Engaging Diasporas in Development, Lessons Learned

By K. Malaika Walton, Senior Officer Partnerships & Programs US, Cuso International

In late June, representatives from the partner organizations managing the Diasporas for Development (DfD) initiative, Cuso International, Accenture and USAID, gathered in USAID’s Global Development Lab for a discussion on the lessons learned from DfD. They were joined by DfD volunteers, representatives of diaspora organizations, and supporters of the drive to engage diaspora in international development.

DfD was a 2.5 year (October 2012 – March 2015) public-private partnership designed to empower diaspora communities in the United States to contribute to sustainable economic development in five target countries:  Ethiopia, Jamaica, Peru, Kenya and the Philippines.   Implemented by Cuso International, in a Global Development Alliance (GDA) with Accenture and USAID, DfD engaged 100 diaspora volunteers in development projects in their countries of heritage, through international and online volunteering, and strengthened the capacity of diaspora organizations to serve their communities.

Ricardo Michel, Director of the USAID Center for Transformational Partnerships, delivers welcome remarks.

Ricardo Michel, Director of the USAID Center for Transformational Partnerships, delivers welcome remarks.

DfD, a pilot initiative, succeeded in developing a model to engage diaspora professionals living in the US to apply their skills and expertise toward achieving development objectives in their countries of heritage.  This model included developing relationships with diaspora organizations, recruiting diaspora volunteers with and through diaspora organizations and a variety of media outlets, establishing sustainable partnerships with select diaspora organizations, and working with program partners internationally to develop opportunities for diaspora volunteers to effectively contribute to development goals. Driving this model was the public-private partnership which leveraged the resources and expertise of the private sector, non-profit and government partners.

During the discussion, both Ricardo Michel, the director of the Center for Transformational Partnerships in the USAID’s Global Development Lab, and USAID officer Romi Bhatia acknowledged that diaspora communities are potentially incredibly powerful actors for furthering development. The international development community should continue to find ways to leverage the time and talent of diaspora for shared development objectives.

Cuso panelist Malaika Walton explains challenges in recruiting diaspora volunteers.

Cuso panelist Malaika Walton explains challenges in recruiting diaspora volunteers.

Three major themes emerged during the discussion: the value of public-private partnerships in engaging diaspora, the unique perspective of diaspora volunteers, and the importance of strategic planning for diaspora organizations.

The value of public-private partnerships in engaging diaspora:   Each GDA partner brought an important element to the program:  USAID as convener for international development with resources and reach to engage diaspora communities; Cuso International with 50+ years of experience recruiting and deploying skilled volunteers and a network of program partners in the five countries; and Accenture, with an expertise in strategic development and consulting.   This relationship was important for engaging diaspora communities, as it demonstrated to those communities cross-sectoral interest in supporting development internationally, and encouraging diaspora to participate in the discussion.

Returned DfD Volunteers relate lessons learned from their experience on the ground.

Returned DfD Volunteers relate lessons learned from their experience on the ground.

The unique perspective of diaspora volunteers in international development:  Diaspora volunteers come from a variety of experiences before they become engaged in international development, which can range from having only left their country of heritage 5 to 10 years before volunteering, to having been born in the US to immigrant parents. Despite that, those who do engage in international volunteering have a strong affinity and natural cultural knowledge with their country of heritage, to include language skills, often inculcated through their family and community.  According to DfD volunteer Dorothy Mwawasi (who volunteered in Kenya), this familiarity with their country of heritage helps to build trust quickly with the communities in which they serve, enhancing the value of their volunteerism. Another DfD volunteer Elizabeth Getachew (who volunteered in Ethiopia), said that diaspora volunteers also make their families aware of volunteer opportunities in their countries of heritage. Elizabeth’s family members also found opportunities to take their skills and expertise back to Ethiopia after Elizabeth’s experience. In DfD, this was not a unique occurrence.

Both Dorothy and Elizabeth acknowledge that being a volunteer as a member of a diaspora has challenges. Diaspora volunteers do have to adapt culturally, and in different ways than non-diaspora. Some of this adaptation can be alleviated through pre-deployment training, but regardless there is an adjustment. That being said the benefit of engaging in the exchange of skills of expertise for economic development far outweighs these challenges and should not be an impediment for diaspora seeking to give back to their country of heritage.

Semhar Araia, founder of the Diaspora African Women's Network (DAWN), participates in the discussion.

Semhar Araia, founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN), participates in the discussion.


The importance of strategic planning for diaspora organizations:   Sheldon Maye, a talent strategy and non-profit consultant at Accenture who worked with diaspora organizations through DfD, pointed out that the strategic planning process is critical for the growth of diaspora organizations.  Community based organizations are often called on to do multiple missions for their communities, and feel a drive to raise funds and draw in resources from any sources. But this lack of focus can often hinder an organization’s development.  Rather, clearly defining your organization’s mission, and focusing on well-defined initiatives and programs can lead to cohesion and provide the base from which to raise funds. Five diaspora organizations participated in DfD:  Gawad-Kalinga USA, Institute of Caribbean Studies, StartUp Africa, Society of Ethiopians Established in the Diaspora, and Texas Partners of the Americas. Each of these organizations strengthened their core and grew their organizational structure through the strategic planning support received in DfD. This enhanced their capacity to support their US based constituency and to contribute to development in their countries of heritage.

DfD was a very brief initiative, piloting methods of engagement with diaspora communities. It only just began to touch on the models for increasing diaspora engagement in international development. DfD showed not just the value of engaging diaspora, but also the enthusiasm of diaspora communities for working together with government, for profit and non-profit sectors to address the challenges of world-wide economic development.  It is important that these types of initiatives continue and expand to capture all perspectives from our diverse community for the benefit of sustainable development.