Growing up, John Henry Thompson was fascinated by technology. His family’s farm in Jamaica had no running water or electricity. But when he immigrated to New York with his parents at the age of 12, he quickly proved his technological aptitude. He devoured books on electricity and the latest editions of “Popular Mechanic.” For his seventh grade science fair, he built a rudimentary computing device. This science fair marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong passion for computer programming.
There are lots of John Henry’s from India to Columbia to the Philippines who have come to the U.S. to learn and create new futures. Currently, more than 60 million Americans are first- or second-generation Diasporas, and many of them have close ties to countries with critical needs. Instead of just sending money back home, imagine what they could do to help improve the lives and change futures.
Like John Henry, his homeland of Jamaica has come a long way in the past few decades. Yet he knows that Jamaicans haven’t leveraged that mobile lead into greater economic prosperity and better health. He knows that Jamaica can do better. And he wants to ensure that future generations of Jamaicans have the tools they need to compete in the global knowledge economy.
This is why he became a volunteer mentor and trainer for the Digital Jam 2.0 Mobile Applications Competition. Sponsored by the Government of Jamaica and the World Bank, the Mobile App Competition combined both a competition and educational workshops for app developers. As a trainer, John Henry helped young developers gain the tools they needed to build effective native mobile applications.
This passion to give back to their homelands is what makes the potential for diaspora communities’ engagement in development so powerful. From their language skills and cultural familiarity to professional networks and personal ties, the diaspora community has the potential to be a significant people-to-people asset for positive development impact. If we can deepen and expand diaspora outreach, we can develop stronger bonds with other nations—through their civil societies, business leaders, inventors, and scientists. We can do things that USAID working alone never could.
That’s why USAID joined with the U.S. Department of State in 2011 to launch the International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA). Recognizing the powerful yet untapped potential of diasporas in development, IdEA seeks to deepen America’s engagement and partnership with diaspora communities.
To further advance our work with diaspora communities, USAID, the U.S. Department of State, and IdEA are hosting the second Global Diaspora Forum, an annual celebration of America’s diaspora communities, July 25-26. The Forum is focused on how new technology can empower and increase diaspora philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, volunteerism, and social innovation. I encourage you to visit IdEA’s website to watch live streaming videos from the Forum and read more about diaspora communities’ contributions to their countries of origin and America’s diplomatic relationships and development commitments worldwide.
About the Author: Maura O’Neill is the chief innovation officer and senior counselor to the administrator at USAID. In the public, private and academic sectors, she has created entrepreneurial and public policy solutions for some of the toughest problems in the fields of energy, education, infrastructure financing and business development. Before coming to USAID, she served as chief of staff and senior adviser for energy and climate at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and before that as chief of staff for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). O’Neill has started four companies in the field of energy, digital education and high technology. In 1989, she was named the Greater Seattle Business Person of the Year. O’Neill has master’s degrees in business administration from Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley, and currently serves on the faculty of the latter’s Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She earned her PhD at the University of Washington, where her research focused on narrowmindedness and the errors it leads to in science, medicine, business and political decision making.
This article was originally published by USAID’s Impact Blog and can be read here.