just been launched, it might be too early to make a sensible analysis of the legal and institutional arrangements. However, this does not, and should not, rule out the need for dialogue on what would be the best way to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of the initiative, beyond the current animated climate. What shall the governance of the Fund look like? How and by whom are the diaspora represented? To what extent and how would the diaspora control the use of the fund? What means of accountability shall be established to avoid corruption and inefficiency? These are some of the questions that need to be addressed, sooner rather than later. The timing could be debated, but the need to give institutional structure to the initiative is inevitably important; the good intentions of the public and the inspiration of the PM can only be inputs to capitalize on.

In the process of addressing these and other relevant questions, it is important to take a broader view of diaspora participation, beyond the Trust Fund. Diaspora participation (or engagement) is a wide field with rich accumulation of experiences from around the world. One of the important lessons of most successful cases of diaspora engagement is the effective utilization of community organizations. Community organizations grow naturally centering a cause that people of enthusiastic about. Therefore, they are more likely to be more effectively managed and to sustain through the long term commitment of volunteering members dedicated to the cause. Community organizations use the informal networks and means of communication with cultural and social values serving as glue to keep members together.

Over the past decades, the Ethiopian diaspora has had a number of community organizations formed around social, political, professional, economic, religious, cultural, etc. causes, which, in one way or another, have contributed to the development of the country and to the betterment of lives of citizens back home. Hometown associations are, for instance, one of the most common and successful forms of diaspora engagement, in which Ethiopian diaspora has shown a remarkable degree of participation, according to Chacko and Gebre (2017). There are enough examples of community organizations such as Tigray Development Association (originally established in the diaspora and still maintains strong connections), professional organizations such as the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association, networks of common interest such as Ethiopian Scientific and Academic Network, and a large number of small communities of religious, political, and human rights initiatives that have sustained in good service to the country. Creating more space and facilitating better working conditions for such organizations, parallel to the broad initiatives such as the Diaspora Trust Fund shall be on the agenda.

It can further be argued that small community organizations and initiatives of common interests are the indispensable means for the success of the grand initiative of the Trust Fund. Why?

Small initiatives often have clear target around which like-minded individuals organize themselves with commitment. Mostly their targets are tied to the development of the social or economic life of particular section of society. As such they contribute to the developmental goal of the grand initiative.

The Ethiopian diaspora, as Ethiopia herself, is diverse ethnically, religiously and politically. Forging that diversity into one grand initiative has its own challenges. The challenge in the diversity of opinion is evident in the multitude of disagreements reported in the past couple of weeks regarding the preparation to host PM Abiy’s visit to the US. One shall note that, this is not a difference of fundamental interest – which is hosting the PM to a productive discussion with the diaspora – rather it is a difference of opinion on how. The challenge is often compounded when the coordinating responsibility mainly falls with the government, as this gives a platform for the decades long political tension to burst. On the contrary, organically evolved initiatives can manage differences, if not reach consensus, far easier through the participation of its institutions and the agency of its leaders – a case in point: the recent multifaceted campaign to save Lake Tana. Besides, by having a clearly defined goal and target area (both in terms of geographic coverage and area of socio economic development) such initiatives can avoid differences and potential conflict in setting priorities.

Indeed, the government targets the generation of foreign currencies through the Trust Fund, as much as it targets on development activities. The Trust Fund can be designed to accommodate for channeling financial resources of multitude of initiatives, where the later would deposit their money with the Trust fund, in foreign currencies, and dispatch them in Birr once they are ready to use them in different projects (admittedly this is a preliminary conjuncture that needs to be further discussed).

There are few more advantages in encouraging smaller initiatives. First, it is inevitable that the contribution from individuals would, at some point, start to dwindle as the current momentum fades in the face of future agendas. Smaller initiatives predicated on the passion and enthusiasm of their members/participants are the better mechanisms to keep the effort going, as they often use informal channels and the social structure of accountability. This can also be seen in light of more trust the diaspora may have in their leaders than in government institutions or representatives. Second, the bulk transfer of funds raised through these organizations, compared to separate individual transfers, would reduce the transactional cost, in effect getting more money home. Third, since such organizations are often registered as non-profits in the respective countries where they are established, donors could be entitled to tax breaks for the amount they contribute.

All said, there is no doubt that, with proper legal and institutional framework to establish a transparent and accountable governance, we need to harness the current momentum of the diaspora’s motivation. But it is equally important to engage in dialogue as to how to make the initiative sustainable by averting inherent challenges that come with grand scale initiatives. One of the alternatives is to consider creating a suitable environment that emboldens community organizations, professional associations, and similar initiatives of common interests; to embrace existing initiatives and devise a flexible mechanism they can contribute to the grand developmental and financial goals.
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1The writer is a doctoral candidate at Boston College, researching the role of diaspora in Ethiopia’s higher education. He can be reached at: ayenachew@gmail.com

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