Planned next year’s holiday yet? If not, how about Ireland? Along with all the usual attractions – greenery, Guinness, a friendly welcome, rain – Ireland in 2013 is promising to “open its arms to hundreds of thousands of friends and family from all over the world, calling them home to gatherings in villages, towns and cities”.
This year of arm opening, which goes by the slightly spooky name of The Gathering, is targeted mainly at Irish emigrants and their descendants. In Ireland’s case, that’s a lot of people. The country has a population of just 4.5 million, but at least another 630,000 Irish-born people live abroad. The number jumps when you include second-generation Irish, and hits the stratosphere when you count emigrants’ descendants: In the United States alone, more than 34 million people claimed Irish descent in the 2000 census.
The Gathering has its critics – actor Gabriel Byrne has dismissed it as just a way to “shake down” emigrants – but it does represent a popular notion these days. Many countries, both developed and developing, have been making a concerted effort to reach out to overseas communities – their diasporas – in recent years. Among many others, Scotland has its Homecoming; Israel has Taglit-Birthright Israel, which has sponsored homecoming visits for 300,000 young Jews from all over the world; and India has TiE, a group created 20 years ago by Indians working in Silicon Valley and which now boasts chapters in 17 countries.
Emigrants, often ignored or forgotten in the past, are now seen as a valuable resource – and not just as a source of remittances. The point was neatly made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech earlier this year: “By tapping into the experiences, the energy, the expertise of diaspora communities, we can reverse the so-called ‘brain drain’ that slows progress in so many countries around the world, and instead offer the benefits of the ‘brain gain’.”
It’s not hard to find examples of this in developing countries: China’s largest search engine, Baidu, was founded by two Chinese, Eric Xu and Robin Li, who studied and worked in the United States for many years. One of Africa’s largest phone networks, Celtel, was founded by Mo Ibrahim, who was born in Sudan but spent much of his adult life in the United Kingdom. And when The Economist asked N. Chandrasekaran, the head of Tata Consulting Services, to say how many of the Indian IT firm’s top people had worked or studied abroad, he replied simply: “All of them.”
As The Economist notes, diaspora networks have three great potential strengths. They can allow information – anything from news of new products to investment opportunities – to cross borders. They can encourage trust – people from shared backgrounds are often more likely to believe each other. And they can create connections between people around the world.
The potential of migrants and diasporas to contribute to development is increasingly recognised, including in recent research done here at the OECD. This research, which focuses in part on developing a better picture of migrant communities, offers some fascinating insights. One of the most striking is the level of education among migrants. Among immigrants living in OECD countries, around a million hold doctorates. Africa alone has about 2.5 million high-skilled emigrants living in OECD countries.
Some of these people will eventually decide to return home, although many others won’t. But regardless of their long-term plans, most migrants like to maintain links with home and, where possible, to contribute to their progress. Finding ways to make that happen can be challenging. Diasporas are, by their nature, widely dispersed and often invisible. That’s one reason why the Internet, and especially social media, has such potential to bring them together. One French study has already identified 8000 websites linked to just 30 of the world’s diaspora groups. As interest in harnessing the power of migrants and diasporas grows, that number will surely rise.