Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thoughts about the diaspora - comparing African and Irish experiences

Last week there was an article in the Daily Nation about the fact that remittances to Kenya from Kenyans living abroad were up by over 30% on last year and it got me thinking about the Irish diaspora and whether or not they send remittances back.

So this led me to ask lots of questions. We hear loads of talk about emigration from Ireland. We have talked about The Gathering and getting people to come back to visit Ireland. But are people sending money back to Ireland? For me, the idea of sending money back to Ireland fits with my pre-conceptions of the emigrant waves of the 1950s and 1980s. But are today's emigrants sending money back?

The World Bank produces some great topline data on Inflows and Outflows of remittances for almost every country in the world so I did some digging.

It would appear that Irish emigrants are. From data collected by the World Bank  - which can be found here - it seems that Irish people are indeed sending money home. In 2011 the Irish diaspora sent back $755 million, and the estimates suggest that this figure will rise to $783 million in 2012. This represents about 0.3% of GDP. Compare this with the country I live in now, Kenya, which had remittances of $934 million in 2011 and the figure was due to push past $1 billion (approximately $1.06 billion) in 2012. (2.3% of GDP). So the scare-mongering of the 'leading hedge fund' mentioned in this Telegraph article, that Ireland was soon to become a 'feeder nation', reliant on money sent from overseas seems a little hysterical.

Now I don't have very good data on the exact numbers of Irish and Kenyans abroad, meaning it's hard to draw as much meaning out of these as I'd like. I have searched for the answer to the question 'how many Irish born people live abroad?' in the past and it is very difficult to get a precise figure. Having consulted one of the curators of, who then consulted the collective knowledge of the Twitter sphere, the overall feeling that the only way to get a really accurate picture would be to consult census data from all of the countries where Irish people have moved to - an arduous task. And then there is no information at all on how many of these emigrants send money home.

Despite these difficulties of extrapolating hard, scientific analysis (who am I kidding, I'm an Arts graduate, as if I know anything about scientific analysis!) I was personally surprised by how large the gross Irish figure was, especially when compared to the Kenyan figures, which is only about 30% more than Ireland's. Kenya is a far, far larger country of approximately 47 million people, ten times our own population. But again finding out just how many people were sending this $1 billion dollars home is not straightforward. There are 130,000 Kenyans abroad registered with Kenyan embassies but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has estimated the real number to be 700,000. I found these figures in this Daily Nation article about the failed attempt to allow the Kenyan diaspora to vote in March's elections. So fewer Kenyan emigrants are sending more money home. But I imagine that the proportions of each group that send remittances differs hugely. Based on gut feeling and a very unscientific straw poll conducted among my friends who have emigrated from Ireland, not many Irish people are sending money back home. Again, this information is hugely skewed towards the younger end of the emigration scale. I imagine older emigrants - in the case of Ireland anyway - would be more likely to send money back. And relatedly, I imagine they send bigger amounts, on average than their Kenyan counterparts. From speaking to colleagues and friends here in Kenya, many of their relations who live overseas send money back home - but they do so in smaller amounts and quite frequently. 

Thinking about this issue has left me with far more questions than answers. I think it would be really illuminating to see more research done on Irish emigrants over the coming years (building on some of the good work done by the Generation Emigration section of the Irish Times) How many Irish people send money home? Is it younger or older emigrants that send money back? How much do they send? How often? And for what purposes? Do they send off gifts/money for specific events, perhaps to help with the cost of an event? Or does a proportion of their salaries every fortnight/month get wired home? And how do they send it? As the mobile money transfer technology and networks continue to grow will this increase remittances? Or change remittances patterns?

The very different discourses on diaspora and development are also really interesting to me. In Ireland the big contribution that the Irish diaspora is being asked to make next year is to come home. The Gathering has been widely criticised across Irish media and society (most notably by Gabriel Byrne) for being a scam and a 'shakedown', an elaborate (and expensive) Fรกilte Ireland exercise. And there is a merit to such arguments. The Gathering could be a powerful way to re-engage the Irish diaspora, whether 1st, 2nd, 3rd or subsequent generations, but only if it is seen as the stepping stone, the first step in a process to harness the resources of the Irish community overseas. But where are the attempts to actively involve the Irish emigrant community in decisions about Ireland's future? Just because these people have left does not mean that there are ideas, skills, expertise are lost forever, or can't be tapped from overseas. But how can this be done?

Of course the circumstances in African countries are extremely different to Ireland, but it is encouraging to see the potential of diaspora involvement in development being discussed (even the failed attempt to allow the Kenyan diaspora to vote in the upcoming elections was encouraging in my opinion). Diaspora contribution is not only seen in terms of the money they can provide, but also in terms of the skills, expertise and experience they can contribute which they have developed overseas. In countries like Somalia, the skills of the diaspora are increasingly being sought to help rebuild the country. As well as encouraging Somalis across the world to come back to Somalia and settle there long term, NGOs and other non-state actors in Somalia are encouraging Somalis to come back for short-term visits/trips, to mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs, to provide training courses, to participate in peace-building initiatives etc. In the political sphere, some 40% of the new Somali parliament in Mogadishu come from the diaspora. I can't find the article now, but I remembering see a Somali news outlet carrying a headline along the lines of 'President Candidates Fly Home'. It's a rare country where headline could be seen. And while this is probably not sustainable in the long-term, it does give the country a much needed boost. Decades of civil war meant that many of the country's most educated and skilled went overseas; encouraging them to come back and rebuild the country - even in short-term stints - injects capital and skilled labour into the country's weak economy.

I am in no way equating Ireland with Somalia, or any of it's neighbours, but I do think that Ireland could draw from some of these experiences. In the meantime, I'll be home sometime during 2013, so if any of you would like to organise a 'gathering' in my honour, I'd be only happy to attend!

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