Honoring the Work of Diaspora Volunteers

We believe that no matter your age, your skill set, or your availability, there are ways that you can contribute to your country of heritage as a volunteer and have a meaningful impact. Diaspora volunteers add value to established international service programs because they often have the linguistic and cultural familiarity to make engagement in the host country more effective. By volunteering to provide technical and professional expertise to their country of heritage, diaspora volunteers help counter the damaging effects of “brain drain.”

Our organization, the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA), is a consortium of eighteen nonprofit economic growth organizations that incorporate skilled volunteer professionals into its work with donors, philanthropic institutions, private enterprise, and developing country organizations. We have worked with diaspora communities to help them provide valuable advice in the project development process, and VEGA members have successfully scaled efforts in countries of diaspora origin to make a lasting impact.

One of our member organizations, ACDI-VOCA made a positive impact in Sudan through their Agricultural Market and Enterprise (AMED) project. ACDI-VOCA recruited Sudanese diaspora volunteers to provide technical assistance to more than 3,500 individuals and 122 small and microenterprises in Juba, Yei, and Wau. The volunteers helped form a chamber of commerce that attracted 200 small business owners and assisted several government ministries in reforming or establishing new trade and agricultural policies.

Over the coming year, we will help our member organizations expand the number and impact of their diaspora volunteering opportunities. Our alliance will connect leaders of diaspora communities and diaspora organizations to VEGA members that have experience with program management and are well established in the field of international development and economic growth.

We are therefore looking forward to bringing VEGA members and diaspora leaders together for the 2012 Diaspora Volunteer Service Awards ceremony and reception. We are holding the event during the evening of July 26th in conjunction with the Global Diaspora Forum. Five diaspora volunteers will be recognized for the work they have done in their countries of heritage. Honorees include Magaline Goman (Haiti), Yared Ayele (Ethiopia), Paul Pham (Vietnam), Manjula Dissanayake (Sri Lanka), and Hugo Cardona (Colombia). The event is free, and I invite you to join us by registering here.

We received many outstanding nominations from VEGA members, diaspora organizations, and other non-profit organizations. The stories of these volunteers reflect the many different ways that members of diaspora communities are able to give back to their countries of heritage. Some managed to make a sustainable impact through targeted projects that were carried out over a few weeks, while others have been working on their projects for years. Nominees worked in a variety of sectors, including tourism, healthcare, education, agriculture, and business development. To conclude my post, I would like to share a few brief notes about some of the awardees and nominees to illustrate the diverse ways they have made a difference.

    • Award-winner Yared Ayele participated in Accenture’s employee volunteering program implemented by Cuso International. Ayele explained his motivation for volunteering with Cuso: “I was doing interesting, challenging work at Accenture but to this day, I have a bigger dream, to work in international development, to go back to Ethiopia and contribute there…I speak the language; I understand the challenges of the students. I really wanted to train them as part of the process. Knowledge transfer is a big part of our job as Cuso volunteers.” Through the Accenture-Cuso program, Ayele could afford to take a year-long leave of absence to share his IT skills with Dire Dawa University in Ethiopia. Ayele took the lead in the development of an ICT strategy. At the end of his twelve-month assignment, the university where he volunteered was connected to a high speed fiber optic internet connection that was five times quicker and more reliable than it had ever been. Students and staff had access to wireless internet connection on their laptops in three campus locations and Ayele facilitated an agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to host the MIT OpenCourseWare website on Dire Dawa University’s campus so that all 2,100 courses from MIT could be accessed locally. Most importantly for the sustainability of his project, Ayele made sure that the IT staff was capable of maintaining and expanding the network as well as supporting the newly introduced IT services before his departure.
    • Hugo Cardona said that having time to volunteer is one of the great benefits of his retirement. He has served in several assignments organized by the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas(FAVACA). Most recently, Cardona taught the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare best practices in proposal development, fund management, and donor relations. During his stay, Cardona also taught twenty-three ambitious students the basics of non-profit start up. By training current and future leaders, Cardona was able to set the foundation for the lasting impact of projects to come.
    • Paul Pham of OneVietnam started a grassroots initiative rather than volunteering his time through an existing program. Pham saw an opportunity to turn an abandoned plot of land in a village in Vietnam into a rubber plantation that could provide a stable source of income for the community that would help break the cycle of poverty. In a matter of months, Pham mobilized donors around the world to finance the project. He has returned to the plantation every year to help the community develop business strategies and source buyers for the rubber. Five years later, the rubber trees are now ready for their first harvest and buyers have been secured.

The nominees who were not selected to receive awards this year also volunteered their time on impactful projects.

    • Yohannes Assefa, the unpaid executive director of an annual Ethiopian Diaspora Business Forum that has been held in the U.S. since 2005. The Forum facilitates increased trade and investment between the United States and Ethiopia, and Assefa circular migrates between the two countries, making an impact within the diaspora community in the U.S. and on the ground in his country of origin.
    • Yustina Riad is a youth volunteer who taught English to fatherless children in Egypt through service with the non-profit diaspora organization Coptic Orphans. Riad’s nominator praised her for changing the outlook of children in the El Barsha village and for forging closer ties between Egypt and the diaspora.
    • Dr. Aelaf Worku, a speaker on my panel at this year’s Global Diaspora Forum, served as an advisor to a rural government hospital through the American International Health Alliance’s (AIHA) Volunteer Healthcare Corps program in Ethiopia. This particular program targets skilled professionals within the Ethiopian diaspora and shows how diasporas can collaborate with governments to build capacity within a country that lacks resources. The sixteen months he spent volunteering turned out to be more personally meaningful and fulfilling than he ever had anticipated. Alongside serving as a mentor at the Debre Berhan Referral Hospital, Dr. Worku began advising the Ethiopian Federal Ministry of Health’s Medical Education Initiative (MEI), an ambitious plan to establish thirteen new medical schools to address the shortage of medical doctors in the country. Dr. Worku witnessed many challenges to this project on the ground and was able to voice his concerns directly to the Ministry as well as other stakeholders such as U.S. funding agencies to ensure that the project would reflect the realities of rural Ethiopia and be truly effective.

There are hundreds of stories like these that should be shared to inspire others to take similar actions. I am looking forward to seeing many leaders of diaspora communities at the Global Diaspora Forum and to continuing the important conversation about the impact of diaspora volunteers.

About the Author: Michael Deal serves as VEGA’s Executive Director and CEO. Michael has worked in international business and development. Prior to joining VEGA, he was the USAID Mission Director in Colombia, culminating a twenty-eight-year-year Foreign Service career which included serving as Acting Assistant Administrator of the Latin American Bureau and assignments in six developing countries. He achieved the rank of Minister Counselor in the Senior Foreign Service and received the Administrator’s Outstanding Career Achievement Award.

The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.