Dr. Maura O’Neill’s Remarks at the 2012 Global Diaspora Forum


Thank you very much.  I’m delighted to be here.  I hope that you were inspired as much as I was yesterday with the depth and breadth of the conversation and a number of us were talking about the Secretary’s speech and particularly the notion that it’s really all about getting along, and if we could figure out how to do that in a deep and more respectful way.  But I know we are excited at USAID and welcome to the Ronald Reagan building and to the Second Annual Global Diaspora Forum – Day Two.

We are particularly excited—and I don’t want to go over everything we did yesterday, but we believe not only in America and the world that great ideas come from all different places and the ability to match-up my expertise, my perspective with yours, with somebody else’s—that’s where in fact the magic happens.  In fact, we did some analysis that says there are over 215 million international people living in countries other than their country of origin.  So there’s a lot of diaspora’s out there—not just in our country but in others.  And collectively, if those 215 million people were a country, they’d be the fifth largest in the world just above Indonesia and just behind Brazil.  So you can imagine in an interconnected world and a Facebook, Twitter, internet world the ability and the power of mobilizing those 215 million people that have domain knowledge, cultural knowledge, financial acumen about what we can do.

Here in America, all of you represent diverse and rich diaspora communities that continue to be the number one destination for immigrants.  And as a country, we continue to hope and aspire to be a place that is the number one place that people want to go to and we hope that you will participate in helping us as Americans realize that dream.

What makes you unique is the mark you are making to America.  It’s new start-ups.  It’s scientific inventions.  It’s establishing new businesses.  It was a great delight for me yesterday to meet the range of people that are here today and I hope that you had that chance.  We’ll have lots of opportunities.  I hope that you will continue to seek out this morning one or two or five or six people that you’ve never met before, exchange cards, exchange conversations, understand—because you never know, maybe you don’t know today, this moment, where you might actually have an opportunity to do some business or to do some philanthropy or to do some community service.  But in fact, what’s made my life rich is realizing—fast forward three years or five years later, there’s somebody I met in a context like that that all of a sudden they have identified that I could be helpful to them or I’ve identified an opportunity where we might work together.  So we hope that you will think about that.

But we don’t want you to stop here.  We want you to continue to maintain those ties as you go forward.  And if there’s ways in which the state global partnerships, Tomas and Romi and our staff can help facilitate that, if there are ways in which we can make that networking and that interaction more helpful, please do, because I hope that you have appreciated the awesome amount of staff work that’s gone into this and the smart and effective way in which both the State Department and AID are committed to this kind of interaction.

As most of you know, we operate in 80 countries.  We oversee 100 countries and to say that’s a dynamic portfolio—I don’t have to remind you that that is.  So, we hope that as Ben Rhodes said yesterday that you also volunteer your intelligence, your knowledge—particularly during times of conflict or during times of complications to the extent that you can be helpful in either disaster relief or conflict that would be great.

But we’d also like to imagine with you new ways in which we can reimagine development.  One that I’ll talk about before I get the great pleasure of introducing my boss, Administrator Shah, is mobile phones and mobile money.  As you know, there are five billion phones, and there’s no technology that has so transformed the developing world more quickly than mobile phones, but as I like to say, we have yet to realize the full development potential of mobile phones.

We have mobile phones, but we can’t always get them charged.  We can’t always do as effectively things, whether it’s health or ag or finance.  So, we thought that with there’s 500,000 banking branches in the world, 5 billion phones, think about the potential if you took that individual cell phone and you made it into a cash register or a point of sales system for an entrepreneur or you made it the vehicle for health information or a branchless bank.

So, we believe that mobile banking is a game changer in development, and we think the diaspora communities in particular can play a critical role.  So, we’ve identified six or eight countries in the world that we think if you align the things are relatively aligned that if we lean into it, we could actually flip the needle.

We did that in Haiti the month after the earthquake.  We realized that they had a very weak banking system that many of which had been destroyed in the earthquake.  So, we got together with the mobile operators with the central banks, with the regular banks, with American Red Cross, who would use that text system to raise $40 million in the aftermath of the earthquake.  We said, how could we stand up a system that allowed more Haitians to have access to financial services, to be able to store money, to be able to transfer money, and I’m happy to note that a month ago, we were there celebrating the five millionth transaction of mobile money in Haiti.

So, we know in the Philippines, it’s been a great new development, and we are particularly excited to figure out how we could take remittances with just four times the amount of official development assistance and how can that actually help families, but how can that help communities as well.  So, one of the things we have is Development Innovation Venture Fund that is really attracting lots of great ideas from all over the world.  One of them we funded was somebody in Michigan who had an idea to work with the Filipino diaspora in Italy to try and be able to transfer remittances directly to pay school fees in the Philippines.

So, I don’t know about you, but we actually send money overseas, in our case, to Uganda, to a family and have been doing it for a lot of years.  It’s difficult to get it there.  We don’t quite know if it actually makes it there or makes it in the amount that we get.  It’s very episodic in which the money can get there, and the other thing is we don’t know always how the money is used, and that’s not saying anything about our family members that live in the Uganda.  It’s just the complication of the world in which we live.

So, this idea was well how about if we connected schools directly to the mobile money network so a diaspora community could actually pay the school fees directly and also give some money to their family as well.  So, that’s an idea.  We think that you probably have many more ideas that could be exciting for us so that we hope that you’ll think about them and that you will discuss with us and that we will cook up these new things that we think will be transformational either in entrepreneurship, in development or in freedom and democracy for the countries of our origins that we care so much about.

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