Figuring out diaspora roles in social recovery

Nicholas Van Hear

The attitude to diasporas in settings of conflict and crisis has shifted over the years.  A decade or more ago they were seen as troublesome ‘long distance nationalists’ exerting power from abroad while not having to experience any of the dire consequences of their actions in their homelands.  More recently a more positive view has emerged that diasporas could help with peacebuilding and recovery in home communities.

Over the last three years COMPAS researchers have been participating in a collaborative research partnership to investigate the role of diasporas in societal recovery in three places – Sri Lanka, Liberia and Haiti.  COMPAS researchers teamed up with the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  Researchers at George Washington University in Washington DC linked with researchers in Liberia.  The University of Miami connected with the Inter-University Institute for Research and Development (INURED) in Port au Prince, Haiti, where we held a meeting late in February to draw together some of our findings.

Turning Points
One of the ideas of the research programme was to get an idea of how diaspora engagement in the homeland shifts over time, so we structured our work around particular turning points.  In the Sri Lanka case, the critical event was the end of the civil war in May 2009, when Sri Lankan government armed forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that had been fighting for a separate state for Tamils since 1983.  In the Liberian case, the key turning point was the consolidation of democratic government in 2005 after prolonged civil war.  In the case of Haiti, the critical episode was the earthquake in January 2010 which devastated much of the country, compounding the effects of a decade of socio-political instability.

Photo: Midday Train to Colombo by Sarah Crake (COMPAS Photo Competition 2012)
Photo: Midday Train to Colombo by Sarah Crake
(COMPAS Photo Competition 2012)

Our approach has been to investigate both ‘ends’ of the transnational social field – so in the Sri Lanka case, we have worked among diaspora members in London as well as people in former conflict areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.  Our colleagues have pursued a similar approach for Haiti and Liberia, with the diaspora side represented mainly by residents in the US.

As expected, our research has revealed both common and divergent experiences of diaspora engagement in the wake of crisis and conflict.  Three particular dimensions are highlighted here.

All three cases have looked at social mobility in the wake of crisis and the diaspora role in this.  As is well known, migration channels and routes, along with migration status after arrival, shape social positioning in the country of destination. Changes in diaspora members’ positions over time—whether they improve, decline, or stay the same—influence the type, frequency and degree of engagement with those staying at home and with countries of origin more generally. At the same time, having relatives abroad or not is a significant factor in determining the socio-economic position of people in conflict and post-conflict areas.  The circulation of remittances and access to networks shape social mobility in both ‘host’ and ‘home’ locations – indeed obligations to those at home can constrain the social mobility of those in diaspora, particularly when they are in low-paid, insecure jobs.  The significance of diaspora engagement vis a vis other factors (such as international aid, or the reconstruction of infrastructure) influencing social mobility has yet to be teased out.

The three cases investigated have manifested a range of modes of diaspora engagement.  One key point of comparison is the balance between collective and more individualistic forms of engagement. Connections among extended families – through remittances, social networking, visits and participation in family events like weddings – are strong in all three cases. But at the wider community level, there appears to have been a move away from collective modes of organisation of diaspora engagement to more individual modes – or at least those drawing on individuals’ networks, rather than more formal organisations and associations.  In the Sri Lankan case, there may be several reasons for this apparent shift: for example, it could be a reaction to the LTTE’s monopoly of organisation in both the diaspora and the areas it controlled in Sri Lanka up to the end of the war, and/or concern about government surveillance and control of civil society organisations after the war’s end.  The Sri Lankan case is somewhat different from others in that one side won the war:  there is a so-called ‘victor’s peace’.  The triumphalist government side has initiated little by way of reconciliation, and, not surprisingly, this has constrained Tamil diaspora engagement. In so far as there is diaspora engagement in the community, it appeared to be taking place in networks of individuals, rather than through overt collective organisation, somewhat in contrast to earlier periods.

Threads from cottonThe third dimension we have looked at involves the differing perspectives of those in diaspora and those at home.  The degree of congruence between the perceptions and aspirations of diaspora members with the perspectives of those who remain in the country of origin has long been a matter of debate – seen, for example, in the much-discussed notion of ‘long distance nationalism’ referred to above.  Both connection and mismatch have figured in the three cases investigated by our research programme – Haiti, Liberia, and Sri Lanka. In the Sri Lanka case, the issue of connection and disconnection between those inside and outside the country has been a matter of intense controversy among different interests, both during the war and after its end.  Our research in the UK and Sri Lanka points to somewhat mixed views both in the diaspora and in Sri Lanka, rather than the simple diaspora-home population dichotomy suggested by some recent literature – though there is certainly tension in some quarters between the two groups.  We seek to draw out the different conditions and circumstances which can generate common ground among those in diaspora and those at home as well as rendering them at odds with one another in conflict and crisis settings.

The research has been funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Leverhulme Trust through the Oxford Diasporas Programme (  COMPAS researchers Nicholas Van Hear, Leslie Fesenmyer and Giulia Liberatore have been engaged in the project, along with Sri Lankan colleagues in both the UK and Sri Lanka.